Not all that long ago, Larry H. Miller was a clerk at an auto parts counter. Then he moved up. Later he managed to buy an auto dealership. Then he bought another. And another. And some other businesses — most prominently the Utah Jazz.

Most Utahns likely still think of him only as a car dealer who owns the Jazz.

But Miller has quietly built what can only be called a business empire, from ranches to theaters, restaurants, race tracks, the Delta Center, movie production ventures, sports apparel stores, real estate development, finance companies, insurance companies, broadcasting, dance studios and more.

Utahns may not have noticed all that because it happened gradually — and because Miller, in his standard polo shirt and khakis, doesn't look or act like a business tycoon.

"The sheer size of it all is surprising to me, too," Miller says. "And I lived it day to day. It sort of sneaks up on you. It's mind-boggling. . . . When I back up and look at how big it's become, it's like I'm watching it happen to someone else."

He built it all by hard work and taking risks, by pursuing opportunities that others missed or dismissed, and sometimes by just pursuing the dreams of his heart — especially any ventures he views as "building bridges" to help or serve others.

That has led to an unusual empire with some quirky parts. Yet most of them somehow manage to build and support each other without suffering major downturns together when, for example, the Jazz have a bad season or when gay-rights groups attempt a boycott of Miller after he pulled the movie "Brokeback Mountain" from his theaters.

The maturing, diverse empire seems to be achieving a sort of critical mass where it is able to explode, or expand, on its own internal power.

And sometimes the empire even spawns new businesses without Miller knowing about it beforehand. An example is the Jazz Dancer Studios, named for the dancers at Jazz games.

The Utah Jazz marketing officers "actually did that without me knowing about it," Miller says. "Frankly, I was not happy, because it doesn't make a lot of money. But it doesn't lose money now, and it's nice, sort of a community thing."

While Miller says he once had to beg, borrow, scramble and fight to paste together risky ventures, it has now become relatively easy to make deals because of the stability of his little empire.

"It's also kind of taken the fun out of it to some degree," he says.

Beginnings

Miller dropped out of college after just six weeks. He worked at several odd jobs, including book binding, framing houses, carrying and mixing mortar, driving delivery trucks and picking strawberries.

The young man who liked to drag-race cars finally found a niche when he was hired to work the counter of American Auto Parts in 1963. Within a year, he was doing the hiring, firing and scheduling and ordering of parts, and he liked it.

He worked for five years at various parts stores before he was recruited by a Denver softball team (Miller's pitching would eventually take him to the softball hall of fame) with the promise of a job as a Toyota parts manager. Miller moved there in 1970.

Miller worked 96-hour weeks and became the highest-volume Toyota parts manager in North America. After four years, he became general manager of that Toyota dealership and then operations manager over its five-dealership network.

When the owner wanted to reassign him to make room for family members, Miller decided to return to Utah. In 1979 he used all of the $88,000 he had managed to save as a down payment on a $1 million deal to buy Toyota of Murray.

Early expansion

"In May of 1979, my hands were so full with that first dealership that I never thought a second about buying a second one. But three months later, I got a phone call from a guy who asks if I would be interested in buying another. . . . He said it was a unique opportunity. I went up (to Spokane) and looked, and bought it," he says.

"I had to cut, paste and glue the deal together. I don't know how I pulled that off, without ever having had formal (business) training, and with as little as I had in a resource base. But I did. . . . I would replicate that about every six months for years."

That is an example of one key that Miller attributes to his success. He says Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, described that key best when he also was asked why he was so successful. "He said, 'We got after it and stayed after it,' " Miller says. "That's what we have done, too."

Miller "stayed after it" by buying two more dealerships in 1980, and he also formed a service contract company. In 1981, he bought two more dealerships and sold one. He formed a leasing company in 1982. In 1983, he bought another dealership and built new facilities for others. In 1984, he bought two more dealerships.

Jazz time

In 1985, Miller made his most famous deal — buying the Utah Jazz as the franchise was on the verge of leaving the state.

"It was unusual to have an NBA team in a market our size. Since it was here, I figured we ought to do what we could to keep it. . . . Others in the community had had four years to step up and do something. No one else did. So I did," he says.

"It was not so much about me loving basketball as much as loving the community," he says. "But I couldn't indulge in something that expensive without treating it like a business."

It is an example of another of his apparent keys to success: taking advantage of an opportunity that others miss or dismiss but in which he believes.

Until Miller stepped in, other businessmen thought investing in the Jazz was foolish, if not insanity. "It does give you pause when you want to do something that everyone else has passed on. It makes you say, 'What are we missing here?' " Miller says. "But I said, 'I think it will work — barely — so let's try it.' "

His net worth at the time was about $2 million. He persuaded bankers to lend him $8 million to buy half the team — a team that had lost $17 million in its 11-year history, including losing $1 million in its best year. He literally was risking everything on the Jazz. The next year, he bought the other half of the team for another $14 million.

So what is the team worth now, 20 years after Miller bought it for $22 million?

"The Cleveland (Cavaliers) team just sold for $386 million. I have had two people say the words to me: 'I would pay you more than that for the Jazz,' " Miller says. He adds that the team likely would be worth more outside Utah from investors who want to move it than it would be to buyers inside of Utah — but he sees it as a gift to Utah.

Besides rising in resale value, the team has made plenty of money through the years, defying original predictions (although it has lost money in recent years). "Genius had nothing to do with it, but terrific community support did — and, of course, Karl (Malone) and John (Stockton) had a lot to do with that" as they made the team one of the NBA's best for years, Miller says.

Buying good will

Saving the Jazz bought Miller good will from Utahns in his other business deals, which may have helped fuel expansion in them — especially in his ever-growing number of car dealerships.

"I think that owning the Jazz brings some credence (for business dealings) at a fixed level," he says. While most car salesmen are the butt of jokes, Miller had enough good will to begin and continue to use ads with the tag line: "After all, you know this guy."

"The Jazz created a visibility, certainly. I've had a number of experiences where people told me they bought a car because they are a Jazz fan. It's not a frequent thing. I just know it's there. It all blends together. Strength begets strength," Miller says.

To show how visible Miller has become, a 2004 Dan Jones & Associates poll asked Utahns to name a car dealer without giving them any other prompts. Some 34 percent mentioned a Miller dealership — far outdistancing second-place Ken Garff at 8 percent.

Higher visibility from the Jazz helped people think of Miller's name when they bought cars. He gave Jazz tickets as sales incentives, which also promoted the team. He advertised his other businesses at Jazz games. Each strengthened the other.

But have people ever punished Miller's other businesses when the Jazz team has had bad years, such as when the team has missed the playoffs during the past three seasons — a time that Miller says the team has lost tens of millions of dollars?

"It affects the Jazz itself and directly related businesses: the Delta Center, the concessions at the Delta Center and Fanzz stores," which sell sports apparel. "The rest of the businesses are not really affected," he says.

In fact, he says only the Fanzz stores in Utah — not those in other states — are affected by a bad Jazz season. "The Fanzz stores in Southern California do well if a California team wins in baseball, basketball or football. The Fanzz stores in Denver do well if the Broncos or Avalanche win" — which would seem to make Miller want to root for several Western teams.

Continuing good will seems to insulate his businesses from some other attacks, too, such as when gay-rights groups called for a boycott of all Miller businesses after he pulled the movie "Brokeback Mountain," about a gay love affair, from his theaters.

"The day the boycott began, I had 12 people call and say they chose to buy cars from us to show support. The next day, 27 called, and the next day 12," he says. "We had people call who wanted to bring big groups to the theaters" in a show of support.

In fact, Miller says, "I had the best February and March ever" after the boycott was called. He adds that he hesitates to mention that, saying he does not want to divide the community further on the issue. "I don't want to throw fuel on the fire. I pulled the movie because of social concerns over the family, that's all," he says.

But does the boycott backfiring show Miller has a Midas touch?

"I hate when people say I have the golden touch. I have my share of weaknesses and failures. I see my own warts. I've just been lucky that more of my deals have done well than those that haven't," he says.

The empire grows

With community good will and increasing revenues, Miller continued expanding with major projects or acquisitions every few months for years. He also moved into new areas — anywhere that opportunities presented themselves or the dreams of his heart beckoned.

Some were logical steps to complement existing businesses. He bought the Fanzz (formerly Pro Image) stores, which could help move Jazz apparel and souvenirs. He built the Delta Center as a home for the Jazz, as well as host concerts and other entertainment, not to mention 2002 Olympics skating events. Concessions at the Delta Center led nicely to forming a catering company based there.

He bought KXIV-TV and changed the name to KJZZ, mainly to carry Jazz games at first. That came after, first, leaving KSL because it would bump Jazz games for Brigham Young University games, and later after leaving Fox-13 when that station's owners wanted a more lucrative deal.

"They (Fox) told me I had no other alternative," Miller says. But he says Fox did not realize that KXIV, then owned by a subsidiary of Sam Skagg's American Stores, had just contacted him wanting to sell the then-money-losing station to a Utah owner. "They told me they would make me the proverbial deal I couldn't refuse. They were right," and he bought it.

Miller says he sees the Jazz, the Delta Center and KJZZ as "a triangle of support. The Delta Center wouldn't be worth much without a team. KJZZ buoyed up the team, and the team helped attract ratings for it."

Meanwhile in the auto world, to help make it easier for car customers to obtain financing, he formed financing companies, most prominently Prestige Financial. To help provide a supply of used cars, he formed LHM Fleet Lease to buy cars at auctions nationwide, provide the best to his dealerships and then wholesale the rest elsewhere.

He would tend to buy many more "troubled" dealerships in the West and fix them. "Many others would have tried to sell dealerships that they fixed" for a quick profit," Miller says. "But we are operators of dealerships, and we like to keep most of them."

The number of all his holdings changes enough that Miller actually had a somewhat difficult time providing a list of them, or correcting one developed by the Deseret Morning News.

It appears that he owns, or is a principal in, 41 car dealerships now. Not all have his name on them — including Karl Malone Toyota, Stockton to Malone Honda, Lexus of Lindon and others.

Other ventures that grew logically out of his holdings include insurance companies, real estate development and the Larry H. Miller Advertising Agency. The latter, he says, "mostly handles advertising for our businesses, but it does some for outside people, too."

Close to the heart

But some quirky parts of the Miller empire come from pursuing dreams of his heart — or unusual opportunities that looked too good to pass.

For example, he owns two large ranches, and the car/sports business emperor is also heavy into the production of beef cows, bulls for breeding, horses, raising alfalfa and more. He entered those enterprises at first mostly to save a hunting and fishing location at an Idaho ranch that he loved, where he had once been invited to fish.

A son of one of the co-owners "told me that it was in bankruptcy and up for sale," Miller remembers. He said he loved its many elk, deer, moose and bears — and its reservoir full of fish — and wanted to preserve it. He not only bought it but later purchased two nearby ranches to expand operations.

"I just had a call that the 1,350th calf was born at the ranch this year" of an expected 3,000 or so, he said excitedly during one interview.

The original ranch owner in Idaho told Miller about the opportunity to buy another ranch in Utah, near the northern tip of the Great Salt Lake — another location with a lot of wildlife such as antelope and deer. He says he owns 25,000 acres there and has grazing rights on 79,000 acres of adjacent public land.

"If you want to ride around the perimeter fence, it would be 204 miles on a horse," he said. "It's a big son of a gun."

Another example of pursuing a dream is the Mayan theme restaurant, where divers leap from waterfalls while customers eat Mexican food atop trees or in other parts of jungle decorations.

"As I traveled around the country, I saw themed restaurants. Kids love them. They are kind of different and allow you to escape the real world. Elements of different things I saw over time came together," and Miller says he wanted his own such restaurant.

When he was obtaining zoning for what is now the Southtowne Auto Mall in Sandy, he says he forced a city hungry for that overall development to include approval for the Mayan where Larry H. Miller Subaru now sits — but city leaders were not exactly thrilled with that idea.

Plans changed when an unusual opportunity knocked. Miller says Jordan School District Superintendent Barry Newbold called and asked him to consider buying quickly the old Jordan High School site near 9400 S. State.

"Some deals with others had fallen through," Miller explains. "He needed to sell the site to make payments on a bond that was coming due." Newbold says he had also been told that Miller had already considered developing the site, so maybe both could benefit from a quick sale.

Miller said he began exploring options for the site more in-depth and found that Sandy city officials wanted something that would generate major sales tax revenues.

It looked like a good place for the Mayan — and what would become Jordan Commons was born and evolved. It is a complex of theaters, restaurants and an office tower where Miller has moved most of his businesses.

And that would lead to buying even more theaters elsewhere later.

In showing how one thing leads to another, filmmaker Richard Dutcher held a premiere of his movie "God's Army" at Jordan Commons. Miller met him there and loved the movie. When Dutcher looked for financial backing for more films, Miller said he wanted to support his work — and Miller backed Dutcher's films "Brigham City" and "God's Army II."

He says they ended up parting ways when Miller was not comfortable with plans for a Dutcher-envisioned movie about Joseph Smith. "The budget kept going up," Miller says. He adds that he wishes Dutcher well.

But the movie-making ventures with Dutcher also led him to produce a series of films based on "The Work and the Glory," books by Gerald Lund about early Mormon history.

"I usually don't have time for novels, but I started reading them to see why everyone else was. After the first 100 pages, I was hooked," Miller says. He says Lund had refused to sell movie rights to anyone who would not give him final say on content — and no one would do that. He says he was happy to do so in another deal from the heart.

The bridge builder

Helping a school district by buying land, preserving the Jazz and helping filmmakers he likes demonstrate a key to success that Miller calls being a "bridge builder."

A poem by that name, by Will Allen Dromgoole, is his favorite. It talks about an old man who builds a bridge across a chasm not because he needs it but because some youths who may follow will. Miller becomes emotional and tearful when he reads it for a reporter.

He loves the poem so much that he commissioned a statue of a bridge built by the bridge builder — and gave employees and other guests miniature copies of it at a silver anniversary celebration of his first business.

Some of his charity demonstrates his desire to be a bridge builder, including constructing and donating the entire Larry H. Miller Campus for Salt Lake Community College; developing and donating the Larry H. Miller baseball field at Brigham Young University; and establishing the Larry H. Miller Education Foundation.

He says he also tries to be a bridge builder with some business dealings, including buying the Salt Lake Stingers minor league baseball team and renaming it the Salt Lake Bees — the name of the team he cheered for when he was a teenager.

"It was a labor of love," he says.

Another is the construction of a new $80 million race track that opened this spring, the Miller Motorsports Park near Tooele. Miller, a former drag racer himself, is near giddy as he talks about how it is bringing big-time racing of many types to Utah for fans like himself.

"It's a world-class race track," he says. "Auto Week (magazine) said it is the best track built in the last 23 years. It is really neat, and the funnest thing I've done. . . . I think the state will love it."

Actually, Miller tried to build something similar to the track twice before, but problems prevented it — for a time. First, he bought a smaller race track in Mead, Colo., and bought a cornfield next to it hoping to expand the track.

"But I did a foolish thing. I bought it and paid to design the new track before I received the zoning" for permission to build, he says. When it was denied, Miller was able to persuade the city to hold a referendum on the zoning. "But I lost by a margin of something like 93 percent to 7. I could see I wouldn't win there and moved on." He is in the process of selling that track to a developer.

Next, Miller looked at building the race track on 333 acres in Salt Lake County — and again paid to actually design a track there. But he waited years for needed permits from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. "They never said no. But they never took any action. I finally said enough of this, let's go where we don't need these permits."

So he found 511 acres in Tooele County. When he hired an architect to design another large track after the previous two attempts were abandoned, Miller says the architect asked, "I have only one question. Are we actually going to build it this time?"

He did.

A mature empire

All of that has led to a large, mature business empire. Miller says the days of needing to cut and paste together risky deals are gone — and he misses the thrill he got from them. He says it is relatively easy to attract backing for deals now.

It's so easy that sometimes his empire creates new businesses without him knowing — that critical mass that allows for easy expansion.

"For example, I found out that we had opened a new Fanzz store somewhere by reading it in the newspaper. I said, 'Come on, guys, you have to at least tell me,' " Miller says.

He said he similarly didn't find out beforehand that the Utah Jazz marketing team had opened the Jazz Dancer Studios. He says executives of some of his businesses often come up with ideas for new ventures or expansion, and he tries to let them proceed where possible.

"I don't want to quash people. Everyone has dreams. We can't do everything that someone has dreamed for us, but we can do some. Fulfillment comes for them by trying some. Within reasonable guidelines, we allow them to try some ideas," Miller says.

Deals with Larry

Miller's empire has grown large enough that virtually everyone in Utah has done business with at least one of his companies.

In preparation for a 25th anniversary celebration in 2004 of his first car dealership, Miller commissioned Dan Jones & Associates to do a poll about how many people in Utah do business with him. The answer: 99 percent have. That's counting people who have watched KJZZ-TV. Otherwise, the answer is 86 percent.

For example, the poll showed:

• 68 percent of Utahns have attended a Utah Jazz game.

• 67 percent have attended another event at the Delta Center.

• 93 percent have watched KJZZ-TV.

• 43 percent have been to the Mayan restaurant.

• 25 percent have purchased items from a Fanzz store.

• 18 percent have purchased a new or used car from a Miller dealership.

• 18 percent have had a vehicle serviced at a Miller dealership, and 16 percent have purchased auto parts there.

• 42 percent have attended a movie at the Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons, and 29 percent have attended movies at the Megaplex 12 at The Gateway. (The survey was done before Miller bought theaters at Thanksgiving Point and before he completed a new megaplex in South Jordan.)

The bottom line(s)

Miller has compiled some interesting statistics about his businesses.

He has 6,500 employees. Those in Utah appear to be enough to put him among the top 10 to 15 employers in the state, according to estimates by the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

He sells more than 75,000 vehicles a year. "We are probably the ninth-largest auto group in the country for both new and used car sales," he says. Since his first dealership opened, he has sold more than 880,000 cars.

The Utah Jazz attracted more than 16 million attendees. The Mayan has had about 2 million customers. Miller has sold more than 10 million theater tickets. Fanzz has made more than 5 million sales.

His net worth is a public mystery, and he declines to provide estimates. Some printed sources have put it around $490 million — but that could be low, considering he says the Jazz alone are likely worth more than $386 million.

"I know my net worth does not begin with a 'b' " as in billion, Miller says, giving the only hint about his net worth.

"That's not heady enough to put me on the Forbes 500 list," he says.

But, again, it's not bad for a former auto parts counter clerk.

And his little empire is still growing — quickly.


E-mail: lee@desnews.com