To anyone reading this blog outside of Utah, the name Larry H. Miller probably means nothing to you. But that’s not the case if you’ve spent any time in the Beehive State, where Larry Miller’s car dealership empire floods the airwaves with commercials using the slogan “You know this guy!”
Well, in point of fact, I did know this guy and was very saddened to learn of his passing on Friday of last week. Larry was an entrepreneur with his finger in all sorts of pies – he owned car dealerships, the Jordan Commons complex in Sandy, a TV station, and, of course, the Utah Jazz and its ancillary sports franchises. What you may not know, however, is that for three hours a week, Larry also taught a class to BYU MBA students entitled “Entrepreneurial Perspectives.” I took the class back in ’99, and because of a scheduling glitch, there were only three of us in the class. Consequently, we got to spend three hours a week, practically one-on-one, with the most successful entrepreneur in the state.
When I signed up for the class, I expected to hear all kinds of wild, inside stories about the Utah Jazz and the world of professional sports. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Larry would use most of the class to regale us with tales of – car parts. Seriously. The guy began working in the parts department of a Toyota dealership, and car parts were his passion. He knew more about car parts than any person who has ever lived, and it was stunning to see just how important they were to him, even after all his success. I can’t imagine anything I’d rather do less than work in the parts department of an auto dealership, but, given his druthers, Larry Miller could likely have lived his life behind one of those counters and be happy for all of his days. Circumstances combined, however, to push him out of his comfortable situation and out on his own. That led him to start his own dealership, and his competitive nature demanded that his dealership be more successful than the one he left, and the rest is history.
Larry was the most competitive person I’ve ever met. He did not like to lose.
He told the stories of being a marble champion and practicing marbles, day in and day out, for three solid years. He told stories of his twenty-seven years as a pitcher for a professional softball team, pitching for so long and so hard that his elbow was distended for the rest of his life. But most of all, he told stories about car parts, and how he parlayed a passion for such into a multi-billion dollar empire. He told us about a time when one of his competitors called him to ask how it was that he was able to outperform him time and time again. Larry answered by saying, “I can do that because I get up every morning and think of new ways to kick your ass.”
As I said, Larry did not like to lose. And he didn’t lose all that often.
His competitive streak came with a steep pricetag. He was too busy winning to spend any time with his children, and as of 1999, his wife, Gail, still resented it. At one point in the class, Larry asked us to bring our wives to listen to Gail teach a session about what it’s like to be married to an entrepreneur. Gail likened it to riding down the side of a mountain in the passenger’s seat of a car – it’s fast, bumpy, and dangerous, and you have absolutely no control over where you’re going. Mrs. Cornell and I kept waiting for the happy ending, for the “but it’s all better now” moment, and it never came. She was in tears for much of the class session, and it made for several awkward moments. I read in the paper later that Larry ended up raising one of his grandchildren as his own, giving him a second chance at childrearing to make up for what he’d lost the first time around. You could tell, from all of Larry’s stories, that this was the one thing he regretted more than anything else. His teaching our class was, I think, part of his penance. In the last decade or so of his life, he tried very hard to connect with all of the people who may not have had the stamina to keep up with him.
But don’t misunderstand; Larry was driven, sure, but he was no ogre. He was quick to laughter; he was generous to a fault, and he may have been one of the brightest people I’ve ever met, even if he was also one of the least bookish. He dropped out of college after a few weeks, citing his “short attention span and lousy study habits,” but he could tell you, in detail, the name and number of any Toyota car part produced over the past fifty years. He pursued the things that interested him with feverish intensity; he ignored the things that didn’t. He was straightforward, honest, and incapable of being anything but candid.
Yes, I knew that guy. And I will miss him.