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Executive Profile

Growing in the Job
The kid who started as a Biltmore House stable hand
has risen to the top through innovative marketing ideas

By Suzanne Fischer

Stephen Miller, senior vice president of The Biltmore Company, gazes out at mist-shrouded mountains from his sixth floor office in downtown Asheville. He's reminiscing about his start at Biltmore, when he worked at a considerably lower altitude in the stables of William A.V. Cecil, the estate's owner.

“It was the summer after my freshman year and like most other students I was just looking for a job where I could work outdoors,” says Miller, 44, an Asheville native who attended UNC-Chapel Hill. “I just thought it would be a neat way to spend the summer.”

And so he mucked stalls and groomed Mrs. Cecil's thoroughbreds and, when he'd mastered that, he cut the grass, cared for the swimming pool and washed Mr. Cecil's car.

It wouldn't be until late the following fall, however, that he first got an inkling that he might parlay his summer job into something lasting.

Cecil, interested in Miller's plans, called the student's mother to see if she intended for Steve to work in his parent's jewelry store once he'd finished college.

“My mom told him that whatever I did was up to me,” Miller says with a smile. “And Mr. Cecil said, `Well, then, would you mind if Steve comes down here to talk about joining a management training program.'”

Cecil spelled out the program to him: Miller would come back during each summer break and work in all the departments — from parking cars, to taking tickets, to working in the gardens — so that he could learn his way around the entire business. At the end of his university career, if The Biltmore Company was happy with him and he with it, Miller could join on a full-time basis, but he was under no obligation to do so.

What made Cecil extend this extraordinary offer?

“Well,” Cecil says from his home office, pausing a minute to think, “we just thought he was a good egg. He was always on time, polite, intelligent, courteous, conscientious about doing a good job. At that age you can't ask for much more.”

Miller leapt at the chance. That was 23 years ago, and he's never left, despite briefly considering the possibility of becoming an attorney — an idea he decided against on the advice of his favorite professor. He's made a rapid rise from stable boy to senior vice president: he lives in a company house on the estate with his wife, Deborah, who teaches middle school and high school remedial students, and daughters Stephanie, 16, whom he calls the athlete, and Anne, 14, the musician. “I get to raise my daughters on Biltmore estate. I know how lucky I am, what a privilege that is. I guess it is kind of like a fairy tale.”

Innovation is a constant in Miller's career at Biltmore. He created the company's first marketing department, played a lead role in establishing the winery, headed up strategic planning for the Inn on Biltmore and is being charged with its operation once construction is completed.

“It's a huge project. I'm totally immersed in it now,” Miller says of the deluxe 222-room hotel that's in the works. “It's part of our long-term plan, which is called `From Attraction to Destination'. Our architects said they've never seen anyone else as involved in the whole project as we have been.”

He's adamant, however, about sharing the credit for all the company's successes with his co-workers. “I'm a little uncomfortable having a profile done just on me,” Miller explains, “because I'm just a small part of the story. I feel so privileged to be part of this team. I couldn't have accomplished anything without the people I work with.”

To underscore his point he fires off nearly a dozen names of employees whose skill and commitment he admires. People like Bernard Delille, the company's French wine master who learned English in the two months before he flew to Asheville for his interview. And Bruce Cody, the second shift guard at the main gate who helps too-late arrivals make alternate plans until they can return in the morning. And fellow Senior Vice President Richard Pressley, who began working at Biltmore the same time as Miller and whose career path his has mirrored. “Anything you say I've done, Richard has done too. And I have to be careful, the people who deserve the credit are the 1,000 people working here. We all play a role.”

“And also,” he adds, “I couldn't have done any of this without this opportunity I was given.”

And what an opportunity. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from UNC, Miller joined Biltmore full time and got what he calls a lucky break. In 1979, William Cecil and his brother, George, decided to split the property. George took the Biltmore dairy and with it the man who had been marketing director for the whole company. That move created an opening on William's half of the enterprise and, at 23, Miller became the marketing director for the house and gardens. It was a tough year to take charge. The energy crisis put the brakes on site-seeing while drivers stood in gas lines instead of ticket lines.

Tourism at Biltmore dropped 18 percent. In response, under Miller's leadership, the company opened the downstairs of the estate to visitors, allowing them to tour a part of the home that had never before been public.

“We wanted to expand people's experience here,” Miller says. “We thought we could attract more local folks. Even if they'd already been to the house, this would give them an excuse to come back.”

The plan worked beautifully. The Downstairs Tour increased visitation by 17 percent and supported a 32 percent increase in the price of admission.

Similar innovations were soon to follow. Miller led the team that developed Christmas tours of the home, making the holiday season — once a time of year when the estate was closed — the busiest months of year. The number of visitors in November and December increased from 24,500 guests in 1979 to 225,000 in 1998. The Third Floor Tour and Festival of Flowers — a new tour and special event under Miller's direction — also attracted crowds of visitors eager to see more of the house and gardens.

“That's what has kept me here for 22 years,” Miller says. “Other than the fact that it's a great property and we have such great people working here, is the fact that no two years have ever been alike. We're involved in preservation, but we're a very entrepreneurial company, and that's because Mr. Cecil made it that way. And so we've always done new things.”

Miller also played a major role in expanding the scope of the company beyond the inherent draw of the house and gardens themselves. He was a key person behind the start of the Biltmore Estate Wine Co. and was charged with managing the operation from its inception in 1983 until 1992. He established the retail sales department which, with its seven gift shops, generates nearly $10 million in revenue each year. He started a reproduction company that licenses manufacturers to create accessories, furniture, wallpaper, mirrors and prints modeled after originals in the estate.

“It's an old property, but the business part of it is always new. That's part of our business success: to accomplish preservation by adapting to the changing external environment, keeping up with change, and figuring out a way to make change an opportunity,” he explains.

Another aspect of the Biltmore business that captures his interest, aside from the constant new growth of the company, is the diversity of specialists who work on the property. The company employs chefs and wine masters, geneticists and curators, horticulturists and archivists, specialists in textile and furniture restoration, hospitality experts and professionals in marketing, public relations and information technology.

“It can be easy in business to think that it's just about numbers and strategies and finance, but it's really about people more than anything else,” Miller says. “It's about our guests and the people who work here. Our business gets into what people who work here are doing with their lives and what kind of experience our guests are looking for.”

Whatever it is guests may be looking for, they seem to be finding it. In the 22 years Miller has worked at Biltmore, visitation has increased from 361,000 to over 900,000 people per year. The number of employees has grown from 190 to 1,000 at full staff. But more important than the quantity, to Miller, is the quality: guests consistently rank their visit between nine and ten on a ten-point scale, and employees rate their experience with company about 40 to 60 percent higher than national norms.

Miller learned to value the people side of business early. When he was a small child, his mother — who struggled with competing desires to be in business and care for her family — became an Avon representative.

“Some of my earliest memories are going around with my mother on her route, going door to door. A lot of my philosophy about work goes back to that experience,” Miller explains. “That may sound funny to say, because I know my mom sold cosmetics. But you know what I remember more than anything else? It's how she would go into peoples' homes and sit down with them and listen to the stories they'd tell about their lives. Her business was people; the cosmetics were almost secondary.”

Later, his mother went into business with his father, and the couple opened a jewelry store, which they still operate today.

“I learned as much from those two experiences as I ever did at Chapel Hill. And I learned a lot at Chapel Hill,” he says.

It was at UNC-Chapel Hill where Miller discovered his love of marketing. It quickly became his favorite subject and though he briefly considered attending law school, his marketing professor and early mentor, C.L. Kendall, gave him some advice that would cause him to change his mind.

“He reminded me that our whole legal system is based on English common law and that decisions made today are based on precedents set in the past. And he just thought I'd have a lot more fun working for someone entrepreneurial and being part of creating the future. That kind of did it for me.”

HE remains a vocal proponent of public education, and his loyalty to UNC has extended well beyond his undergraduate education. William Cecil, before his retirement in 1995, decided to send all the senior staff members to intensive executive management programs. “I wanted to send him to Harvard,” Cecil says, “but I got defeated on that. He's a Chapel Hill enthusiast and wouldn't have dreamed of going anywhere else. And he did very, very well.”

Naturally, Miller is also a strong advocate for the travel and tourism industry in North Carolina. He currently serves as the chairman of the North Carolina Travel and Tourism Board, is a member of the Travel Council of North Carolina, and was appointed a member of the state's delegation to the White House Conference on Travel and Tourism.

Pat Corso, president of Pinehurst Resort and Country Club and COO of parent Club Corp., has known Miller for 13 years. “I met Steve when I moved into the state and got involved with the Travel Council. I could tell immediately that he was one of the people I'd want to get to know.”

“He's such a strategic thinker, which is so rare,” Corso continues. “If there is a stronger leader in the tourism industry, I don't know who it is.”

Corso and Miller serve together as members of the NCCBI Board of Directors.

Miller put his strategic skills to the test as chair of the Tourism 2000 Action Plan Committee, which developed a marketing plan for the N.C. Division of Travel and Tourism. Corso calls the plan a blueprint for the industry's effort to convince the General Assembly to increase the division's budget. “Compared to other states, we're woefully under-funded. We get $7 million compared to, say, Illinois' $37 million. And if anybody can help us with that, it's Steve. Although he's a humble guy, not a self-promoter, not into self-aggrandizement. He's a first-class person . . . integrity, honesty, and character.”

Outside of tourism, Miller's community service revolves around health care and affordable housing in Asheville. He's a member of the executive board and board of directors at Mission/St. Joseph's Health System, an organization he praises effusively.

“We have a wonderful health system here,” he says. “You don't need to go anywhere else to get top notch health care.”

The need, however, for affordable housing in the area has become more dire, Miller says, as real estate values continue to climb and people on fixed incomes become less able to afford major repairs. Miller serves on the board of directors for ReCreation Experiences, a non-profit Christian group that organizes mission projects in which church youth groups repair the homes of low-income residents in western North Carolina.

“It's a great program, not just for the people whose homes the kids fix, but for the kids themselves. I think they really get a better appreciation for people who live under circumstances different from their own.”

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This story first appeared in the July 1999 issue of the North Carolina magazine.

Suzanne Fischer can be reached at sfischer@nccbi.org

 

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