Greg Miller has a long-time love affair withLand Cruiser SUVs. As a kid, his heart was stolen when he saw a powder-blue FJ40 at a Colorado dealership where his dad worked as a parts manager.
“I climbed in and pretended to drive,” he says. He bought his first used FJ40 soft top when he was 18. “Since then I’ve probably owned 100 of them.”
Miller heads the Sandy, UT-based Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, founded by his late father, Larry Miller, who in 1979 bought his first dealership, astore in Murray, UT.
Today, the family company owns a wide portfolio of holdings ranging from the Utah Jazz pro basketball team to movie theaters to 55 dealerships in seven states.
Greg Miller managed some of those dealerships before becoming CEO in 2008, a year before his father died. The son is adventurous, yet cautiously aware of risks. That combination of traits has aided him in business and in an unusual project that began after he decided to set a global driving record in his beloved vehicle.
“The idea for Expeditions 7 was hatched with my friend Scott Brady, who has been an adventure traveler for most of his life,” says Miller, 47. “We were sharing war stories about our travels a few years ago and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you could drive the same vehicle on all seven continents?’
“Scott said: ‘That’s never been done, but we should do it.’”
With Miller’s financial backing and Brady’s logistic experience, E7 became a reality with the ambitious goal of driving Land Cruisers in non-consecutive trips across North America, Europe, Russia and Siberia, Australia, Africa, Antarctica and South America.
“We have followed many of the most historic overland travel routes, including Trans-Iceland, NordKapp in Norway, Russia’s Road of Bones, the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia, and Trans-Africa,” says Brady, a U.S. Air Force veteran who is co-founder and chairman of Overland Journal, an adventure travel magazine.
It's Family Affair
The first trip, from Prudhoe Bay, AK, to Cape Spear, Newfoundland, including a stop in Detroit, began in April 2011. It took 26 days and spanned 7,800 miles (12,480 km). While in the Motor City, Miller visited withGT designer Camilo Pardo and Quality Metal Crafters, manufacturer of American Expedition Vehicle conversion packages for SUVs.
Journeys across Antarctica and South America are in the works. They steer clear of countries the U.S. government deems as unsafe for foreign travelers.
Miller’s three sons and wife have joined him on some of the trips as well as other outings.
“I love adventure, especially with my kids,” Miller says. “Five years ago, our family theme was ‘The year of 100 adventures.’ We did 100 hikes, bike rides and family trips. It really brought us together.”
He saw E7 as a great way to spend time with the family, see the world, grow as an individual, expand his children’s horizons and “calibrate how blessed we are.”
With Brady charting the courses, it was up to Miller to supply the vehicles. But the models they needed, two ’12 VDJ78s and a ’13 VDJ79 fitted with 202-hp 4.5L turbodiesel V-8s, were not sold in the U.S.
“At the time, that engine was only available in the body style we needed in Australia and New Zealand,” Miller says. “We had to form companies there to get the vehicles purchased, registered and exported to the U.S.”
The two VDJ78s have traveled every mile the team has driven so far. The VDJ79 replaced a model with a straight 6-cyl. engine after North American and European excursions. “The V-6 just couldn’t keep up with the V-8s,” Miller says.
“The Land Cruiser is specifically designed to operate in extreme environments, so it would be entirely feasible to do all but the most technical sections with a stock vehicle,” Brady says.
However, to create what he calls “dream vehicles” providing optimal performance, safety and security, the team added heavy-duty suspensions, aftermarket shocks and springs, custom bumpers, dual batteries, auxiliary fuel tanks, roof racks, a heavy-duty winch, larger tires and an array of high-powered lights.
On the inside, the vehicles feature custom-made storage systems, sleeping platforms, a refrigerator and an auxiliary heater that services both the engine block and interior.
Miller shares logistics, vehicle and equipment specifications and resources along the routes with other aspiring world travelers. He doesn’t disclose the cost of E7, calling it a “personal endeavor.”
Aside from helping Miller’s team identify and acquire the vehicles, Toyota was not heavily involved in the project.
“They pointed us in the right direction and helped connect with the right people to get the vehicles that we needed,” Miller says. “When they heard about our plans they just said, ‘It’s a Land Cruiser, it’s built to do that.’ It’s not like they were amazed or spellbound.”
Biggest Danger: Other Drivers
After five continents and 40,000 miles (64,000 km), Miller considers himself fortunate for avoiding both vehicle damage and personal injury.
“When we started, I asked Scott if we were going to take guns and he said no, it would be unwise to be in a situation where you want to protect yourself with a gun,” he says. “The most dangerous thing we’ve encountered is exactly what Scott said it would be: driving the cars.”
Any adventure driving, by definition, comes with risks, and one only needs to watch crashes recorded by dash-cam videos to understand the perils.
“Russia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, simply because of the driving conditions there,” Brady says. “Very aggressive drivers operating at high rates of speed on very narrow roads. We had close calls.”
Miller adds: “We were flat-out lucky to have gotten out of there alive.”
For him, the rewards of E7 far outweigh anything else. “It became obvious to me very quickly that the best part of the adventure was going to be getting to know so many interesting and friendly people along the way.”
A favorite recollected encounter was with a single mom working as an Applebee’s server in Pennsylvania. She initially gave the group a skeptical look when they told her they were planning a trip to the South Pole.
“But every time she visited the table, the conversation progressed,” Miller says. “And when she brought the check, she pulled up a chair and told us that we had inspired her to take her daughter on a vacation.
“As simple as that sounds, it’s the magic of E7, because it inspires people to reach a little farther, to step out of their comfort zone and experience life.”
Miller says E7 benefits him in his role as CEO of the vast family business, even though it has taken him out of the office for 132 days.
“The first time I was gone, I called my assistant expecting her to say, ‘I’m glad you finally checked in,’” he says. “But she said just the opposite: ‘Everything is rolling along nicely.” She teased him, saying, “We don’t want you to come back and screw things up.’
Kidding aside, that to him demonstrates the competence of the company’s leadership team “and the high levels at which our business units were performing while I was away,” he says.
“That means when I come back, if I’m going to involve myself in these businesses, I have to add something that will take them to an even higher level of performance. It’s forced me to think about how I can be the most effective.”
Miller regularly sits in on dealership sales meetings, but he doesn’t talk about cost reduction, inventory or other basic business matters. That’s the job of the general managers and Dean Fitzpatrick, president-automotive operations.
Instead, Miller thanks employees and discusses business culture and values. “I talk about how every one of our 10,000 employees is an extension of me or my mom (Gail Miller, company chairman), and as such they need to conduct themselves accordingly.
“I talk about why we’re in business; how it would be easy to cash it all in and go play. But that doesn’t validate us as a family or as individuals. Also, it wouldn’t leave us in a position to create opportunities for growth at personal and corporate levels.”
Of the 55 LHM dealerships, 17 made the 2013 WardsAuto Dealer 500, a ranking of top stores in the U.S.
“What I’ve seen on Expeditions 7 reflects the reason why Greg and his family have been so successful in the business world,” Brady says. “He knows when to push hard and when to take risks, and he also knows when it’s time to back off because the cost of a mistake may be too great.
“We’ve dealt with very intense experiences and foreign cultures, and the fact that Greg knows what to say, how to treat other people and be thankful and thoughtful toward them, it’s all a reflection of his business acumen.”