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One night in May, 10 to 12 couples attended a Manhattan dinner party to meet Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, hear his vision for America and size up his chances of winning the White House.

The guest list included glitterati from both parties, people with gobs of money, business executives and few Mormons. Ronald Lauder, cosmetics heir and erstwhile ambassador to Austria, was there. So was National Beef CEO John Miller.

Romney spoke for half an hour and fielded all manner of questions, including some about his faith. As the party was breaking up, Miller asked another guest what he thought.

"I'll tell you this. The most important thing I hear tonight is this guy comes from here," said former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, thumping a fist on his chest. "He speaks from the heart."

Miller smiled. It is a quality that he, too, had come to admire in his friend and Deer Valley neighbor, and a big reason why, six months earlier, he agreed to support Romney's presidential bid and eventually become one of his national finance chairs.

It seemed an unusual request for a man, even a successful man, raised in a small Utah town, with no real lobbying experience or interest in politics.

"That's kind of how he enlisted us, one night at dinner at our home, and we couldn't get away," Miller says.

If you're Miller, being buttonholed isn't a bad thing. Some of his best decisions in life were made when he couldn't find the escape hatch - curious when you consider the beef-packing brat's goal, from the time he was young, was to get the heck out of Hyrum.

Hometown boy: Miller, 54, speaks fondly of his hometown, a pastoral place where kids still feed their 4H projects from the back porch. Hyrum, named after Mormon prophet Joseph Smith's older brother, was the center of Miller's universe, and the beef-packing plant mere blocks from his house was the bane of his existence.

His grandfather started the business in 1936 and ran it with his two sons, Ernest J. and Lynn R. Miller.

"They were the hardest-working people I've ever known and my dad [Lynn] expected that of his kids. If my dad was around and I was idle, I was usually hiding," says Miller.

On Saturdays, there were no cartoons. It was down to the plant to carry trolley hooks or wash floors or clean coolers. "It was hard work. I hated it. I swore I'd never do it when I got older. In fact I made an oath: I would never follow in my parents' footsteps."

He planned, instead, to be a lawyer, and enrolled in Utah State University. During his first year, his dad died of a heart attack at age 57. After his sophomore year, Miller served an LDS mission in Australia. When he returned, Miller refocused his goals around getting a Harvard MBA, keeping a picture of the Ivy League school close by for motivation.

He earned great marks, took the graduate record exam and failed miserably.

"I didn't even tell anybody for years, I was so embarrassed," Miller says.

With his plan to leave town derailed, Miller worked days at the meat plant and attended night classes at USU, figuring he'd retake the GRE and reapply to Harvard. Then there was another death in the family, one that curtailed any hope of an exit strategy.

The front lines: The blue-and-white twin-engine Cessna took off from the Orange County Airport at 4 p.m. on April 1, 1977, and crashed on a mountainside 8 miles from San Bernardino. Killed were seven employees of E.A. Miller & Sons Packing Co., including Miller's cousin and close friend, Ernest, whose father ran the company.

Miller went with his uncle to visit all the families the next day. Later, his uncle asked him to take charge of the company. Miller, all of 26, couldn't say no.

It was a time of great upheaval in the beef business. Multinational companies in the Midwest such as Cargill, ConAgra, Swift and IDP were forcing consolidation in the industry, aided by large, efficient plants and the concept of boxed beef. Gone were the days of Miller's youth, when hundreds of small, local slaughterhouses sent carcasses directly to grocery stores, where butchers cut up the beef for customers.

By 1977, E.A. Miller had taken on a lot of debt and its customer base was dwindling. Bankers told the family to liquidate.

Again, Miller had little choice. "We were either going to lose the business or it wasn't going to survive," he says.

So he studied the business model of his competitors, hired away some of their best people, and grew E.A. Miller from $100 million in sales in 1979 to $1.2 billion in 1987, when the family sold it to ConAgra.

"It's interesting to look back on it now," Miller says. "I was dumb enough and young enough to think I could really turn that business around. If I had been 20 years older, I'd have gone somewhere else because it was a tough thing."

Miller wasn't speaking only of the turnaround. Just as the plant became profitable again, his 6-year-old daughter, Annie, was hit by a truck while bicycling in Hyrum. She spent four months in a coma.

"I remember walking through the front door to the office one day and thinking, 'This doesn't mean a damn thing.' Here she was fighting for her life, and all this business success didn't seem to hold much value."

His daughter, who has some lingering limitations, recovered, and so did Miller's motivation. After selling E.A. Miller, he turned around Armour and Co., a subsidiary of ConAgra, and then bought and revived a family-owned business much like his grandfather's.

That was 15 years ago. Today National Beef, with headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., employs 8,000 people, operates six plants, owns 1,000 trucks and controls 13 percent of the U.S. market. It also has made Miller a wealthy man. He owns a house in Deer Valley, a ranch in Montana and a mansion in Laguna Beach.

And once a week, usually on Friday, he commutes from his home in Kansas City to Salt Lake City in his private plane, and works real estate deals from his penthouse office in the blue-green high-rise that served as the headquarters for the Salt Lake Olympics.

The CEO of the Games, a graduate of Harvard Business School, is now campaigning for president of the United States. Miller laughs at the "if only" suggestion.

"I had a better education, a greater education, on the front lines," he says.

'Meating place': Miller's office on Salt Lake City's Main Street has a heart-stopping view of the valley and is handsomely decorated in cattle-ranch chic - if there is such a thing - with leather couches, bronze casts, western paintings and magazines such as Meating Place. His most prized possessions are simple ones, reminders of the daughter he almost lost and the one he did.

The first memento is a photo of a young Annie undergoing rehab for her long-ago injuries. Now 30, she just married on Valentine's Day. The second is a book full of pictures taken by Miller's other daughter, Erin, during a humanitarian trip to Africa when she was 16. Four years later, while home from college, Erin died of an accidental prescription drug overdose. Her father, who found her, smiles longingly at the photos. "She was such a great kid. We miss her tremendously," he says.

Such openness might strike Miller's friends as unusual. They describe him as "intensely private" and allergic to interviews. In the flesh, Miller is incredibly personable, not at all reluctant to discuss his family, his business and his hardships.

Credit that same what-do-you-want-to-know quality for his friendship with Mitt and Ann Romney.

They were introduced in 1994 in much the same way you might meet Jehovah's Witnesses. The couple knocked on the door of Miller's Deer Valley home and asked to come inside.

"They said, 'We're building a home up here in this area and we like your home. Can we come in and see it?' Ann looked so good that I thought, 'Why not?' "

They ended up visiting for an hour and eventually became good friends. Since then, John and Vickie Miller and the Romneys have shared lots of dinners, gone on vacations to Hawaii and the Bahamas, worshipped together and spent time on Miller's ranch in Montana. "And Mitt gave me some good advice along the way in terms of his experience in business. We related to each other because basically he's a turnaround guy, and that's what I've been doing all my life."

At the time of their introduction, Romney had just been "thumped by Ted," Miller says, referring to Romney's failed attempt to unseat Sen. Kennedy in Massachusetts. Even in defeat, Miller saw something rare, a quality he admired in Colin Powell and Ronald Reagan - the capacity to lead.

So when the Romneys came for dinner a year ago and asked if he would support him for president, Miller didn't hesitate.

"It was an act of desperation on his part because there are probably people much more qualified than I am," Miller says. "I'm not by nature much of a political hound, but we all have a responsibility as citizens of our country to serve, even if it is just licking envelopes."

Dinner talk: At a recent fundraiser for Romney in Salt Lake City, Miller, easily one of the most successful men in Utah, mingles in the crowd unnoticed. Behind the scenes, however, he is an organizer, an introducer, a producer, arranging intimate dinners such as the event in Manhattan.

"I target influence leaders in their communities. People who know people. Bright people who are not easily sold," Miller says. "It's an amazing process because in the end you're not going to raise money by single dollars. You're going to raise it by networking."

The meetings typically occur in someone's home and involve 20 to 25 guests listening to Romney speak about national security, the deficit and yes, his faith.

"Most times it will come up. 'Well, what about the Mormon question?' They want to know if it will be an issue that will prevent him from being elected. But when they walk out, to a person, at every one of those meetings I've ever been in, they say, 'you know there is not an issue here.' "

The importance of those meetings is to build familiarity and trust, court friends in high places, and, of course, to collect money.

It is possible that Miller could end up advising the candidate on policy matters, such as immigration, an issue dear to the meat-packing industry. (The business once owned by his grandfather, still known affectionately in Hyrum as the Miller Plant, was one of several nationally raided by federal officials last year.)

And though Miller is not looking for another job, it not inconceivable that the accidental campaigner could someday receive yet another offer he would find tough to refuse - a role in a Romney administration.

"He's a good friend who's willing to do one of the most painful things in the world, which is to ask friends to help with the campaign," Romney says. "I owe him. He's one of my national co-chairs, and there are only a handful. I owe him everything."

John R. Miller

* Age, 54

* CEO, National Beef

* Partner, Wasatch Property Management

* Campaign Finance Co-Chair, Romney for President

* Best hour of the day? 7 a.m.

* What people say behind your back? Great guy to work for, but it's never enough.

* What book are you reading? James Baker III's Work Hard, Study . . . and Keep Out of Politics!

* What is on your iPod? Sting, Sarah Brightman, Andrea Bocelli

* What would you be if not an industry CEO? History teacher

* Last time in a tux? Valentine's Day - at my daughter's wedding

* Red Sox or Yankees? Yankees, without a doubt.


I was born and raised in Hyrum, America, meaning Hyrum was the center of my universe."

I target influence leaders in their communities. People who know people. Bright people who are not easily sold."

We all have a responsibility as citizens of our country to serve, even if it is just licking envelopes."