Businessman has uncanny ability to improvise

28 September 2014


Robert McCabe
The Virginian-Pilot
Virginia Beach, VA, 28 September 2014

It’s the station to which he’s set his satellite radio more than the cool, sleek interior of Jerry Miller’s blue Porsche SUV that grabs you when you slide into his front passenger seat.

The Porsche seems appropriate: a symbol of success for a man who’s achieved more than his share of it running a slew of businesses in Hampton Roads.

But the Grateful Dead Channel? A station devoted nonstop to rock music’s most eclectic jam band?

That doesn’t seem to fit.

Or does it?

Over about three decades, Miller built Portsmouth-based Earl Industries into a ship-repair standout that employed up to 1,200 people and won hundreds of millions of dollars in Navy contracts. Miller, who’s 59, also has freewheeled profitably into real estate and energy, among other ventures.

His big windfall came two years ago when he sold three of Earl’s five divisions to one of the nation’s biggest defense contractors.

He and General Dynamics Corp. haven’t said how many millions Miller cleared from the deal. But it was enough to keep him jamming and reinventing.

This summer, he rebranded the two remaining divisions as Fairlead Integrated, and that company has picked up where Earl Industries left off, carving growing niches in the making of precision parts and control systems, primarily for Navy ships.

There’s more.

Another of his companies, Earl Energy, develops energy-storage and power-management systems for battlefield use. The Miller Group contains his real estate operation. And he has a hand in more than half a dozen other businesses, primarily in an advising or investor role, as far away as California.

His three main operations employ more than 250 people, Miller says. He estimates that all of his enterprises together generate annual revenue in the range of $100 million.

Now it’s starting to make sense: Like The Dead, Miller knows how to improvise.

On a recent weekday morning, he drove home that point – literally – taking a reporter on a spin past some of his ventures, this time in Virginia Beach.

Though he’s been a waterfront fixture for decades, he keeps an office at the Beach headquarters of Earl Energy, based just south of Oceana Naval Air Station.

The company’s offices are in one of several dozen buildings owned by the Miller Group, the real estate business he has quietly nurtured. It oversees several hundred commercial tenants on sites ranging from 360 square feet to more than 100,000.

Along with the commercial sites are several residential developments, including the first stop on his tour: The Evergreens, a 17-acre spread in the Great Neck area that features 35 single-family homes in the $300,000-to-$400,000 range.

“We built the homes ourselves,” Miller said.

His real estate company has more than 200 other homes in varying stages of development in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, including a 106-home project near Great Bridge High School.

“I’ve been working this stuff for more than 20 years,” he said.

Miller Group’s commercial real estate ventures are just as noteworthy.

The company’s client list includes Green Flash, the San Diego-based microbrewer that is under contract to lease a 58,000-square-foot property in Corporate Landing Business Park, starting early next year. It will house Green Flash’s first East Coast brewery and a tasting room and beer garden – a major coup in one of the economic development field’s hottest sectors.

Miller himself helped seal the deal on a visit to San Diego when the General Dynamics shipyard division based in that city was closing on the Earl acquisition.

“These guys said, ‘You need to go to the brewery,’ ” Miller said. “At 10 in the morning, we were sampling.”

Miller’s tour continued past other Virginia Beach commercial sites.

“We run the gamut – a little bit of this, a little bit of that,” he said.

There’s Quality Court, a roughly 150-unit business park.

“This is a little incubator itself,” Miller said, adding that as businesses expand or contract, he can find a space that meets their needs.

“These are businesses that start when people’s wives tell them, ‘Get your (stuff) out of the garage,’ ” he joked.

Another stop: IMS Gear, which leases a 112,000-square-foot building that employs more than 200 people.

The German-owned company makes gear shafts that let powered seats in cars move – 1.2 million a month. It’s grown to control 65 percent of the U.S. market.

Miller’s well-connected fiefdom in real estate hasn’t been nearly as publicized over the years as his ship-repair ventures. At first glance, it might seem far afield. But those who know him say the pieces fit.

“He was always the consummate entrepreneur,” said state Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach. Wagner and Miller were Naval Academy classmates who launched Earl Industries, named for Wagner’s stepfather, in the mid-1980s. Miller bought out Wagner’s interest in the company in 1989.

Wagner said Miller’s beginnings as the son of an upstate New York junkyard owner taught him how to cope with the adverse situations that must have arisen every day in that yard.

“He will turn mud into chocolate cake,” Wagner said. “It’s been an attribute of his for as long as I’ve known him.”

Three years ago, Miller needed it.

In May 2011, only four months after the Navy awarded Earl Industries a five-year, $75 million “multi-ship, multi-option” contract on the San Antonio-class of amphibious warships, the Navy summarily yanked the contract, citing poor performance.

The San Antonio had been saddled with design and construction defects since its commissioning in 2006.

Miller said at the time of the cancellation that it was unfair for the Navy to halt his company’s work based on problems with an earlier contract. He said deficiencies related to Earl’s own work were corrected.

These days, Miller brushes aside questions about the dispute. “It was a big setback,” he conceded. But, he quickly insisted, “the company came out of it so much better afterwards.”

A little more than a year after the Navy’s action, General Dynamics acquired Earl’s Portsmouth- and Florida-based ship-repair units, along with its coatings division.

“They wouldn’t have bought it if we were a mess,” Miller said.

The sale was a multimillion-dollar game-changer. “Making that deal with General Dynamics put me in a different position,” he said.

Ron Ritter, who has known Miller for decades and served as a senior vice president at Earl Industries, said his former boss just has a knack for pouncing on opportunities. “He was not lucky – but everything he seems to touch turns to gold.”

He characterized Miller as a street-smart deal-maker who is deliberate in his decision-making.

“He takes risks, but they’re prudent risks,” Ritter said.

The two remaining Earl Industries units that were rolled into Fairlead are the Integrated Power and Controls division in Chesapeake and the manufacturing division, based on Chautauqua Avenue in Portsmouth. Miller bought back one of the facilities that now house his manufacturing operations from General Dynamics. He has invested more than $5 million in real estate and equipment for the Fairlead launch.

The new name and logo he has branded on the operations’ parent company are based on a “fairlead,” a fixture on a ship through which a mooring line is passed.
Miller said he got a break when the two companies were left on the table by General Dynamics two years ago – that they’re both in niches with great upside.

Back in Virginia Beach, a little more than an hour after his highlights tour began, Miller sat in his office at Earl Energy, reflecting on the trajectory of his life and pointing to an aerial photograph on his wall of his father’s sprawling junkyard in Amsterdam, N.Y.

His experience working in the yard, beginning when he was in junior high school, did help shape the person he became, he said.

If a customer came in search of a bumper or a taillight, you “didn’t want the guy to leave till he bought it,” Miller said.

“You had to be flexible and, you know, negotiable and somebody that could be reasonable.”

Wagner said that a lot of people who’ve achieved successes like Miller’s would have slowed down or cashed out by now.

He doesn’t envision that happening with Miller anytime soon.

He has to “have six, seven, eight irons in the fire at all times – I think that’s where he is now. Not every iron in the fire glows red – you know, some of them don’t glow red – but more glow red than not.”


This article was originally printed in The Virginian-Pilot,