Sure, you knew this guy, but . . .
Quiet legacy » Much of his community contribution was out of the public eye
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Everybody knew this guy because of the Utah Jazz and all of his car dealerships.

Yet there were things about Larry H. Miller -- the businessman -- that were not as high profile, things he quietly did out of the public eye that demonstrated his devotion to his community and the free enterprise system.

He taught masters of business administration classes for years at Brigham Young University.

He donated millions of dollars to build a 20-acre Salt Lake Community College campus in Sandy where students learn entrepreneurial skills.

For two years he underwrote an exchange program between Utah Valley Community College and the Kiev College of Hotel Management in Ukraine.

And even as his health declined, Miller gave money to help establish a police officer training center.

"The true legacy of Larry Miller is that people will never really know all that he did," said Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan. "He did a lot of things behind the scenes and never asked for a single thing in return."

And what did he give to Utahns?

The chance to enjoy sports through his basketball, baseball, race car and hockey operations -- and access to many of those games through his television and radio stations. He showed movies, too, at five different Megaplex Theatres complexes. He sold sports memorabilia at retail stores, had a catering business, provided advertising and media services.

And, of course, he sold cars.

From a modest start in 1979, he passed away owning more than 40 dealerships in six Western states, representing nearly two dozen brands. His group of companies also included a financing operation to help people buy cars and a service system when repairs were necessary.

"Larry was not only one of the finest auto dealers in the country, he was also one of the finest humanitarians," said Iowan John McEleney, chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association. "In fact, it would be hard to find a finer human being. When it came to helping others, Larry set the standard."

A. Sterling Francom, former director of SLCC's Center for Entrepreneurship Training, saw Miller in much the same light.

"There are literally hundreds of small businesses operating in Utah today" whose owners were taught and received encouragement and guidance from Miller, who was always generous with his advice, Francom said. This relationship dates to 1990 when Miller, who had taught business management classes at BYU, approached Francom about helping prepare community college students for the business world.

"Things grew from there," he said. "We brought him in as a guest speaker and he was soon doing seminars. Eventually [Miller] broached the idea of building the entrepreneurship center. And he went out and found the land for it."

Francom estimated Miller's donations to the school approached $100 million.

Not bad for a kid who "wasn't motivated" to study much at West High School or in the one quarter he attended the University of Utah before dropping out. Miller was more into drag racing and being a fastpitch softball pitcher.

But those two interests helped get him into the car business. In 1970 he moved to Denver where he worked at Stevinson Toyota, ultimately running five dealerships and earning $100,000 a year. He also pitched for the company's elite-level team.

Miller returned to Utah in 1979 and purchased his first dealership. By 1984, he was the state's top seller of cars. His rise prompted former automobile dealer Cline Dahle to describe him as "very aggressive, very modern. He's like a tree. He's growing stronger, taller and quicker than any other tree in the valley."

Less than a year later, Miller acquired half of the Jazz. He would own it all by 1987, turning the franchise into a state institution. Miller also bought the Salt Lake Golden Eagles hockey club in 1991, a deal he later described as one of the worst decisions he ever made.

When he sold the hockey team in 1994, Miller somberly addressed the news media, saying "I don't like losing. It's difficult for me to walk away. I just can't see how to make it work."

That experience was characteristic of one of his strengths as a businessman -- his willingness to face reality and adapt to changing circumstances.

Miller demonstrated that again just last month when he sold The Mayan and Spaghetti Mama's restaurants in Jordan Commons, the 250,000-square-foot retail and office complex he built in Sandy.

Keith Marshall of South Carolina-based Atlantic Restaurant Consultants, which purchased the restaurants, said he met Miller only a month ago but was impressed with the vision Miller had in building The Mayan, with its indoor cliff divers and jungle motif.

"It says a lot about his vision that he was also willing to turn those properties over to us, knowing we could improve them," said Marshall.

But what Miller will be remembered for most is keeping the Jazz in Utah.

"It may sound a little corny," he once told The Tribune , "but to be able to be the catalyst for something this significant in this community, it's a neat feeling. It's not one of being haughty or arrogant. I love Utah. I love Salt Lake City. It's a community I'm interested in giving something back to.''

steve@sltrib.com

mikeg@sltrib.com

Larry Miller's business empire

The Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, which sprang from an auto-parts business and single Toyota dealership in the late 1970s, has grown into one of the nation's 150 largest privately held corporations. With more than 7,000 employees in six states, the group generates $3 billion in revenue annually, with operations that reach into the sports and entertainment worlds. At its heart is a network of 40 or so auto dealerships.

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Larry H. Miller's enterprises

Utah Jazz, professional basketball team

EnergySolutions Arena

Salt Lake Bees, minor league baseball team

40 auto dealerships

Jordan Commons, retail, entertainment and office complex

Mayan Restaurant (recently sold)

Megaplex Theaters, five, multiple-screen movie houses

Miller Motorsports Park, race tracks

KJZZ and KFAN, local TV and radio stations

Prestige Financial Services, a lending division

Landcar Agency, contract provider

Larry H. Miller Charities, a fundraising foundation

Entrepreneur Training Center, Miller Campus of Salt Lake Community College