Making It In Business

by | Mar. 05, 2005


Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Larry Miller started working right out of high school, doing things like driving delivery trucks and working on construction crews. At twenty years old, Miller was unexpectedly laid off. At the time he was involved in drag racing with his friends and would purchase parts from a little mom-and-pop shop in Salt Lake called American Auto Parts. Because of his frequent purchases, Miller knew the owners, Pete and Claudia, quite well and so asked if they had any job openings. They did, but it was for an experienced counter man—something Miller was not.

Others may have given up at that point, but not Miller. “Well, I learn quickly, so I would like to learn to do that,” he said. His determination and openness helped get him hired.

“That was the first time I had a job that I was excited about going back to the next day,” he said. “My friends and the people who knew me assumed it was because it was dealing with cars, but for me it wasn’t about cars, it was about the numbers.”

That was Miller’s introduction into the auto industry. In 1963 he left American Auto Parts to work in the parts operations section of an area Toyota/GMC dealership where he worked for three years before accepting a job in Denver.  

The Denver job didn’t turn out as expected, but he decided to stay and eventually found a job with a dealership called Stevinson Toyota in Lakewood, Colorado. “It was there that I was really able to blossom,” explained Miller. At that time, Stevinson was ranked at about 950 out of 1,100 Toyota dealerships in part sales. But by 1973, Miller had helped the shop become the number one Toyota parts dealer in the country and within a year they were the number one parts dealer in the world.

In April 1971, while on vacation in Utah, Miller was presented with the opportunity to buy a dealership in the state—an opportunity he quickly took advantage of. Three months later he purchased another dealership in Spokane which was shortly followed with acquisitions in Phoenix and Moscow, Idaho. Within two years he had purchased four dealerships.

Today the automotive side of the Larry H. Miller Group owns forty-one dealerships in six states and is one of the largest car retailers in the country.

...And All That Jazz

Nationally, Miller is perhaps most known for owning the Utah Jazz. This opportunity unexpectedly resulted from a candid conversation with Jazz management.

The Utah Jazz came to the state from New Orleans in 1971. At that time, the team struggled as a franchise. They couldn’t command any real force in the league because they lacked money. Each year they were in Utah seemed to be the next chapter in the continuing saga of “Will they stay, or will they go?”

In 1985 Jazz management sent out a prospectus explaining they were looking for ten people to invest $200,000 each in order to raise $2,000,000 as limited partners. Miller received a letter, which was followed with a phone call asking him what he thought of the proposal.

Miller told them that he didn’t think limited partnerships were the answer. “Well, those were magic words and the next thing I knew, Dave Checketts [then, the Jazz general manager], was in my office,” said Miller.

“That was the beginning of some expensive conversations,” said Miller, “the result of which was us buying half the team in 1985.” The price for half the team in 1985 was $8,000,000; fourteen months later, Miller bought the rest of the team for $14,000,000.

A New Venture

Miller’s most recent project is with the new LDS movie based on the first volume of Gerald Lund’s The Work and the Glory series. “I’ve always got filmmakers pursuing me and I’ve always told them that I just don’t want to be in the film business. I’ve told them that if they send me anything, I’m just going to throw it in the wastebasket unopened,” said Miller.

He found exception, however, when it came to working with his friend Gerald Lund. “With The Work and the Glory, to me, I didn’t get into the film business, per say, I got into business with Gerald Lund and Scott Swaford [the film’s producer], and to me, that’s different.”

Lund’s first volume of the Work and the Glory was released in 1990. It was an immediate hit and the series quickly turned into an LDS phenomenon. “I read Volume One and I was hooked. I caught up to where he was at the time and within two or three years, he and his wife and my wife had become pretty good friends. Gerald and I started talking about the possibility of films in about 1997 or ’98, but never about me doing it with him—I just acted more as a friend, a sounding board, or an advisor,” Miller said.

In late 2003, Elder Lund called Miller and told him he had formed company with Scott Swafford and Russ Holt [the film’s director], saying he felt he had found the right guys and then explained they would like to talk with him about being an investor. In the end, Miller agreed to underwrite the entire budget for the first film—an investment of $8.5 million. In February Miller told LDS Living he would be providing the full funding for the second movie in the series, which will encompass volumes two and three.

Getting Personal

For a family man with five children (four boys and a girl, ages 38 to 27) and twenty grandchildren, not everything in life is business. All of Miller’s children live within about ten minutes of each other in the Salt Lake Valley and though Dad lives a busy, public life, family time is a top priority.

“Every second Sunday we have family home evening at our house,” he said. “We also gather sometimes at our family cabin, and we have some business meetings that involve the whole family, so we spend quite a lot of time together.”

All of Miller’s children work in the family business in various capacities and areas.

“They’ve each chosen the time when they entered the business and they’re each in diverse places based on where they want to be,” Miller said.

Over time, Miller has recognized the toll long work hours have taken on his personal life. “For a long time I just kept going, and going, and going,” he says. “I would always say, ‘I’ll do this when I have time,’ but you never get the time. You have to make time for the things that are important.”

As the business continued to grow, demands continued to increase. Eventually Miller recognized the need for some restructuring and the company was divided into two parts: the automotive side and the sports and entertainment side. “I learned that I needed to learn more about delegation,” Miller said. “It was and has been a tough transition, but it leaves me free to do some of those things I said I would do when I had the time…We were encouraged by our stake president to serve twelve to fifteen hours a week in our callings,” says Miller, “and I’ve learned you just have to make it happen in order to create a balance. You have to decide what’s important, and then that’s what you’ll have time for.”

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