Steve Miller tears up talking about Legos, of all things.

We are seated in high-backed lounge chairs in the library at the posh Montage Deer Valley in October. It’s a high-ceilinged room where one can picture wealthy men in monogrammed blazers smoking cigars and sipping brandy around the fireplace while they pontificate about the state of the world. There’s none of that snootiness with this man. It’s not the sort of thing that suits Miller. He’s more comfortable sitting, perhaps alone, at the fire pit in his backyard, gazing at Lone Peak towering above his east-side Salt Lake Valley home.

But here we are at the Park City resort during the Larry H. Miller Summit, a weeklong event that brings top business leaders together, as well as Miller family members from the oldest to the youngest.

Steve Miller, 52, is the chairman of the board of the company that his father, the late Larry H. Miller, built and that his mother, Gail, has continued to run as the matriarch of the Miller clan. The Miller empire has changed dramatically the past couple of years with the sale of the Utah Jazz and the auto dealerships that for decades were the pillars of one of the state’s most prominent enterprises.

Gail Miller served as board chair for five years before turning it over to Steve Miller in 2021. He has worked in almost every aspect of the business but never as the frontman like, say, Bono, the lead singer of his favorite band, U2. He’s more like Adam Clayton, the bass guitarist laying down the rhythmic and harmonic foundation.

As chairman, Steve Miller oversees a multibillion-dollar portfolio that now includes home construction, health care, soda shops, movie theaters and a minor league baseball team. The company won’t reveal its assets, but Forbes estimates Gail Miller’s net worth at nearly $4 billion, including the sale of the Jazz at just under $2 billion. Miller philanthropies donate more than $30 million a year. She’s the face of the organization, now No. 758 on the Forbes wealthiest billionaires list, ahead of Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey, among so many others — something Larry Miller never rose to.

In his leadership role, Steve Miller could become the reluctant new face of the Larry H. Miller Company. But before we get into that, I have to ask about his Lego collection.

Steve Miller, chairman of the board of directors for the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, speaks with JT Taylor at Montage Deer Valley in Park City on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Building blocks of the future

Legos, the beloved plastic building blocks of childhood that aren’t just for kids anymore, have a place in Steve Miller’s heart, and a role in who he is today. He was hooked on the colored bricks the first time he touched them as a child. He loved the sound, the feel. Back then, he played with his brothers’ Legos. He chokes up reminiscing about the good times he had building stuff. He’s still building today.

By his own admission, the massive Lego room in his home is “obscene.”

It would take pages to describe the 12 interconnected realms he and a couple dozen Lego enthusiasts have spent nearly two years putting together. It’s his own Legoland.

A western scene featuring Utah’s iconic Delicate Arch runs into an Indiana Jones-Jurassic Park mashup that flows into an amusement park with a moving roller coaster, Ferris wheel and carousel. A concert stage features — who else? —  U2. (Side note: Miller can’t express how much he loves the Irish rock band. He’s seen them in concert 64 times around the world, typically with his family or brothers. “It just brings the best of life together,” he said. He has 576 bootleg versions of his favorite song, “Bad.”)

Back to Legoland. There’s a winter wonderland with a tram, gondola and ski lift topping out on the Alps. An arctic research station, Batman cave, Swiss village, industrial park, main street, harbor, Chinatown and castles. A life-size bridge spans the custom-built fantasy world and trains run everywhere. It’s still under construction, and everyone who works on it is sworn to secrecy.

While Miller allowed me a peek at the project (he spared me the nondisclosure agreement) he’s not ready to put it out there for everyone to see until it’s finished sometime next year, which means no photos for now.

Asked if he sees parallels in Legos and his current job, Miller recites a poem he learned from a fellow missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more than three decades ago: “The Wreckers” by Edgar A. Guest.

I watched them tearing a building down, / A gang of men in a busy town.

With a ho-heave-ho and lusty yell, / They swung a beam and a sidewall fell.

I asked the foreman, “Are these men skilled, / As the men you’d hire if you had to build?”

He gave me a laugh and said, / “No indeed! Just common labor is all I need.”

“I can easily wreck in a day or two / What builders have taken a year to do.”

And I thought to myself as I went my way, / Which of these two roles have I tried to play?

 Am I a builder who works with care, / Measuring life by the rule and square?

Or am I a wrecker who walks the town, / Content with the labor of tearing down?

“That’s kind of how I see it. We can be builders and we can build people up and we can make things better than we found them or we can be those who are content to sit back and nitpick and complain and undermine and just unravel what everybody else is trying to do,” Miller said.

“It’s not by accident that I signed off to be a builder. I don’t think it’s an accident that Lego is fascinating to me because you can take something that’s just in chaos and you can turn it into something unbelievably inspiring. That’s the work that we’re about at the Larry H. Miller Company is building, building communities, building people.”

Steve Miller joins with other members of the Miller family, Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment employees and select Salt Lake City Stars players to serve food at the 19th annual “We Care — We Share” Thanksgiving Dinner for local homeless and low-income individuals at Vivint Arena on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Lessons from Larry and Gail

Steve is the third of the Millers’ five children. “I don’t want to say he was my favorite, but he was my easiest,” his mother told me.

But growing up a Miller wasn’t easy. They were young and impressionable when their dad bought the Utah Jazz. They didn’t know how to be in the public spotlight. Expectations were high not because of who they were, but because of who people thought they were.

“We really try to teach them that being yourself is enough. You don’t have to be who you’re not, you don’t have to be somebody else to impress anyone,” Gail Miller said.

Steve Miller took that advice to heart. He’s comfortable in his own skin. He also learned what service, compassion and patience look like from his mother. “She was always there regardless of the time of day,” he said.

The same can’t be said of Larry Miller. He was never there. Calling him a workaholic might be an understatement.

“A lot of the lessons I learned from my dad, unfortunately, are lessons of omission. I think his heart was in the right place but I will tell you that I parent totally differently than my dad parented. I’m present for my kids, almost 180 degrees on the other end of the spectrum,” Steve Miller said.

A portrait of Larry H. Miller, his wife Gail, and their children taken in 1978. The children are, from top left, Roger, Greg, Steve, Brilliant and Karen. | Miller family
Larry Miller came to regret what it cost him, his wife, children

In 22 years, he and his wife, Jen, never missed a parent-teacher conference for all four of their children, the youngest of whom just left on a church mission. He was there for recitals and daddy-daughter dates. “I learned that from my dad, but it’s not because he gave it to me. It’s because he didn’t give it to me,” he said.

“I don’t say that to cry or to complain,” Steve Miller said, “because the sacrifice he was making and doing set the stage or platform for me and my family to have what we have.”

He also credits his dad for teaching him to think big and believe that if there’s something you’re passionate about, you can find a way to get it done. From an auto parts runner to a dealership mogul, Larry Miller was proof of that. Steve Miller said he recognizes that it wasn’t in vain and that the Millers are using the resources they’re blessed with to bless their own family as well as the lives of families around them.

“It’s just trying to make the best out of what maybe was not the best situation,” he said.

Steve Miller talks about the announcement that ownership of the Utah Jazz will be transferred into a legacy trust to ensure the Jazz stay in Utah at the Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Jan. 23, 2017. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Working in the family business

Since Larry Miller founded the company in 1979, it has built a hugely profitable portfolio of operating companies in the automotive, finance/lending, sports and entertainment, and real estate spaces.

Steve Miller has worked in the family business for more than 25 years in various positions, including as president of Miller Sports Properties, president of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, general manager of Larry H. Miller Fleet Lease, general manager of Larry H. Miller Subaru and director of New and Used Car Operations for Miller Automotive Operations.

Now, he is the chairman of the 12-member board of directors.

The Tour of Utah ranks high on his list of achievements. He turned a small regional event into an internationally recognized multiday professional cycling race that attracted world tour teams and riders.

5 questions with Tour of Utah president Steve Miller

He loved everything about what was billed as “America’s Toughest Stage Race,” but the COVID-19 pandemic and the sale of the Jazz sounded its death knell because the backbone for organizing the race was on the company’s sports/entertainment platform.

“It was a super-cool event because I met a lot of really cool people,” he said, adding he still gets emails urging him to bring it back.

A cyclist himself, Miller rode Lotoja, the one-day, 200-plus mile race from Logan, Utah, to Jackson, Wyoming, five times. But he hung up his bike after realizing that hours and hours of training cut into his family time and seeing friends go down in bad crashes. He said he values other interests more, including hiking and hunting, and ”if I can’t walk, I can’t do either.”

Home on the ranch

Steve Miller wanted to be a forest ranger coming out of college, though he graduated from the University of Utah in consumer studies and family economics. His dad told him he wouldn’t be able to raise a family or do the things he wanted in life on a ranger’s salary. He satisfies his passion for the outdoors on the Millers’ 20,000-acre ranch in southeast Idaho. “This is a really, really special place,” he said.

The family bought the initial piece of ground in 1985 and snapped up additional property as it became available. Cattle grazed on some of the land for years to the point that Miller said it looked like someone “dropped napalm” on it. It hit a tipping point for him around 2011. He couldn’t take it anymore and took over management of the land. He immediately had the rancher remove the cattle and started a habitat restoration project.

“I didn’t realize Mother Nature is as resilient as she is if you just give her a break. If you give her a little love, she can come back,” he said.

Larry H. Miller Company chairman of the board Steve Miller is pictured on the family ranch in southeastern Idaho in this undated photograph. | Miller family photo

More than 60 water sources returned and springs are flowing like they never flowed before. Nonnative junipers were removed and noxious weeds are under control. Nearly extinct aspen stands are growing again. Beavers were reintroduced and the deer and elk populations thrive.

Miller works with two full-time biologists to restore the land, though he said he learned a lot through trial and error. He and a botanist identified 390 plant species on the property, which he is compiling into a book called, “The Plants of the Meadowlark.”

“This is the opportunity for me to live the life I otherwise might have had. It’s effectively a full-time job,” he said, adding with Jen’s indulgence he has spent as many as 100 nights a year at the ranch. “It’s never enough.”

Every year around Veterans Day, he brings in two groups of male and female veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, even Vietnam, some with missing limbs or traumatic brain injuries, to hunt elk. No one leaves empty-handed.

“It is so humbling, so humbling to be with them,” Miller said, “We’ve had a lot of really tender moments around the campfire.”

Miller told Jen that when he dies, he wants to be cremated and have his ashes spread on the ranch.

Larry H. Miller talks at a press conference after being released from a long stay in the hospital fighting numerous health problems in Salt Lake City on Aug. 8, 2008. His wife, Gail, and son, Greg, are seated next to him. | Tom Smart, Deseret News

Planning for the future

Larry Miller did a lot of work to stabilize and prepare the company for the future. He talked about creating a board of directors but never got around to it. About eight years ago, Gail Miller started looking into restructuring the company’s governance. She consulted with Dennis Haslam, an attorney and former president of the Utah Jazz, and other business experts, including some at Harvard.

“The big challenge was we were a really good company. We have always been a really good company. Nothing was broken. And here I come in having never worked in the company and say we’re going to change the governance structure,” Gail Miller said.

“And people thought I was crazy because they liked the way it was working and it was working well. But it wasn’t because I didn’t have confidence in it. It was because I was looking to the future.”

That future includes the next generation of Millers, who are now in their 20s and 30s, some of whom will take on leadership roles when they graduate from college, including some earning MBAs.

She settled on creating a board of directors that included representatives from inside and outside the Miller family and from around the country. Each one brings professional experience and a skill set the company didn’t have before.

“They’ve just helped us mature and grow up and see opportunities, and do them in a very professional way. I’m very happy with the way it’s turned out,” Gail Miller said, though she admits it took a while for the concept to gel with the executive team.

“I think everybody’s on board now,” she said. “We have no naysayers, not even in the family.”

Steve Miller echoes that. Though his dad had the company rolling through his sheer force of will, Miller said it became clear after he died that the way the businesses operated from a management standpoint was not sustainable. It needed some sort of governance, which was completely opposite to the way it had always been run.

A conversation with Gail Miller about faith, family, business and the true meaning of wealth

The transition to a “more professionalized” model wasn’t easy but “absolutely the right thing to do, no question about it,” he said.

Steve Miller’s brothers, both of whom serve on the company’s board, say he’s the right person to head the board.

Brilliant Miller, Steve Miller’s younger brother, said, ”If I were to describe him in one word it would probably be conscientious.” Growing up, he said, Steve didn’t push him off as the little brother but included him when he had friends over or went skiing. He said he continues to be a good listener and someone who brings people together.

Older brother Greg Miller said he recently told Steve that one of the things he’s most impressed by is that Steve reads every word.

“It’s sort of metaphoric for being really prepared for any assignment he’s given,” he said. “He’s doing a great job representing the family. I think he understands the values that this company is built on as well as anyone.”

Steve Starks, Larry H. Miller Company CEO, said formality helps guarantee that in future generations “you don’t have somebody in the family that wants to go rogue or make a decision that takes the company off course.”

New directions

The Larry H. Miller Company has dramatically changed course in the past few years, first selling the Jazz and then the auto dealerships. It bought the Daybreak community in South Jordan, Destination Homes, the Swig soda shops and Advanced Health Care, among other businesses. It maintained ownership of the Megaplex theaters and the Salt Lake Bees Triple-A baseball team. It broke ground last month on a new Bees stadium in South Jordan.

The house Larry H. Miller built: After selling the Jazz and now their car dealerships, what’s next for Utah’s first family of business?

The company’s next big endeavor is an effort to land a Major League Baseball team for Salt Lake City. It already has a stadium site picked out just west of downtown.

Steve Miller said a major league franchise would be a “massive” undertaking. “I don’t think that we can really comprehend all that’s going to go into that,” he said. But, he said, it would be a “fun” project if Utah is fortunate enough to get it, and he thinks there’s a “pretty good” chance it will happen.

“We’ve got a really, really compelling story to tell,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we get that because that would keep us busy for a long time.”

Gail Miller said she is optimistic about the prospects of bringing a team to the state, noting the stadium would be built on the same site where Larry played fastpitch softball. “We’ve done everything we can to prepare. We’ve done studies, created groups of coalitions, met with government, talked with the league,” she said. “We just feel like we’re in a really good position and Utah is a prime place.”

The Millers’ big pitch: Inside Utah’s push for an MLB expansion team

The face of the Larry H. Miller Company

Until his death due to complications from Type 2 diabetes at age 64 in 2009, Larry Miller was the face of the Larry H. Miller Company. Gail Miller, who turned 80 in October, assumed that role and continues to maintain it. But who is next in line?

If Steve Miller has his druthers, it won’t be him — or anyone, for that matter. He doesn’t think there needs to be a face for the company. He thinks it would be forced or trite for it to be someone who isn’t Larry or Gail. “I think it would be, I don’t know what the word is, not presumptuous. Something in that vein,” he said.

“Larry was Larry. There will never be another one. And Gail is Gail. And she is so much different than Larry. Two totally different bolts of fabric,” he said. “You’d have to have a pretty big ego to try and fill either one of those shoes.”

Steve Miller is content to let the company’s well-recognized logo — Larry H. Miller’s actual signature — become the face of the company.

“My dad put everything on the proverbial line with that signature when he bought the Jazz. Anytime you sign a contract it was literally putting the family name on the line,” he said as he teared up. “So I think out of respect to our mom and dad when they’re gone, our family will just be totally content to let his signature be the face of the company.”

'An extraordinary life:' Jazz owner Larry H. Miller 1944-2009

Gail Miller agrees with her son, sort of.

“What Steve says is right. But somebody still has to be out there, whether it’s him or a different spokesman because you can’t hide behind a name. You have to have a personality and a set of values and a vision and mission,” she said.

“Somebody has to do that, whether he wants to or not, he probably will. It’s just inevitable.”

Starks said Steve Miller is prepared to fulfill the mission of the business, and doesn’t feel any pressure to become a public figure. “That would be unnatural for him,” he said.

Steve Miller, chairman of the board of directors for the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, is photographed at Montage Deer Valley in Park City on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Chairman of the board

Getting along and making decisions is challenging for any family enterprise, particularly one as big and as public as the Miller family has been for 45 years.

By all accounts, Steve Miller is measured, thoughtful and a pragmatic leader. He listens, he’s collaborative and doesn’t speak in a meeting unless he has something to say, Starks said. People just naturally like to be around him because he is so friendly and down to earth.

“Steve has native wisdom that is really evident to anyone who works with him,” said Starks, who has spent 17 years at the company.

Jen Miller described her husband as even-toned. He doesn’t fly off the handle or have a temper. And, she said, he never talks behind someone’s back because he knows what it’s like to have people do that to him.

“If I want to gossip, I call a girlfriend,” she said.

Some of Steve Miller’s leadership qualities became evident during the difficult family and company discussions about selling the Jazz — the first big decision on his watch as chairman of the board.

The conversation about selling the basketball team started small, just Steve Miller and Starks. It was a tight circle for a long time until they brought it to Gail and Steve’s older brother, Greg, and younger brother, Brilliant, and a few key company executives. (Gail Miller said her son didn’t realize she was talking to Starks at the same time.)

“I had to lead my family through the emotional decision of getting there. I wasn’t necessarily there. I really pride myself on trying to stay in an objective space,” Steve Miller said, adding he prefers to get all the facts before stating an opinion. “That’s what I applied in the Jazz space but there were a lot of signs that the alignment probably wasn’t really for our family anymore.”

Gail Miller said Steve is not affected by glamor or notoriety or fame or fortune.

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“He didn’t let the fact that we’d owned the Jazz for 35 years get in the way. It was an identity that we had, but it’s OK if we don’t have it anymore. We’re still who we were and we can go on to do other things,” she said.

Steve Miller said he would like to believe his leadership style is understated. He’s content to let others lead the way. “That’s almost an oxymoron when it comes to leadership but I think that there’s something proud about a leader knowing when others can kind of step forward and allowing them the space to do that,” he said.

He likes to hear where people are coming from and understand whatever issue is on the table. And when it’s something monumental like selling the Jazz or the auto dealerships, he’s not going to be quick to the trigger. He considers every conceivable angle.

He builds one brick at a time.

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