Getting to Know Future Electronics’ Robert Miller, Part One

| April 14, 2014 | 0 Comments
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Talk about perfect timing. Tracy Sutherland was giving a reporter a tour of Future Electronics Inc. headquarters in Pointe Claire, a suburb of Montreal, Canada, and addressing one of the many myths about Robert Miller, the electronics components distributor’s founder and owner, when the subject of the discussion strolled into the building, seemingly oblivious to the biting cold of the 2013 winter weather.

“That’s Mr. Miller coming in now. As usual, he’s going to walk up the staircase like any other Future employee,” said Sutherland, sales training manager at Future. “Would you like to meet him now or wait till later?” The reporter chose to wait. The interview was initially requested in 1999, so the extra minutes before finally meeting Miller for the first time wasn’t a concern. As Sutherland and the reporter moved on to a different section of the building, Miller marched up the staircase, trailed by a Future employee. His day started much earlier with other appointments and in typical fashion, continued late into the evening.

Miller, CEO of Future, one of the top five electronics components distributors in the world, has grown into a legend in the industry. He jokes about starting out in the late 1960s as the newest, freshest and least experienced electronics industry executive to now being a veteran and one of the more grizzled leaders in the sector. Miller started Future from scratch and nearly five decades later he is still driving and championing its growth. The company’s latest plans include significant expansion moves throughout Asia – not just China.  “Asia is a high-priority region for us,” Miller said in an interview. “We are making major investments in the region, including in China, Korea, India, Japan and Vietnam, and we have people in the area to drive our growth.”

Future – unlike two of its largest rivals (Arrow Electronics Inc. and Avnet Inc., which have played a major role in consolidating the North American and European distribution markets) – has grown largely through steady organic expansion in line with Miller’s management style. The company has grown by focusing intently on providing the industry’s best service to customers and suppliers and the annual sales of approximately $5 billion reflect its ability to maintain steady growth at a moment of persistent turmoil in the electronics industry.

FutureLogohomepagePrivately-held Future has no debts, according to company executives, despite steadfastly keeping to one of its strategic differentiations for the segment: the willingness to buy and hold inventories for long stretches, serving thereby as a virtual lender to OEMs and EMS providers and a long-term partner to component suppliers. Lindsley Ruth, a member of the company’s senior management team, said, “Future is not limited in our capacity to support customers, with real bonded inventory guaranteeing continuity of supply.”

That is one of the attractions Future holds for component suppliers. That strategy, too, is a reflection of Miller’s belief and one that has endeared the company to its component supplier base. Executives at many of its supplier partners love Future, none more so than the late Dr. Felix Zandman, founder and long-term CEO of passives and semiconductor components vendor Vishay Intertechnology Inc. Industry sources say Zandman and Miller were so close their relationship transcended the business that initially brought them together. “I loved and admired Felix Zandman,” said Miller in an interview at his office. A picture taken with Zandman in his later years is prominently framed and displayed in Miller’s office.

The Myths & the Man as He is

Despite Miller’s closeness to Future’s customers, suppliers and employees, numerous myths float around the industry about him, largely because he rarely grants interviews and few pictures of the Future executive have been published in the press. Sutherland, a long-term employee of Future Electronics, laughs at many of the myths brought to her attention and credited providence with helping her dispatch the one about Miller using a private entrance and dedicated elevator to enter his office at Future.

“It’s not true,” Sutherland was saying just as Miller walked into the company’s office and began marching towards the same staircase she had just climbed with the visiting reporter. This and many other myths about Future and Miller himself have no basis in reality. Just like any other Future employee, Miller roams the hallways of the company’s office regularly, mingling with and making regular presentations to workers multiple times a quarter. He is in regular touch with suppliers, customers and all of the other folks Future workers deal with on a daily basis, according to company employees.

Admittedly, Miller is both a star and an intimidating presence at Future. He takes close interest in Future’s employees and personally interviews middle level managers. He has been known to give impromptu encouragement speeches, pay for personal health care and has championed and implemented policies that would enable employees live what would be considered a “healthy” lifestyle. Miller talks about his four key rules for his family, employees and friends to live a long healthy life.

  1. Enough sleep. [eight hours per night]
  2. Eat right. {AVOID sugar, red meat, fried foods, starches, pasta and alcohol]  [ENCOURAGE fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, fish, lean chicken]
  3. Exercise daily. [light weights, cardio and stretching] Miller believes in the old Chinese proverb: stretch your body, stretch your life.
  4. Take vacation regularly.  {better off taking four one-week vacations versus two two-week vacations]

The company’s head office features a fully equipped fitness center with a personal trainer and yoga coach. The center is open 24/7 and employees make full use of it, often spending their breaks at the facility or returning later in the day for a workout there. Future has an on-site medical clinic which handles on average 50 visits per day.  Future also provides access to a local private medical center, allowing availability of some of the best doctors and specialists in Montreal. Employees have also embraced Miller’s deep fascination with environmental responsibility. He has implemented a global program to limit the use of paper and provides a bus to transport employees to and from the headquarters from a downtown location in a bid to reduce automotive emission. Employees who bike to work get paid lunch every Friday.

On the professional front, Miller is big on employee training and makes continuing education a big part of efforts to boost productivity while opening up new positions for interested workers. All of Future’s 5,500 employees – including non-technical workers – spread throughout the world are required to undergo about 10 hours of training each month and hundreds attend training seminars annually at the headquarters. Miller personally conducts some of the training for employees, including about 300 advanced engineers who participated in a session late last year.

“The goal is to ensure every employee is equipped to help customers wherever they interact with them and also to make sure no worker is limited in their professional aspirations,” Sutherland said. “We’ve conducted virtual trainings for workers outside North America who either cannot travel for family reasons or who don’t like to fly.”

In the second part of this report we look at Robert Miller's work ethics, his philanthropic activities, the role of Future Electronics in this and the early years of the company's operations.

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Category: Business/Finance, News Analysis

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