It was a tradition. Every Friday, Sam Kartalis, divisional president and chief operating officer at Henry S. Miller Cos., would meet with chairman and CEO Vance Miller for lunch at Dallas’ exclusive Preston Trail Golf Club, of which Miller was a founding member. As Vance’s sons, Vaughn and Greg, grew into men, the twosome became a foursome. But on this day in late February, Kartalis had to jet out early, and Vaughn was out of town, leaving just Vance and Greg.

The 79-year-old Vance had just begun working again, after a nasty bout with pneumonia the previous Thanksgiving that nearly felled him. But, in true Miller form, he was back on his feet and home by Christmas. At lunch that day, Vance wanted to hang out a little longer than usual, have an extra cup of coffee, talk a while with his son. As it turned out, it would be their last conversation. Vance suffered a massive heart attack and died later that night.

“I feel so blessed to have had that last day with my dad,” Greg says. “He always joked about how he would die with his boots on, and sure enough, he did. He lived a good life, and he died a good death.”

Vance Miller was the third-generation leader of Henry S. Miller Cos., an icon in Dallas commercial real estate. The firm got its start in 1914 as a one-man shop led by Henry S. Miller Sr.

Vance and his father, Henry S. Miller Jr., oversaw much of the company’s growth and expansion, most notably into shopping center, office, and residential development and investments. Today it’s a statewide concern, with offices in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso. 

Along with signature projects like Highland Park Village, the firm is known for launching the careers of some of the biggest names in the business, including Roger Staubach and Herb Weitzman. Throughout its nearly 100-year history, it has survived wild swings in the market, ownership changes, and a bit of family drama. With Vance’s death, the company was at a crossroads again. Outsiders wondered who would take the helm. Insiders weren’t surprised when it was level-headed Greg Miller, the baby of the family, who was named president and CEO, with his mother, Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, as chair (she prefers “chairlady”). Passed over, oldest son Vaughn, who had run the company’s retail division, opted to leave, and is now pursuing his own interests with the newly formed VCM Development Group. “My dad put a very detailed succession plan in place,” Greg says. “We talked about a seamless transition, and we’re all working together to ensure that our legacy will continue on for generations to come.”

HIGHLAND PARK PLAYGROUND
Real estate has always been a part of Greg Miller’s life. Growing up, he and his buddies would skip the playgrounds and head to Highland Park Village, where they’d play hide-and-go-seek, climb up on the rooftops, blow quarters on Astroids at the 7-Eleven, and sneak into the movie theater to watch the Rocky Horror Picture Show. They’d also play golf and mess around at another Miller asset, Prestonwood Country Club. “It was hard not to recognize that there was something special about our family, that we owned such cool places,” Miller says. “But I was never one to drop names. If I was at the Village or the club, I was never one to say, ‘I’m a Miller.’ To this day, I’m not like that.”

The family still owns Prestonwood. Highland Park Village, acquired in 1976 for about $5 million, was sold to a partnership led by Ray Washburne and Stephen Summers and their wives in 2009. The price tag: More than $170 million.

Miller didn’t join the family business right away. He was determined to prove—to himself, mostly—that he could forge his own way. After graduating with a degree in economics and philosophy from Southern Methodist University, he headed for Washington, D.C., where he lived in Georgetown and worked on the Hill for a lobbyist group that pushed for a loosening of banking regulations. Surrounded by attorneys, Miller decided after three years to return to Dallas and get a law degree from SMU. He then spent the next eight years with Geary, Porter and Donovan PC, specializing in real estate work, before joining the family business in 2002. “I joke that I’m my own worst deal-killer; I over-lawyer my own deals,” Miller says. “If you’re a broker, you just want to get the deal signed and get paid. As an attorney, you want to make sure it’s thoroughly negotiated and properly documented.”

Miller’s father encouraged him to work in investments, but he took his grandfather’s advice instead, and started off as a tenant rep broker. After several years of that, he segued into site selection for urban infill townhome and retail developments. He then took over leadership of the firm’s syndication and investments business.

As Miller worked his way up the ladder, his father stressed to him that failure was not an option. “What is the art of the possible?” Vance would say. Sometimes, Vance would remind his son that he was capable of handling things himself by holding out his hand and closing it into a loose fist.

It goes back to a fable Vance once told Greg about a wise old man and a young apprentice who tried to outwit him.  As the story goes, the boy stood before his master and held a small bird in his hands behind his back. He said, “Old man, tell me: Is this bird dead or alive?” If the master said the bird was dead, the apprentice planned to release it. If the master said the bird was alive, the boy would crush it. Instead, the old man said, “The answer, my son, is in your hands.”

"CURSE NOT THE CROCODILE"
Greg Miller keeps a list of 12 “Leadership Proverbs for Operations and Planning” tacked to his office wall. His father had given him the list when he first joined the firm, and often liked to quote them: “Curse not the crocodile until you have crossed the river.” “Shrimps make fools of dragons in shallow waters.” And, Greg’s favorite, “Better to struggle with a sick jackass than to carry the wood yourself.”

The 46-year-old says he hopes to bring his father’s wit and mental toughness to his new role as president and CEO. But he’s also determined to spark change. First up: relocating the company’s headquarters. After 20 years in Providence Towers, Henry S. Miller Cos. will move in November to Stanford Corporate Centre, just south of its current home along the Dallas North Tollway. It will occupy the 11th floor and part of the 12th floor for a total of about 25,000 square feet.  “It was a little bit of divine providence that our lease was up,” Miller says of the timing. “Dad didn’t want to leave; he was content to stay. This space has been great, but the move will give us a fresh start.”

In terms of running the business, Miller plans to take a more aggressive approach than his father. He wants the firm to become “more transaction-oriented.” The company has about 60 different partnership investment properties, mainly shopping centers, some office, multifamily, and land. Most are in Texas, but others are spread throughout Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Missouri. “For the longest time, we’d just buy and hold,” Miller says. “In some cases, that’s the best strategy—look at Highland Park Village. But the big money is made in the buying and selling of real estate, when you buy, create value, sell, and parlay that again and again.”

Miller also plans  to hire a new leader to replace him on the syndication side, to shore up the land division, and to bring  in some younger, motivated brokers. The company has about 100 employees in Dallas, including about 75 brokers, most of whom are industry veterans. In the new space, all brokers will be on one floor, in a more open environment.

“It’s going to be great for productivity,” Miller says. “Activity breeds activity. When you see your peers making phone calls and doing deals, you’re going to want to do the same. There will be no more hiding in offices.”

Henry S. Miller Cos. will continue with shopping center projects, but will do more residential lot development and work in the multifamily arena. One of the company’s newest projects is Parkside Towns in Richardson,  a joint venture with developer Mark Humphreys.

Divisional president Kartalis says he’s confident that the fourth-generation leader will succeed. “Greg has a lot of the best qualities of his father, mother, and his grandparents,” Kartalis says. “He has always been supportive of growing the company, and doing so in a way where it remains profitable. I think he’s going to do well, and he has everyone’s support.”