Bob Miller was born in 1944 in Louisville, a small town in northern Mississippi. His parents met when Miller’s father was in boot camp, shortly before shipping overseas to serve in World War II. His mother was a college student at the time and was attending Millsaps College as a mathematics major. “My parents married, and then my dad left for the war,” Miller says. “I was born on my maternal grandfather’s farm. I lived there with my mother until the end of the war and my father’s return. My mother was a math whiz and graduated from college as valedictorian of her class. My dad had no real education.”
After the war, Miller moved with his parents to Dallas. His mother helped design airplanes for an aircraft company, and his father worked as a cook. At the age of four, Miller contracted polio, spent 10 months in the hospital, and nearly died. Paralyzed on the right side of his body, he had to endure living in an iron lung for a short while. Fortunately, he recovered his health, but when he was 10, Miller’s right leg began to give him trouble. He underwent three surgeries to fix the damage polio had caused. He also wore a leg brace for a time. “My leg problems made me competitive,” he says. “I tried to keep up with the other boys, and I was always getting into trouble for ruining my braces while playing. The March of Dimes gave us assistance during that time, and I’m very grateful for all they did to help me. I was well enough in high school and college to play football, so they really made a positive difference in my life.”
Another childhood trauma for Miller was his parents’ divorce when he was six. By then, he had two younger brothers. His mother accepted a job with Douglas Aircraft in southern California, and the boys moved there with her. She later went back to school, earned a master’s degree, and became a high school math teacher. “My mother basically raised us on her own,” says Miller. “My parents actually remarried when I was in the eighth grade and stayed together for the rest of their lives. But my mother is the one who was our mainstay. She taught us to be honest, to be good citizens. She worked long hours, and I was responsible for my brothers after school when we were young. Later, when my father reunited with us, I was gone a lot playing sports and then working. I had a good relationship with my father, but I didn’t spend a lot of time with him.”
During middle school, Miller spent summers back on the farm with his grandfather, helping with the never-ending chores. “My grandfather would load watermelons on his truck, drive us into town, and then send me to sell them on the street corner while he visited with his friends. I guess you could say that was my first job in retail,” Miller says with a smile. In high school, at age 16, he began working part time at Albertson’s supermarket. Up to that point, he hadn’t spent much time thinking about his future. He was a competent student—earning mostly Bs—but admits he did not put in a great deal of effort. “My passion was sports,” he says. “I played football, basketball, and baseball. I played sports after school and then worked at night as a bottle sorter. I didn’t have a burning desire to get educated for a specific career or even to be a huge success.”
Following his high school graduation, Miller attended Orange Coast College in California. Soon after, Albertson’s offered him a full-time job as a clerk, which he accepted after finishing his first semester of college. “By then, I was dating my future wife,” he says. “We were both poor. We didn’t even have one car between us that ran well. I thought I would work full time, make some money, and then go back to school. But I kept getting promotions at work, and I never returned to college.”
Miller worked in nearly every job at his store; after clerking, he served in the meat department and then in the produce department. Eventually he became an assistant manager. By 1969 he was named manager, and he began moving around from store to store with ever-increasing responsibilities. In 1974, he became a district manager. “A lot of times someone with a college degree would get promoted ahead of me,” he says. “But I was determined to succeed anyway. I had a wife and three sons to provide for, and I worked hard to get ahead. I was willing to go wherever the company wanted to send me, and that meant we moved 10 times. At one point, my youngest son was only four and had lived in five states.”
Miller’s hard work and dedication paid off, and his promotions came at a steady rate. Eventually, in 1988, he was named executive vice president of operations, making him third in company leadership. The chairman of Albertson’s at the time, Warren McCain—who in 1991 was inducted into the Horatio Alger Association—served as a mentor to Miller. Miller admits he was disappointed when McCain selected the company’s CFO to replace him upon McCain’s retirement. “The man who succeeded Warren was just two years older than me,” he says. “I didn’t think I would ever get to be CEO because we were so close in age. I was in my late 40s and running a company was something I really wanted to do. I was approached to take over the reins of a West Coast regional chain of food, drug, and general merchandise stores called Fred Meyer. I was reluctant to leave Albertson’s, so I outlined a list of 10 requirements that I never thought they would agree to. They did, and I felt it was an opportunity I couldn’t ignore.”
When Miller became chairman and CEO of Fred Meyer, the chain had about 120 stores; it was surviving but had no money left over to invest in the business. He worked for four years, cutting costs, raising capital, and building stores where he could get some growth. His plan worked. He expanded the company by making acquisitions, taking Fred Meyer from $2.5 billion in sales to $15 billion by 1998, at which point it had become the West Coast’s leading supermarket chain. Miller then merged Fred Meyer with Kroger, a shrewd move that enriched his shareholders. He then became vice chairman and chief operating officer for Kroger, agreeing to stay one year. After 13 months, he was approached to become chairman and CEO of Rite Aid.
The pharmacy chain was in serious financial trouble and near bankruptcy, but within three and a half years, Miller had engineered a turnaround, returning Rite Aid to profitability. He then turned the CEO position over to his successor and headed the board as chairman for another four years. He also served for two years as chairman of Wild Oats, a supermarket chain that was later bought by Whole Foods. Following that venture, Miller’s career came full circle when he became CEO of Albertson’s LLC—a group of 600 stores that was once part of the larger Albertson’s chain where he had spent more than 30 years of his career. Yet the company was losing money. Miller put together a team, improved operations, streamlined the store base, and returned Albertson’s LLC to profitability.
Miller understands what it takes to make a business successful. He has made a career of saving and improving companies in trouble, even bringing them back from the brink of bankruptcy. But he says there are no secret formulas to success. “Basically, you work hard,” he says. “Treat people well, believe in them, and give them responsibility and credit. If you do all that, it’s hard to go wrong.” One of his proudest accomplishments is that nine people who worked for him at various times in his career also became CEOs. “A very successful man once said, ‘There is no limit to what a man can do or where a man can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.’ I’ve always been inspired by that quote,” he says. Even so, Miller points out that his story would be tough to repeat. “I didn’t go to college,” he says. “I think to work up the ladder the way I did would be difficult today without a college education, and I encouraged each of my three sons to get advanced degrees. I tell young people, if they really want to succeed today, they better get educated and then work hard. I also advise telling the truth and doing the right thing. Protect your reputation; it’s one of the most important things you have in your life.”
In 1994, Financial World magazine recognized Miller as the CEO of the Year in the retail food category. He has received numerous honors for his philanthropic activities, community service, and business leadership. Miller has been a director of Nordstrom Inc., U.S. Bakery, the Pattison Group, Jo-Ann Fabrics, and City of Hope. He is a recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
Miller applies the same integrity, humility, and drive to community involvement as he does to his corporate responsibilities. He and his family have raised millions for charities, scholarship funds, schools, and health organizations. In 1999, he established the Robert G. Miller Endowed Scholarship Fund at Portland State University for students in the food industry. In honor of his membership in the Horatio Alger Association, Miller is funding a Horatio Alger scholarship to Boise State University. An avid supporter of the Children’s Miracle Network, Miller also supports United Way, Janus Youth Programs, March of Dimes, Providence Child Center, and the Orthopedic Research Program at St. Vincent Medical Center.
“At some point, we all need help,” Miller says of his philanthropy. “When I was young and sick with polio, the March of Dimes helped me. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today. So when you have success, it is important to reach back and help those in need. It’s just the right thing to do.”