Succession Planning: Lessons from The Miller Group

August 1, 2022

Sean Miller, CEO of The Miller Group, provides lessons on succession planning to keep a smooth transition in a company's leadership.

Succession Planning: Lessons from The Miller Group

We know that succession planning weighs heavily on the minds of many family-business owners. How can you transition your business in a way that’s smooth, supports and protects your family, ensures the business continues to thrive, and sets up an income stream for yourself? It’s complex, and the stakes are high. Here’s a comparison of how our experience went in the 90s compared to now:

We learned the hard way

We learned a big lesson about succession planning way back in the 1990s, when my dad, Robert Miller, suddenly decided to stop working. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1992. Doctors told him he had six months to live. The day after surgery, he stepped away from The Miller Group and started, as he said, “studying for the final exam,” which meant finding ways to serve others. He lived another 18 years, but he didn’t re-enter the business.

Matt and I were already working in the business, and we bought the company from him. But we were both in sales. We certainly weren’t qualified to manage the business or lead people. We didn’t do any client transitioning. Dad’s clients left abruptly because he left abruptly. During that time, we lost about a third of the company’s revenue.

The next chapter

Since then, we’ve built The Miller Group to be stronger than ever. We’ve spent time figuring out how to lead the company and our people. We’ve been growing the next generation of Miller family leaders. We’ve created deep and lasting partnerships with our clients and continued to adapt and expand services to meet their needs. We’ve also made as much impact on our community as possible – both through our workforce and through charitable activities. Today, we’re seven to eight times bigger than we were back then.

Now, as Matt and I want to begin slowing down a bit – NOT RETIRING! – we’re transitioning management of the operations and our personal books of business. We’re slowly getting more associates and advisors involved with our clients so the transition will be gradual for them. And we’ll hand leadership over on January 1 to Matt’s daughter, Amber Manning, who will become the CEO.

A new generation of leaders

Amber has been developing as a leader for some time now. She started in sales, then led the Private Risk Management area for a few years, doubling its size and turning it profitable. Next, she moved into the Benefits practice and did a great job of managing that team and creating a culture of teamwork. Now, she’s been running all the service teams for the last two years and is excelling in that area, too. She’s been tested along the way – put into difficult positions to see how she would do. And she was added to the executive team in 2016. Needless to say, she’s passed the test!

We’re doing something similar in the finance area. Greg Smart has been teaching his successor, Andy Holmes, for two years. Andy will become CFO on January 1.

Amber and Andy also have a super strong leadership team and dozens of associates who are all engaged in the success of The Miller Group. They all care about their clients and share our passion for community service.

Planning the financial transition

Many family owners are selling their businesses right now because the multiple of earnings is higher than ever. Yet when you sell your company, you lose control of what you’ve worked hard to establish. We chose to keep the business in the family because we want to retain and expand our purpose and values:

The Miller Group exists to serve others for the greater glory of God.

  • We place God, family and community first.
  • We care.
  • We take ownership.

Our values are what’s most important to us. We view this as a vocation. We can do more for others through a business and have a bigger impact on the community and the lives of others if we remain family owned and operated.

So, we’ve transitioned some of the ownership to the next generation, and we’ve done a lot of work to prepare everyone for the change.

Keys to building a family business

Having a strong family presence in the business is foundational to our succession planning. We would not have been so successful over the last 60 years – nor would we be in such a great position for this transition – if we had not followed some key principles.

We all know the potential pitfalls of running a family business. We’ve worked hard to make sure family members are in the right seats and are valued as team members. You have to earn your spot here, even if your name is Miller. In fact, you have to work harder than everyone else to prove yourself. Also, we don’t discount kids who may have been knuckleheads in high school and college. Those are some of our best performers!

Other tips we’d like to share:

  • Make people comfortable about asking questions. Be as specific as you can about ownership sharing.
  • Don’t allow triangulation, where one staff or family member complains about another to a third.
  • Try not to have people be managed by their parent.
  • Work hard to ensure you’re being fair to all family members/owners.

I hope our story helps give you some fresh perspective on your own succession planning activities. If you’re beginning to explore your options for transitional structures, give us a call. We are happy to share more about our experience and help connect you with the experts.

About The Author

Sean Miller, CIC, CPCU

Sean Miller, CIC, CPCU
Email As former CEO and now Chairman, Sean has more than 40 years of experience of client and broker relations. Sean specializes in risk management and benefits consulting. After joining The Miller Group in 1983, he built up the company through personal service and attention to clients needs. Sean started the company's nonprofit division over 30 years ago and continues to create lasting relationships and serve surrounding communities.

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