Q&A WITH GREG MILLER | CEO, LARRY H. MILLER GROUP OF COS.

Miller learned from his dad and learned how to delegate

Larry H. Miller, left, died in 2009 at age 64. His son Greg, right, blames stress and says that, unlike his father, he doesn't try to micromanage the family's large dealership group.
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Greg Miller, 48, learned a lot about the car business from his father, Larry H. Miller. But he is a very different leader from his dad.

The senior Miller was a micromanager. The stress of that intense level of involvement, his son believes, led to Larry Miller's death in 2009 at age 64. Greg Miller took over as CEO at the height of the recession. He faced the painful process of slashing costs and then growing the company. He adopted a delegating management style.

Larry H. Miller Group of Cos., of Sandy, Utah, retailed 49,548 new vehicles in 2013. It employs 4,556 people in its automotive arm and owns 52 dealerships in six states. Miller spoke with Staff Reporter Jamie LaReau.

Q: You grew up in the shadows of the auto industry. But you didn't have to do this for a living. When did it become your calling?

A: When I was growing up, I did different jobs in the dealership from the time I was 13 to about 21. Then I thought I'd like to see what else is out there.

I had the opportunity to get back in the car business in 1995 managing a stand-alone used-car business for us. My dad was the kind of guy who could make anyone successful because he had such a strong personality. So he sort of put the band back together and staffed my operation.

It turned out that my dad was wrong. Most of the people that surrounded me were not able to get the job done. I consider this a pivot point in my career. I started to feel a high degree of remorse for my performance with that used-car store. I said, "Dad, I don't want to have the performance hold me back the rest of my career. I have got to redeem myself."

In October of 1997, I finally got the green light. My assignment was to open Stockton to Malone Honda in Sandy, Utah. I ran that store for 31/2 years. I learned a lot and really enjoyed it. That was when I realized I love the car business.

In 2009, when your father died, you took over the company at age 42 amid the recession. What did the experience teach you?

It was reinforcement of lessons I learned as general manager of the Honda and Toyota stores, such as cost control. I took out $29 million in expenses in 2009. That wasn't fun, and it wasn't easy.

The other lesson was to surround myself with the best people I could find. And once you have those people in place, I have had to have the discipline to tell them what I expect, find success for them and then let them run, let them do their job.

I provide resources as needed, but I do not meddle. I would give myself high marks for doing that and the results have been amazing. In every one of our seven business units, we're performing at the highest levels we ever have and that's because the person at the helm at each of those units is the right person. It's me trying to stay out of their way.

Your dad was known for his attention to detail. How does your leadership style differ from his?

We both strive for excellence and the highest level of performance possible. But our methods for getting there are very different. One of my presidents would tell you my dad was very authoritarian, and I manage it more from the conference table. I'm a lot more collaborative.

I'm the one responsible for making the ultimate decision, but I'm going to make a better decision if I'm smart enough to solicit the input from smart people who see the problem from different perspectives.

My dad insisted on being involved at a level of minutia that was unreasonable for a CEO of a company our size. If it was up to him, he would have repaired every car himself. That insistence on being that involved is what ultimately, I think, killed him because he was trying to keep his arms around something that got too big.

I know what the vital signs are for our organization. I keep my eye on those and if we deviate, then I give it my attention, but I don't try to micromanage. I try to be more focused on mission, vision, values, culture and direction and implement those things. That leaves me time to be with my family and to enjoy life in a way my dad rarely did.

Larry H. Miller Group has 52 dealerships, up from 39 in 2009. What is your growth strategy?

We've learned over the years what we're good at and what we're not good at in terms of manufacturers, volume and annual gross revenue. The stores we require from here forward will fit the parameters we've set. We'd like to stay primarily in the western United States. I could see us going as far east as, say, Kansas City, Sioux Falls or Dallas.

There are two ways to grow. One is to optimize the existing operations. I wouldn't say we're optimal, but we're performing very well in most of our stores. The other is through acquisitions, whether of existing operations or open points. We're interested in all of the above.

How have growth and your size helped the company?

It brings a measure of credibility. You don't grow like we've grown and sell the number of cars we sell without doing a lot of things right.

It gives us an audience with the manufacturers to a greater degree than we'd have if we were just a stand-alone dealer.

Obviously, if we run our stores profitably, the profits and the cash flow from our operations allow us to continue to become stronger, not only from a balance sheet perspective but as a potential buyer.

What is technology's role in sales and service operations?

My dad would repeat, and I have to agree very strongly, that all the technology in the world is valueless unless people understand how to use it and then act on the information that the technology helps you sort out.

It has been five years since your father's passing. What were the key lessons about life and business you learned from him?

The most important lesson I learned from him is that one person doesn't have to do everything and that quality of life is better when the load is spread over many people. I'm willing and able to do that, and he wasn't.

The thing that's frustrating about that is this organization -- that my dad spent his life building and sacrificed more for than anything else -- is doing better today than it ever has. This is five years after his death. So if it will survive him, it'll survive anybody.

I wish my dad would have been able to realize that and able to turn it over to others so that he would be here today to enjoy the fruits of his labor. But he's not, and I'm not going to make that same mistake.

I spend a lot of time focusing on priorities. Then I talk with my direct reports about those things, and I ask them to return and report to me about what they've done to implement them. It's a different style, but it seems to be working. In 2013, our revenues were up, compared to 2009, by about 120 percent, and our profitability was up by 160 percent from 2009.

I spend a lot of time thinking about those lessons and making sure I'm on point and I don't end up killing myself at work like my dad did.

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com. -- Follow Jamie on Twitter


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