Inside This Issue - Opinion
Miller recognized for courage, determination
April 9th, 2012
by David Pinto
Bob Miller has just received the prestigious Horatio Alger Award, a recognition accorded those individuals “whose courage and determination allowed them to overcome the challenges they faced early in their lives and achieve success in their fields.”
“There are no secret formulas for success. Work hard, treat people right, tell the truth and believe in others and you will be successful.” — Bob Miller
In receiving this award, Miller will become a lifetime member of the Horatio Alger Association and, in that capacity, will work to provide deserving high school seniors with the financial resources and mentorship they need to pursue a college degree.
For the uninitiated, Bob Miller has spent a lifetime in the mass retailing community. In chain drug terms, he became chairman and CEO of Rite Aid in 1999, a time when that drug chain was on the brink of extinction. Through a combination of decisive leadership, a now-legendary knack for raising money and a storied ability to work with the supplier community to defray monies owed and ensure the smooth flow of merchandise, Miller succeeded in pulling Rite Aid back from the brink.
But Miller’s bigger impact on mass retailing has come in the grocery business, where he spent a lifetime at Albertsons, turned around Fred Meyer and currently leads the most successful remnant of the Albertsons empire he helped build.
We won’t belabor here the travails Miller successfully confronted as a child, and which, followed by his success in adult life, form the basis for the Horatio Alger recognition. Suffice it to say that at the age of 4 he survived a bout with polio that nearly killed him, lived through three subsequent surgeries to repair the damage that polio had caused, and overcame the divorce of his parents — they subsequently remarried — when he was 6.
His retailing career began at Albertsons when, at age 16, he took a part-time job at an Albertsons supermarket in San Diego. At the time, he was not much interested in retailing or, indeed, any kind of future in business. Rather, his passion was sports, and he excelled at football, basketball and baseball. So it was that, after completing his first semester at Orange Coast Community College in Southern California, he dropped out to take a full-time job at Albertsons.
He never looked back.
Miller worked at every job he was given at that Albertsons supermarket. Finally, after a stint as store manager, he began overseeing several stores as a district manager.
From there, his career advanced steadily until, in 1988, some two decades and 20 different jobs after starting, he was named executive vice president of operations. (As an aside, Warren McCain, Albertsons’ chairman at the time, was inducted into the Horatio Alger Association in 1991; Miller was present at the induction banquet.)
It was at about that time that Miller, having just been passed over for the job of chief executive of Albertsons in favor of someone just two years his senior, was approached about running Fred Meyer, a West Coast food, drug and general merchandise chain that, while once an industry leader, was now dangerously close to closing its doors forever. What followed was probably the truest insight into Bob Miller’s character. As he remembered it years later, he initially turned down the job — because he didn’t think he could handle it.
“I was scared to death at the prospect of leaving Albertsons,” he candidly admits, “but at the same time I realized that I wanted to run something.”
After some serious soul-searching — even his wife Sharon advised him not to accept the job — Miller agreed to take over Fred Meyer.
In time, Miller’s work in transforming that retailer, which was eventually acquired by Kroger, would become a textbook case on how to turn a company around. In four years Fred Meyer, a $2.5 billion retailer when Miller arrived, became the leading grocery retailer on the West Coast with some $15 billion in sales. “It was only when I went to Fred Meyer that I realized that I could become someone,” Miller remembers.
Today, Miller runs the Albertsons stores that Supervalu dismissed as not worth acquiring when, in 2006, the Minneapolis-based food retailer and wholesaler bought the Boise, Idaho, grocery chain. Not surprisingly, those stores have emerged as the most successful segment of the former Albertsons chain.
So the man who began his retailing career sorting bottles part time at an Albertsons store in San Diego has, in a sense, come full circle. The Horatio Alger Award is indeed the crowning achievement in his career.
Yet a part of him remains detached and aloof from the recognition, wondering how this man who struggled so fiercely in childhood and once thought that success in sports was the ultimate accomplishment could have reached this pinnacle — and, more to the point, how he could have done so simply by loving every retailing job he ever had.
But that, after all, is what made him Bob Miller.