Larry H Miller's American Dream

February 08, 2024 [books] #entrepreneurs

Book: Driven: An Autobiography
Author: Larry H Miller

Larry Miller is the sort of guy who is the very embodiment of Americana: little formal education, ability to work himself to death chasing the dollar, never takes no for an answer, and almost always succeeds. Even more, he's a devoted member of that very American religion, the Latter-Day Saints. By the time of his death, he owned several theatre chains, was one of the largest car dealers in the United States, and was the owner of the Utah Jazz. His capacity for work, I am not sure it can be taught, especially examining the lives of other high agency folks - Sam Zemurray or Les Schwab, neither of whom had much of a formal education. There is a preternatural inner drive that some people seem to have. I wonder if their childhoods have anything to do with it. All three had tough early years. Larry Miller's mother was abusive, and threw him out of the house without any explanation in high school. He did not know his birth father well into adulthood. He liked to spend more time outside than inside his house. His capacity for work is clearly a differentiator in his outsize success, that and the accumulation of small advantages such as riding the Japanese manufacturing wave or ensuring the incentives of your employees align with what you want out of your business.

One thing that can be taught is to care about your work the way these guys do - know everything about it, from the meanest task to highest. Larry started from the bottom, getting hold of car parts. So did Sam Zemurray, picking cast off bananas from the dock a kid. This pattern keeps repeating in these hagiographies: to care about something more than the next person means eventually seeing things others don't. Larry’s network opened up because customers saw him as the person with answers and wanted to hire him. His reputation spread. Another compounding factor that eventually lead to banks opening up their purse strings from him when they wouldn’t have for anyone else. It helped that Miller was very resourceful - everything was a problem to be solved, and there were no unsolvable problems.

“How did we do it? I get asked that often. Here is one of the main messages in this whole book: It is not fancy. It is as fundamental as blocking and tackling. I just did it. I just went to work every day and did everything that needed to be done.”

Larry's way of working was to micromanage everything, and old habit of his that helped him get off poverty and overcome his lack of education. One of his business maxims was "You can’t do it if you’re not there." This became untenable as he grew big, and this was one thing he was unable to solve to his satisfaction: how to make the unavoidable bureaucracy that comes with growing a company work for him.

“I missed the relationships and interactions and getting to know people. The relationships were important to me; they were very fulfilling and allowed people to get to know me and gain trust in me. That’s how I did business — through relationships. As we grew bigger, I lost some of that and missed it. “I micromanaged for years, and that was a great reason for my success. Eventually, I had to rely on others, and I didn’t like it because I knew no one would care about it like I do."

The book was ghost written. Larry died before it was finished. The last chapter is a conversation of the author with Larry’s wife Gail. She says something to this effect: “I am sad he is gone, be it’s not like he was there when he was alive.” Larry was not part of his children’s upbringing, except as a provider of food and shelter. He made sure that he would go to the church on Sundays, skipping important Jazz games, because he wanted to be seen by the world doing so. A role model, and good PR for the church. It worked, it got spoken about. I thought it was interesting that he didn’t apply the same lens to his parenting considering the best thing you could for children is modeling behavior you would like to see in them as adults. Larry Miller died a billionaire, not without regrets, but on the whole it was not a bad life. He had a positive impact on his community. He kept his marriage - already remarkable given this is the USA - and his children eventually came back to his fold. He died surrounded by family and friends, none bearing ill will. That's one measure of a good life.

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