When Lorraine Miller was a Vista volunteer in the 1960s she thought profit was a nasty word and business was the reason there was poverty in the United States.
Now, as owner of Cactus and Tropicals, a nursery located in a residential neighborhood at 2735 S. 2000 East, she not only is making a profit on her plant sales but has done a 180-degree turn in her attitude toward business.For her efforts, Miller was named small-business person of the year by the Salt Lake District office of the Small Business Administration and on April 28 was honored during a dinner at Westminster College. She went to Washington, D.C., to compete with other state winners, was named the national small-business person of the year and met with President Clinton in the White House during an awards ceremony.
A Salt Lake native, the Highland High School graduate started at the University of Utah but left to become a Vista volunteer in North Carolina working with the Community Action Program. Vista is the local version of the Peace Corps.
She worked on water projects in the predominantly black community of Elizabeth City, N.C., and also started a day-care center. She said the Vista program was a good chance for middle-class people to learn about poverty. "The biggest lesson I learned was that if I left, the project would continue," Miller said in her nursery office.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in history in 1972, Miller got a job as a laboratory technician at the University of Utah Medical Center and worked there for two years. "I felt like I was in the wrong spot and if I wanted to grow I needed to control my own destiny," she said.
She awoke one morning in the spring of 1975 and in a spontaneous move decided to take the business plunge "before I chickened out." She drove around Salt Lake City with $2,000 borrowed from her father and found a building at 100 South and 800 East that had been empty for two years.
She liked the location because there was an apartment upstairs that allowed her to be near her new 1,000-square-foot enterprise. Miller signed a five-year lease and the Grass Menagerie became a reality.
With $600 of her own money, Miller purchased plants from a wholesale nursery. The plants occupied only a small section of her new store. From her upstairs apartment she could see when somebody came to buy and she accommodated them by opening the shop after hours.
The next time, she bought $1,000 worth of plants and quickly sold out again. But it became apparent that her business was growing more slowly than the plants she bought and sold, and in 1978 her building was lost to an eminent domain transaction. She received $10,000 because she had a viable lease on the property.
Miller purchased a house in 1978 where Cactus and Tropicals is located and built a greenhouse in back, a project that took her and a friend four months. She sold only cactus "and I nearly starved to death," she said. She knew she had to expand and decided to be a wholesaler. Safeway Stores immediately purchased 65 flats of cactus from her.
She learned about boxing the plants so she could ship them and delivered the plants herself.
In 1983 she went to a neighbor on the south who owned a house that had been converted for business use, but the price was high so she purchased only a chinchilla shed in the back yard.
With three partners in 1985, she purchased the remainder of that property and because her nursery business was growing again she decided she needed parking. That same year she got a $150,000 SBA loan and used the money to tear down the house, build the parking lot and remodel the chinchilla shed into the Garden Wall, a gift and accessory shop.
Meanwhile, she was expanding her business by having six of her employees maintain plants in 100 buildings in the Salt Lake area. Now she has four greenhouses and 18 months ago purchased a home north of her property where her offices are located.
She also has put in an outdoor nursery called The Garden and opened a store in Park City. With its 29 employees, Cactus and Tropicals sells cactus, tropicals (palms and other house plants), orchids, bedding plants and perennials. Miller said she likes to take special orders because it's a challenge to see if she can find the item.
Miller attributes her success to hiring good employees and believes together they are creating wealth in the community.
She recently hosted Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen at her business when he wanted to talk about universal health care. Miller said she believes in the concept and wants to help provide health care for her employees.
For her beliefs, she has been the target of telephone calls and letters from people who have called her a variety of names that won't be published in this family newspaper.
Besides her business, Miller has been president and board member of the Utah Association of Women Business Owners, was a member of the Governor's Task Force on Entrepreneurism, an advisory board member of the Utah Women's Business Council and has served on the board of the Phoenix Institute.