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Cover Story


As NCCBI's New chair
Steve Miller
will advocate healthcare
solutions good for people
and profits

By Allan Maurer


Steve Miller of Asheville, executive vice president of The Biltmore Company and new NCCBI chair, literally worked his way up from stable boy to top leadership positions in business, tourism, and healthcare in his community and state.

Similarly, he labored for years within the volunteer leadership of NCCBI to become one of Western North Carolina’s most visible executives. As the new chair of NCCBI, the state chamber of commerce, he says he plans to continue its long-term priorities of lowering state income taxes and increasing government efficiency.

“The NCCBI chair changes annually, but the primary themes do not,” Miller says. “Former chair Jim Hyler worked with Sue Cole, who worked with (former chair) Barry Eveland and me and I’ll do the same with Graham Denton (who will be NCCBI chair in 2006-07).”

Nevertheless, Miller says the “incredible importance of responding to the whole healthcare issue” has emerged over the last few years. He believes NCCBI is in a particularly strong position to provide leadership on healthcare because the organization “has members from all the affected segments, employers, providers and insurers.”

“The cost of healthcare and medical insurance continues to grow at a rapid pace and is stretching the ability of our member businesses to pay for those increased costs. At the same time, healthcare has become one of the major drivers of economic growth in our state,” he says.

Miller brings a multiple perspective to the issue. “I’ve been on the Mission Hospitals board 10 years and just completed a two-year term as chair, so I learned a lot from the provider side,” he says. “I also have an employer perspective. It’s certainly the most important benefit the employer provides. So you want to provide the highest quality, but at a price you can afford.”

At the Biltmore Co., Miller says, he’s learned that some things can help keep costs down. “Our costs only rose 2 or 3 percent the last few years,” he notes. “We instituted some principles of consumer-driven healthcare. We try to help employees make smart choices, such as having a good relationship with a primary care doctor, managing chronic diseases such as diabetes, encouraging them to have smart healthcare practices. They’re also sharing more in the costs. We try to make sure they see their primary care physician rather than going to an emergency room, which is much more expensive and less effective for long term health.”

Miller points out that there’s also another side of the coin to the healthcare situation. “The healthcare system is one of our region’s largest employers, as it is in many parts of the state. Healthcare is one of the major drivers of our economy and with aging baby-boomers, it’s only going to get bigger. A Wachovia economist points out that a lot of the service jobs replacing manufacturing ones in North Carolina are higher paying ones in healthcare.

“It is my hope that NCCBI can create a forum for healthcare providers, insurers, and employers to work together to develop policies that will move us towards a high-quality, affordable, and sustainable healthcare system that is accessible to all the people of our state.  I am confident that we can examine the highly complex and controversial issue of healthcare from a variety of viewpoints.”

Miller notes that he’s talked with Eveland and NCCBI President Phil Kirk about how the organization might be most effective in dealing with the healthcare issue. One possibility is tying efforts into the most recent Emerging Issues Forum held at N.C. State University in February, which focused on healthcare and developed an 8-point action list.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for employers, providers and governments to work together,” Miller says. “One of the reasons I’m such a big believer in NCCBI and have been involved with it for such a long time is that is what it’s good at doing: getting people together to examine issues from multiple perspectives. NCCBI is not going to solve the problem. It’s too complex for that. But we can get people together to share information on things that work to improve the health of their employees and lower costs. At the same time, if we determine public policies we think will help, we’ll lobby for those. We can certainly provide a forum to help our members deal with this. But we have to keep a dialogue going or the system is going to collapse on itself.”

Miller says lifestyle programs are one of the things insurers, employers and providers can work together on. “Lots of health insurers have excellent programs to help companies manage their employees. A lot of hospitals have programs providing technical expertise to help people manage their weight.”

Installing advanced information technology systems throughout the healthcare system — an issue raised repeatedly by speakers across the political, provider and insurer spectrum at the Emerging Issues Forum — is also important, Miller says. “During my term as chair at Mission, installing a new information technology system was one of our largest capital investments. It helps standardize procedures and eliminate mistakes.”

Kirk thinks Miller will be able to make progress in establishing a productive dialog. He says, “Steve Miller brings a level of enthusiasm and compassion to this position of great importance to our state. He is a positive, can-do person who inspires staff and volunteers to reach new levels.

“He understands the role of a volunteer chair in motivating and leading paid staff and volunteers. He is also a compassionate person who believes that government exists to be a positive force in our society. That is especially evident in his sincere desire to mobilize the business community to find practical, workable, affordable solutions to the healthcare crisis in our country.”

Eveland agrees. “I have really enjoyed working with Steve this last year. He has been very supportive of my efforts and I have very much appreciated his advice and suggestions. Steve has great interpersonal skills and will keep people at the top of his priority list. He is well balanced in his thought process, and has a great deal of integrity.

 “I fully expect that Steve will do a great job next year. We have been in synch on the priorities for this year, and I believe he will continue to focus on the three that we’ve had in place, although he and I have talked about adding healthcare, which I believe he will do.”

As a member of the Biltmore Company’s senior leadership team, Miller helped diversify the Biltmore brand into a successful winery, retail sales, and a 213-room luxury hotel. Notably, he also persuaded the company to open Biltmore during Christmas; now, the holiday season is its most profitable season of the year.

Miller also held top leadership positions with state and regional tourism organizations and chaired the board of Mission Hospitals, giving him frontline experience with two issues high on NCCBI’s agenda, healthcare and the state’s tourism industry.

Hands-on, frontline experience is nothing new to Miller. While he currently works from a sixth-floor office downtown overlooking cloud-wisped mountains, he began his association with Biltmore as a stable boy for the owner’s wife.

The summer after his freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill, Asheville native Miller took a job cleaning the stables and grooming thoroughbreds for Mimi Cecil, wife of William A.V. Cecil, Biltmore Estate’s owner.  “I also cut the grass and washed Mr. Cecil’s car,” Miller, now 50, says. The following fall, Cecil called Miller’s mother and asked her if the family intended to have Steve work in the family jewelry store after he graduated from college.

When she said that Steve could decide for himself, Cecil asked her to have Miller come by to talk about joining a management training program. He did, and Cecil explained that he wanted Steve to work in all the Biltmore Estate’s departments and then after graduation, join the company fulltime should he want to.

“So, I did all kinds of frontline jobs,” Miller says. “I worked in the gardens, parked cars, sold tickets, cataloged architectural drawings with the curator. It helped my management career to get firsthand experience of what it’s like to be on the frontline.” Although he considered a career in law, Miller chose to join the Biltmore Co. on the advice of his marketing professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was 23.

“He told me I’d be happier creating the future rather than perpetuating the past through the law, and it turned out that he was right,” says Miller. Over the course of his career at Biltmore, Miller saw the number of annual visitors increase from 350,000 to 1 million and the number of employees from 100 to 1,600 fully staffed.

“Because we were such a small company when I started, I participated in a lot of decision making at a very early age,” Miller says. Cecil, the CEO, “was tolerant of mistakes if you gave something your best shot and it didn’t work — although he didn’t tolerate you making the same mistake twice,” Miller recalls.

One “big mistake,” they made along the way, Miller says, was an attempt to capitalize on successful line extensions of the Biltmore brand. Successful at retailing various items with the Biltmore brand to visitors, Miller thought the company could offer the same sort of branded items through a catalog.

“What we learned,” he says, “is that in those pre-Internet days, you were a catalog shopper or you weren’t.” While the catalog did fairly well, it became clear that it would not produce fast cash as hoped. “I learned to fully understand a market before launching a product or service,” says Miller.

The Biltmore Co. retains an entrepreneurial culture, Miller says, adding, “If you’re entrepreneurial, you get a lot of ideas, but they’re not all good. You need a way to evaluate them.” One recent idea, for instance, did not fly after market research indicated customers would not buy at the price Biltmore needed to charge, “So as a result of those earlier lessons, we didn’t do that one.”

While Biltmore’s leadership team grew together, learning valuable lessons along the way, they had successes as well. When Miller became marketing director of the house and gardens in 1979, the energy crisis that doubled gas prices and caused long lines at the pumps cut the number of people in ticket lines at Biltmore by 18 percent.

Rick King, then manager of the house, who is currently vice president of Biltmore House and Gardens, suggested that the company should open the previously off-limits downstairs portion of the estate to visitors. Miller steered the marketing efforts. The opportunity to tour parts of the home never before public indeed boosted attendance 17 percent. It also allowed the Biltmore to raise prices 32 percent.

That same year, the first of many movies filmed at the Biltmore Estate came out, “Being There,” starring Peter Sellers. It served as another learning experience. “It was wonderful publicity,” says Miller, “but we didn’t know exactly what we were doing then. We learned you have to charge enough to make up for the disruption it causes and now we have strict rules. We don’t allow filming in more than two rooms at a time, we move our own stuff around, and we have a code of conduct for the crews. Now it doesn’t disrupt our guests and they’re somewhat enamored that people are doing a movie.”

Other films shot on the Biltmore Estate since include “Private Eyes,” small parts of “Forest Gump,” “Last of the Mohicans,” “Richie Rich,” “Mr. Destiny,” and “Hannibal.”

Another notable marketing suc-cess evolved from an idea sug-gested by King and Suzanne Pandich, then curator. They discovered the Vanderbilts used to hold Christmas celebrations, such as an open house Christmas Eve 1895 where the Vanderbilts gave presents to employees and their children.

 “When I started we were closed for Christmas,” Miller says. After the idea was broached, “We did marketing research and discovered that Colonial Williamsburg did a lot of business during the holidays. We recognized that it had great marketing potential. Now, Christmas is our busiest time of year and we have more visitors in December than in any other single month. It began our trend of smoothing out the seasonal variation in our business, helped cash flow a lot and allowed us to create more fulltime jobs.”

William Cecil had another entrepreneurial idea. With a French chateau and thousands of acres of farmland, producing wine made sense — even if it was North Carolina. The estate planted vineyards in the 1970s and opened its winery in the mid-1980s. “Now we market our wines throughout the Southeast,” says Miller, crediting Jerry Douglas, the senior vice president as being key in the venture’s success. “We take them to California and win blind taste tests. We love it when we win taste tests in California,” Miller says, pride and amusement combined in his voice. “It also helps diversify our business,” he adds.

That’s important, he notes, because “External factors outside your control can have positive or negative affects on tourism.”

Cecil handed over the CEO reins to his son, Bill Cecil Jr., during the estate’s centennial year in 1995. The company was poised to embrace the next century with a new vision and Biltmore management got the go-ahead on a project the company had talked about for 20 years — The Inn on Biltmore Estate. The deluxe 213-room hotel “has been very successful and exceeded our expectations,” says Miller. “Occupancy is high and people come back. A lot of NCCBI members meet at the Inn. It helped us move from attraction to destination because people can stay for an extended period rather than just visiting for a day.”

Miller recalls that when he went to business school at Chapel Hill, tourism “wasn’t even mentioned.” Now, he says, “It’s gratifying that at every meeting about the state or regional economy, tourism is always mentioned.”

Adequate funding of efforts to increase tourism in North Carolina where state support for it lags behind others in the Southeast, is an ongoing concern, Miller says. He lauds Gov. Mike Easley’s budget request to increase incentives for filmmakers to shoot in the state, for instance. Last year, 49 million people visited N.C., which kept its position as the 6th most visited state in the nation.  Travelers spent over $12.6 billion, generating over $1.1 billion in state and local taxes and directly supporting more than 183,000 jobs. Miller notes that one of the things he personally enjoys about working in the tourism industry is that “People across the state work together rather than competing. They realize the more people we bring in the better we’ll all do.”

Happily married for 27 years to his wife Debbie, a former school teacher, Miller has two daughters, Stephanie, 22, a senior at UNC-CH, who is student teaching at the Durham School of the Arts, and Michelle, 20, a junior at Stanford, California.




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