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SALT LAKE CITY — One of Utah's biggest businesses made another major announcement on Wednesday: the sale of the Larry H. Miller auto dealerships, a portfolio of over 70 auto centers across the West that were all owned for over four decades by the household name.
The news comes on the heels of several other major moves by the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, now owned by the late Larry H. Miller's wife, Gail Miller, and her family: the sale of the Utah Jazz to Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith, the acquisition of Advanced Health Care Corp, and the purchase of Daybreak, one of Salt Lake County's largest master-planned communities in the suburbs of South Jordan.
So what does all of this mean for the future of the Utah giant?
Steve Starks, CEO of the Miller Group of Companies, told the Deseret News in an exclusive interview on Wednesday the move out of the auto dealership business is the latest step toward diversifying the businesses' portfolio with the goal of "continuing to enrich the community."
So no, Larry H. Miller Group of Companies will no longer be known as a major auto dealership owner, like it has been for over 40 years, but rather a group that "owns and operates a variety of businesses, diverse industries, having a portfolio of investments."
"The Miller family, being a philanthropist in our community and surrounding areas, really allow us to fulfill the mission of enriching lives," he said. "Now, you're going to see us becoming more of a diversified portfolio management company owning and operating businesses and investments. It represents a natural and really exciting maturity and evolution of what Larry and Gail started in 1979."
Starks pointed specifically to the purchases of Advanced Health Care Corp. and Daybreak as two "incredible acquisitions" to advance the companies' goals, which Starks said continues to be "stewardship" of Utah's future.
The business decisions are all "very complementary," Starks said, of Gail Miller's special interests in tackling some of the biggest issues that affect Utah's future: housing and homelessness. In recent years, Gail Miller has been a vocal advocate for homelessness initiatives. She donated a $10 million match for Utah's three homeless resource centers, one of which was named after her. Gail Miller is now also serving as a co-chair to the newly-structured Utah Homeless Council, which is tasked with coordinating state efforts on homelessness.
"When this transaction closes, Gail will ... make another significant contribution to her foundation and continue to be a community leader and invest in areas of need, and homelessness is certainly one of those," Starks said. "Housing affordability is something that we stay close to and are mindful of. And the Miller family will continue to want to invest and give back to the community in a big way."
The Miller family has also been a "huge supporter" of education, Starks noted, saying "that will continue." Asked for specifics on what future contributions might be, Starks said he wanted the Miller family to speak to that.
The purchase of Daybreak built on the companies' "strong real estate holdings" Starks said. What's particularly exciting about Daybreak, Starks said, "is that gives us an opportunity to work together with stakeholders and the southwest quadrant of Salt Lake County to develop a master plan for the next 20 years of growth."
"We really see that as a generational opportunity to collectively plan for that growth in an intelligent manner," Starks said. "Really, we're doing that because we love Utah. We feel a sense of stewardship to ensure that it remains the best place to raise a family, build a career, run a business and recreate.
"Our organization and the Miller family has always been invested in this state and wanting to enrich the community, and we believe we're uniquely situated to bring together people and plan for that and ensure it's done in an intelligent way that's environmentally friendly and sustainable — all the things that Daybreak has created," Starks said.
As Utah continues to be the fastest-growing state in the nation — with much of the growth concentrated in the state's tech corridor, Silicon Slopes — Starks said the goal is to use the Daybreak model to "hopefully take some traffic off the roads (with) jobs closer to where people live."
"There's so much talent that's moving into our state that we just feel a sense of stewardship to help do it right," he said.
With the sale of the Jazz, that's led to questions of whether the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies will perhaps usher in a new sports franchise. The soccer team Real Salt Lake is looking for a new owner, and in January the Utah Jazz's new owner Ryan Smith said he approached Gail Miller about jointly buying RSL.
Starks on Wednesday said the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies is "not actively pursuing Real Salt Lake as an acquisition."
"We have offered our help to Major League Soccer and in any other way we can be of assist to them and want to make sure the next owner of Real Salt Lake comes in with the same sense of stewardship and community. ... We're here to help wherever we can, but we're not actively pursuing that position."
Starks said the moves away from sports and the auto dealership business will better situate the Miller Group of Companies to continue pursuing endeavors for community stewardship.
"As we think about the future, we'll look to acquire additional companies that are aligned with our vision and culture," he said. "So we'll reinvest in our existing businesses, but we'll also look for new ones that make sense and fit that criteria."
Starks said the companies will also continue to invest in venture capital private equity opportunities and direct investors to "exciting tech companies."
"We've become part of the Silicon Slopes ecosystem of helping grow the next generation of great Utah technology companies, which we're really excited about," he said.
End of an era
For the late Larry H. Miller, who died in 2009, it all began in the auto business.
He started his career with American Auto Parts. In 1966, he became the parts manager at a Utah auto dealer, then later moved to Denver to work as the parts manager for two Toyota dealerships. He soon became operations manager over five Toyota stores, becoming the No. 1 Toyota parts dealer in the U.S. and the first to hit $1 million in sales, then $2 million, according to the Larry H. Miller Dealerships website.
It was 1979 when he purchased a single Toyota dealership in Murray, which became the first Larry H. Miller Toyota. In following years, he purchased more dealerships, eventually to operate 20 different automotive brands across more than 60 dealership locations in seven western states: Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, California, Washington and Colorado.
For years, many Utahns thought of him as a car dealer who owned the Jazz.
Using his wealth from his success in the auto business, Larry H. Miller quietly built a business empire, from ranches to theaters, restaurants to race tracks, the Delta Center (now the Vivint Arena), movie production ventures, sports, apparel stores, real estate development, insurance companies, broadcasting, dance studios and more.
The sale to Georgia-based company Asbury includes 54 new vehicle dealerships, seven used vehicle dealerships, and 11 collision repair centers, valued at $3.2 billion with about $740 in real estate, according to Wednesday's news release. Asked whether the sale price matched the value figure, Starks only directed the Deseret News to the release.
David Hult, Asbury president and CEO, called Larry H. Miller Dealerships "one of the most respected automotive dealer groups" in the country and said the acquisition would "rapidly expand Asbury's presence into these desirable, high-growth Western markets."
However, the Larry H. Miller name won't be disappearing from the buildings.
Asked whether the dealerships would keep their founder's moniker, Starks said they would. That was negotiated as part of the deal, he said, noting Asbury "saw so much value in the name and brand that's been established over four decades, that was important for them and something that we were proud to see continued."
What would Larry do?
The late Larry H. Miller, the man who risked his entire fortune and more to keep the Jazz in Salt Lake City, famously vowed the team would never leave and that selling would be tantamount "to selling Canyonlands."
Gail Miller last year told the Deseret News the question of "What would Larry do?" naturally surfaced as she and her family grappled with the decision to sell the Utah Jazz. She said when her husband was dying, "it was really evident that this world no longer mattered to him. His attention was diverted to more important things." So, she said, "he put me in charge," trusting her to make the right decisions.
Again, when the question of selling the dealerships surfaced, Starks said Larry H. Miller was, of course, in the hearts and minds of the family, but the decision rested with Gail Miller.
In a meeting earlier Wednesday with dealership employees, Gail Miller told them, "We believe that Larry would be very proud of this," Starks said.
"With great respect to Larry, who we all honor and love, we do believe in Gail Miller," Starks said. "Over the last decade, what we've really seen is that Gail Miller has emerged as a brilliant business leader and community supporter. Really, around here we always pay homage to Larry, but we also recognize Gail's leadership. Her DNA and fingerprints are all over this company."
The decision, Starks said, was made with "full support" from Gail Miller, her children, the companies' board of directors and its executive management team.
"We're always sensitive to what would Larry do, but really we also asked the question of, 'Gail, what do you want to do, and how can we help support your vision for the future of this organization and family?'"