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Ravinia Neighbors Association Blog

Welcome to RNA’s Blog Page which features articles from Ravinia writers. Although articles are chosen in accordance with topics we feel are relevant to Ravinia and of possible interest to our readers, RNA does not necessarily endorse the opinions put forth in the blog posts. If you would like to comment on any articles put forth in the blogs, please use the comment box that follows each post.

A Man for All Seasons: Meet Ravinia's Don Miller

Monday, March 28, 2011

Photo and Story By James Paradiso

Highland Park resident Don Miller is President of the Ravinia Neighbors Association (RNA) and Trainmaster/Conductor of the D.& J. Railroad Company, which installs model rail road systems as featured attractions to advertise and promote local businesses.

Raised in Chicago's Hyde Park, Miller is also a former Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Divisional President of the Enterprise Paint Manufacturing (EPM) and founder of a worldwide consulting company in the home improvement industry, who earned undergraduate degrees in Philosophy, Economics and Business Administration.

In our recent e-mail exchange, he thoughtfully answered my questions about the relationship among his education, industry experience, entrepreneurship and volunteerism.

Q It's my understanding that you earned undergraduate degrees in Philosophy, Business Administration and Economics. Is there a synergy among these distinct academic disciplines, and which has been more constructive in your decision-making as a business executive, entrepreneur and community volunteer? A Absolutely, there is a synergy. When a 15 year old reads the works of the political and social philosophers like Hegel, Kant, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill; thinkers, historians and writers like Aristotle, Homer, Rousseau, Montaigne, Calhoun, John Locke and Thoreau (part of the core curriculum at the U. of C.); then, statistics and accounting and business law and management; it's a hailstorm of ideas, a plethora of concepts, and out of it all for me came a sense of being fair to stakeholders and stockholders and customers and consumers and labor and executives and government to try to make the syrup and the pancakes end up nicely finished together at every sitting. Yes, these great minds definitely informed me as I applied their reasoning later to a vocational curriculum and business practices.

Q During the Korean War, you served as a Navy officer on a destroyer. How did that experience translate into your management skills such as planning, organizing, leading, and evaluating? A I volunteered to go into the Korean theater. As we prepared our ship with many drills in the Caribbean before we went through the Panama Canal, the armistice was signed. We still went to enforce the peace, always preparing for conflict. I admired the practice of disseminating "The Plan of The Day" every evening (by mimeograph), so all 335 shipmates were aware of the mission. I adapted these measures in business settings. Secondly, there were the daily drills, general quarters, surprise simulated attacks and inspections to insure follow-up of procedures. So many that we could accomplish them "in our sleep." Teamwork was built which carried over to a business environment. People could and must be trained to do tasks beyond their specialty and substitute skills as needed. These models helped me to make our future business operations efficient.

Q Between 1957 and 1987, you helped navigate EPM which was eventually sold to one of the largest coatings manufacturers in the world. What lessons learned during that time frame are critical for local business owners to understand in order to optimize their sales, profitability and return on investment? A The late 60s and 70s saw a surge in the development of conglomerates. We were part of that. EPM was the fourth company purchased by a conglomerate in 1969, on the way to a total of 34 companies, to become the 175th of the Fortune 500 and then on to bankruptcy as the century ended. Two examples of lessons learned immediately come to mind. First, EPM was a quite profitable and successful company: good return on investment, growing sales, etc. It was leaned on to help support a group of radio stations in the Southwest the conglomerate had bought and were not doing well. EPM had little or no distribution in that region, but it yielded to pressure and wasted a large budget. The stations became unprofitable, and EPM was sold a year later. As a second example, EPM's annual performance encouraged the conglomerate to purchase three more paint manufacturers in the next three to four years after our acquisition. And, a decision was made to harmonize and combine research facilities. Consequently, much was lost in productivity because the individual requirements of each company were not met. Top management in Hartford, Connecticut, did not recognize these needs but looked at economies of scale. Three years later one of the companies was closed, and two years after that the other two were spun off. Returns and profitability went down in each case as entrepreneurship ended and the light corporate structure did not have the means or interest in turning the situations around. So, the lessons learned in these two cases can be simply put like this. Loss of entrepreneurial spirit and centralized management can lead to sad outcomes.

Q After 30 years as a senior executive, you founded a worldwide consulting company in the home improvement industry. In your diverse business experience, is the same skill set necessary to start a new local business and to manage an existing one? A Find a need and fill it was my motto or MOJO. Whether a start up or management, go where the need is: the shop floor, the marketing, legal or personnel issues. Wherever there is a sense of an action not completed, a need being unanswered, fill it. That's the job of management: to help detect and makes the moves necessary. I started a consulting business after retiring from EPM in 1986 after observing weakness in seminars being given in the Home Center Industry, where manufacturers and retailers would meet to learn and share information with each other and develop business relationships as a result. We created a unique seminar consulting business, made it extremely successful in the USA and within three years went international. We employed 17 people after 14 months and made a profit the first year and every year since. I developed a partner who bought the company in year seven, and it still does well in its 25th year.

Q Your considerable volunteerism includes counseling for the U.S. Small Business Administration's Service Corps of Retired Executives, assisting in Highland Park hospital's emergency room and serving as RNA's President. What's RNA's mission, and what are some of its core accomplishments, membership benefits, current initiatives and challenges? A Having spent years on worldwide missions in the Navy as well as business and vacation travel, I thought it's time to get local as in "all politics is local." So, I trained for hospice, emergency unit, and Alzheimer day care duty: all at the same time and a little overwhelming after a few years. I also spent several years counseling start-up companies as a member of the U.S. Small Business Administration's Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) in downtown Chicago and in suburban branch units. At about the same time, eleven years ago, the Ravinia Neighbors Association was formed. After the first year, I became seriously involved and have been its President for the past eight years. RNA tries to represent the interests of the community in improving the beach, parks, infrastructure and business district. We work with Highland Park's city council, commissions, Park District, Chamber of Commerce, Ravinia School and Ravinia Festival as "do-gooders," and are considered quite successful in gaining traction for the Tax Increment Financing District (TIF), Jens Jensen Park restoration, ongoing events and public discourse to maintain and enhance vibrancy in the community. We are the only neighborhood organization out of 27 communities along the North Shore that has an on-going structure. Many that have cropped up are ad hoc and typically wind down after a few months.

Q How did you get interested in model trains, and what are D & J Railroad Company's business model and utility to local businesses? A A friend in Ravinia was advising me about our home garden 10 years ago, and suggested I install a garden railroad going down to the ravines through our forest. I had no idea what he meant. So, he took me to a hobby store, and I left with starter set, placing it around a tree, which our grandchildren loved. Hundreds of feet of track, 14 engines, 80 cars and 12 different tracks later, with all the electronics and bells and whistles set up after a few years, I was asked to install systems in restaurants, utilizing billboard advertising on a train's freight cars to "pay the way." So, it's a hobby-business, both entertaining and fulfilling as I expand the concept to other locations.

Q My final question explores the relationship between your early study of Philosophy and diverse career. In his TRACTATUS, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: "There are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is magical." Are there some things in your wide-ranging education, industry experience, entrepreneurship and volunteerism that are difficult to put into words, that make themselves manifest and that are what is magical? A Ah, yes, the magic! You know, after the spread sheets, the analyses, the discussions of choices in a business setting, the military and volunteering, the final decisions become emotional and intuitive. Often not admitted nor understood, but given close choices, the spin of the dice, the vote may be supported intellectually, but so often what underlies is subjective. We rationalize. We try to be objective, but the magic speaks from the heart, from experience. Perhaps it's determinism, but subjective nonetheless. It's not bad, just different. So, we state our reason or reasons, but there's still the magic that lies below. It's feeling.