Miller's crossing

If you type “Sam Miller” into a Google search, you get a grad student’s personal Web page and sites about Sam Miller the actor and the author. There’s also a Sam Miller’s restaurant, and a painter with the same name.

At about the fifth page, you’ll run into Sam Miller, executive management at Forest City Enterprises.

And that’s how Sam Miller wants it. He likes a certain measure of professional anonymity. The only irony is that if you ask any businessperson in the city of Cleveland or in Ohio, for that matter, they all know exactly who Sam Miller is.

In short, he’s the chairman of Forest City Enterprises, a commercial and residential real estate development company with $5.3 billion in assets. But to get the whole picture, you need to know that he is also the son of immigrants, a World War II veteran, a Case Western Reserve University and Harvard grad, and one of the community’s most generous philanthropists.

He began working at Forest City in 1947, and has been credited with moving the company into land development after the war, growing it significantly. And like all good business leaders, he’s also the recipient of multiple honors and awards, but he doesn’t want to see that list in print, he says.

“People could care less,” Miller says about the countless dinners at which he’s been the honored guest. “You know, you go to those events, and they only care about a few things. Did it start on time? Did it end on time? And how is the food? You ask them what was said, and they tell you they can’t remember.”

He may not care, but with his title and influence, Miller’s name could go on any board in the city. But that’s not his style. Instead, he has chosen very specific causes to align himself with.

“I’m very passionate about anything I do … my involvement with the Catholic church, my involvement with the state of Israel. I just don’t join organizations to get my name on the board. That is worthless, and you do a grave injustice to the organization,” he says.

If you look beyond the resume and the official bio, what you’ll find is a man who’s had a lot more presence and influence than most people know or that he cares to talk about.

Son of immigrants

“I couldn’t speak English until I was 7 years old,” Miller declares.

But he did speak Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Russian and Polish, a common story for the son of Eastern European immigrants who landed penniless on Ellis Island.

Miller’s life is definitely an Horatio Alger story: Son of poor immigrants teaches himself English, goes to war, gets a good education, works hard, gets a few breaks and makes good.

“All along the way, even in college, someone gave me a nudge. Someone has always been there,” says Miller, who points to power-hungry executives as one of the great ills of business. “Humility is one of the greatest virtues.”

The Forest City story is somewhat similar. The company was founded in 1920 by the Ratner family after they emigrated to the United States. It is the nation’s largest publicly traded commercial real estate developer, with 14.6 million square feet of retail space, 7.3 million square feet of office space, 2,939 hotel rooms and 34,907 apartments.

Forest City has grown its pre-tax earnings (before amortization, depreciation and deferred taxes) each of the last 23 years. In 2002 alone, it started 13 projects with combined earnings of more than $660 million, bring the company’s total assets to more than $5 billion.

Without a doubt, Forest City is one of the remaining old guard companies based in Cleveland. It has withstood a world war, Cleveland’s downward economic spiral and three generations of succession, and everyone wants to know the secret.

“We don’t have to worry about our stock price,” Miller explains. “We run a good business, so that (the stock) is taken care of automatically.”

In the same breath, he notes that “our stock today is at the highest it’s been in the history of the company. We’re just good. There’s no secret.”

And as to how he has led a successful company for so long, Miller comes down squarely on the side of being very involved.

“I’m totally hands-on. And hands-on to me is surrounding yourself with good people and talking to them every day about, ‘How is this going?’ and ‘How is that going?’ I’m not running this company. This company is being run by the employees. All I am is an adviser, or I suppose you would call it that.”

Interviewing Sam Miller

You can’t talk about Sam Miller without mentioning Forest City. He, however, can and does.

Actually, he’d rather not talk business. He’d rather talk politics. A better way of putting it is that he’d rather take a much more Socratic approach and get you to talk about politics.

The whole thing becomes more like being a guest on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

“What do you think of Jane Campbell?” he asks curtly.

Not that everyone doesn’t ask that question, after a few drinks at a business function or over dinner, but to have Miller ask is a little daunting.

It’s one of those questions you could easily waffle on, but I have a sneaking suspicion he’d call me on it. Best to think about it for a moment and just go with your gut, so I do.

He doesn’t kick me out, so I must have said something right — or he’s just learned the art of tacit disagreement that comes along with more than five decades in business.

It’s not easy interviewing Sam Miller, and I found out quickly that he’s not fond of giving interviews or of the press.

“I was going to give you $50 and tell you to go buy yourself a sweater,” he blurts out a half an hour into an interview. “I believe in the freedom of the press but … Power and visibility are contradictory. You’re just set up as a target. I believe that the most powerful people in this community are invisible.”

Sam Miller says he knows if he likes someone in the first seven seconds after he meets them. And if you do get past that seven seconds, you’ll be asked your opinion, you’ll get advice, you’ll hear stories and you’ll receive either a tie or a scarf from a collection he keeps in his office for visitors. (After two visits, I now own two such scarves.)

If you’ve known him for a while, you may even get personally delivered bagels in the morning. This is all par for the course; for years, Sam Miller has built relationships first and worried about the business repercussions later.

“One of my big secrets is helping people when I don’t need them,” he says.

This launches Miller into one of many stories about some good deed that came back to him years later.

“That councilman or ward leader that you help years later becomes some kind of power, in some administration, some place, and when you go and you ask them for something, you don’t have to give them anything,” he says. “He remembers that you helped him, and you didn’t ask him for anything.”

This was true for Miller a few decades ago.

“It was a Saturday morning, and it was raining,” and a man came to Miller’s door to raise money for the local library. “He introduced himself and told me he was trying to raise money, and I said, ‘On a day like today?’ He said, ‘This is my only day off.’ … He was soaked to the skin. He asked for anything, and I gave him a check for $500.

“Twenty years later, I’m at a meeting, and I need one critical vote. That guy gets up and says, ‘I vote to break the deadlock.’ He said the reason I’m doing this, and he repeated that story, and that’s what I meant when I said it’s important to do good. It comes back to you in a thousand ways that you can never know.”

There are more stories like that one. They involve students needing money or an organization about to fold or, in one case, 16 parochial schools that were in danger of closing in the inner city. Sam Miller was there to help, and doesn’t have one regret.

“I never give a loan — I don’t want to be paid back,” he says. “I just help out if needed.”

Art of the deal

Eleanor, Miller’s secretary for the last 50-plus years, brings out a handful of brightly colored scarves.

“Pick one,” says Miller.

Miller’s convinced he has the longest-serving secretary in the country.

This is my second scarf. I grab a red and white Chanel to go with my drab beige raincoat. I wonder which one Jane Campbell picked when she undoubtedly met with him.

You can try to protest; you come to his office — in my case for an interview, but most others come for support, advice or money — and he is giving you a gift. But I learn that is part of what makes him so successful. For him, it’s all about people and relationships.

“The deal is second,” says Miller. “It’s the people who are going into the deal that are most important. You can have a great deal, but it’s surround by a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re doing and it goes into the toilet, or you can have a deal that is moderately good and have smart people working on it and put it together and make it outstanding.

“I have an inborn radar that allows me to make a judgment on a person who I don’t know almost immediately,” he adds.

Many businesses involved in real estate have ridden the wave of success, only to crash when the market changes. Forest City has been able to navigate all those changes and come out on top.

“Real estate is an art, not a science,” says Miller. “No two deals are the same. Every one is new and an immediate challenge. We have a policy here. We tell our people that a smart man remembers all his mistakes and a wise man learns from others mistakes.”

Community and relationship building are at the heart of the company and close to the heart of Miller.

“We take on almost impossible projects, but our reputation for honesty and ethics has helped us in every major city,” he says. “One mayor will pick up the phone and tell another mayor that these are good people, and that is more important than what your share price is right there.”

Business ethics

“No business can survive without ethics,” says Miller. “There is something to be said that this company is some 80-odd years old and has never been involved in a major scandal. If you really want to know what my feelings are about the Tycos and the WorldComs … the employees have no respect for (the leaders), and the company suffers for it.”

And the issue of CEO fraud upsets him.

“It’s not so much the consequences for them, but they’ve robbed these employees of their futures,” says Miller.

But he adds he wasn’t surprised by the news.

“Wall Street was taking companies and putting them on a 90-day treadmill. Every 90 days, they wanted 10 percent more. It fostered this kind of attitude, and in many instances created dishonesty. When you run a business you can’t worry about stock price,” says Miller. “Those CEOs were running their business on a treadmill.

“We in this company are not on that treadmill, nor will ever be.”

His approach is to run his business well. And how does he do it?

“I make the decisions, and most of them are right.”

Even when he’s gone, those right decisions will be made.

“The first generation is gone, but the second generation is still here and the third generation can see what a good work ethic is and what honesty is and running a proper business is and how important it is to be good to your employees and good to your stockholders … it has to go together,” says Miller.

The convention center and Cleveland

“Do you have enough yet?” Miller asks after half an hour.

I assure him that I’m willing to stay as long as he’ll have me.

“You enjoy sitting here listening to an old man bragging.”

In a serious tone he adds, “And don’t forget to mention my wife. She is very important to me. We’ve been married 25 years. You know what they say, behind every successful man is a surprised woman.”

In reality, the whole experience is fascinating. The walls of Miller’s office are jammed with photos of every religious and political dignitary you can think of — the names of these people are the answers to a hundred Trivial Pursuit questions.

There’s young Miller and older Miller, with bishops, Israeli prime ministers, Nobel Peace Prize winners and an array of politicians, all segregated on different walls depending on their religious and political affiliations.

“See there, over on your right, over there,” Miller points over my shoulder at a picture of him and a relatively young man in uniform. “That’s [Ariel] Sharon. That was taken sometime around the Six Day War.”

The office and the stories are so fascinating, I’m a bit nervous about asking the next question: “So let’s talk about the convention center.”

“It’s part of solving the problem,” Miller says. “It’s not the entire answer, but it will be a start, it will give us something that we’re missing. I think a new convention center will automatically draw people, but at that point you have to make sure that they keep coming back.”

Next question: “Why keep Forest City’s headquarters in Cleveland?”

“It’s the culture here, it’s our home. Others have left. It’s been good to us. We are in many cities, and Cleveland is the only one we’re not really active in, but we would like to active in Cleveland,” he adds.

Do unto others

Whenever you interview a business icon like Miller, the goal is to get that golden nugget of advice, that one quote that really sums up the secret of their success, so you can report it to the world and everyone will understand and life is good.

After all, that’s why we read books by successful businesspeople — to emulate and succeed where others without this precious information don’t. We all just want the secret of success in a nutshell, a phrase.

Miller’s story is the perfect example of why there is no one thing, but a number of circumstances and opportunities that come together to make a career. But there are some truths, some principles that seem so obvious it’s sometimes hard to realize their value.

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is wasted,” says Miller. “When you do a good thing, it comes back to you. There is no such thing as a self-made man.” How to reach: Forest City Enterprises, (216) 621-6060