First Coast Success: Ron Autrey, Miller Electric Co.
Ron Autrey is president and CEO of Jacksonville-based Miller Electric Co., and will step into the role of chairman on Oct. 1.
He will succeed his father, Buck Autrey.
David Long becomes president and Henry Brown will be CEO. Both are senior vice presidents.
Miller Electric was founded in 1928 by Henry G. Miller and has grown from a small local electrical company into one of the largest electrical contractors in the nation.
Ron Autrey, 59, joined the company in 1975 and has worked in every market area of the company. He is state-certified as an electrical contractor and general contractor and is certified in 16 more states and the District of Columbia.
His father has been with the company since 1951 and was tapped to lead it in 1966. He has been chairman of the board.
As president, Ron Autrey directed the company’s expansion into branch offices in eight states. Revenue and profits tripled over a four-year timespan.
Among his public service roles, he is a past chairman of the JAX Chamber, chairs the Jacksonville University board of trustees and is a graduate of JU.
He was named JU’s Distinguished Alumni for 2012 and will be presented the award Friday at the JU President’s Reception at the JU Davis College of Business.
The Daily Record interviewed Autrey for “First Coast Success,” a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross.
The interview is scheduled for broadcast this morning and the replay will be at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at www.wjctondemand.org.
The following are edited excerpts from the full transcript.
Miller Electric is a family business and you are the fourth president. Talk about the establishment of the company.
The company was originally founded by Henry G. Miller. He actually moved his family from Chicago and purchased a company called Miller Electric Company, which was local engineer Doug Miller’s grandfather. The company at that time sold appliances and lighting fixtures and did some residential wiring, but that allowed Henry Miller to establish the business and point it in a new direction and he took on more commercial projects and more importantly, government projects for the military and the federal government.
Talk about your father’s relationship with the company. How did he become part of it?
That’s an incredible story. My mother and father met in Tallahassee and dad was a worker at a skating rink, where he danced around the skate floor and gave instructions and that sort of activity and he met my mother there.
My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a foreman for Miller Electric Company, building projects in Tallahassee. Well, mother and dad fell in love and my grandfather informed him that she was certainly not going to marry a skate rink jockey and if he wanted to pursue that relationship, he would have to move to Jacksonville and take a real job.
So he started with Miller Electric Company as a ground man on a line truck, which is pretty much the lowest paid, lowest responsible position in the company, and his story started from there.
He entered the apprentice training program, quickly excelled at that and ultimately became an instructor in the program for other apprentice electricians. He worked steadily up through the company.
He caught the eye of the president, Mr. Miller, and later Jim Dandelake, the second president of the company, after Mr. Miller’s death. (That) moved dad along a little more quickly and put him in positions of responsibility. And when the founder’s daughter, Jane Miller Wynn, decided she wanted to make a change in the company, Mr. Dandelake was bought out and she brought in my dad to help her continue the operation of the company.
Did you always know you were going to be a part of the company?
I was actually in college; I had redirected my efforts toward other interests and only came back to focus on the company after serving in the Army Security Agency and receiving electronics maintenance training. I found that to be of great value to me as I joined the company.
What sort of value?
The value was that upon leaving the Army I was out of a job and the first call I made was to my father, who of course offered me a position in the company and started a lifelong training program to bring me where I am today.
Your sister is with the company as well.
My sister, Susan (Walden), is our executive vice president and chief financial officer and she started in the company a few years before I arrived and worked her way up through the ranks under Jane Miller Wynn, who was executive vice president and chief financial officer with dad.
And Susan is a dancer?
She is a nationally known amateur smooth dancer and award-winner.
Is it easy to lead a family owned business? Or to be a part of a family owned business?
Miller Electric Company is somewhat unique in that it is organized like any other traditional corporation and it was run and managed as such and not as a mom-and-pop family business. There are a number of family members, but the non-family members exceed the number of family members and each of those family members has found a niche in the company and achieved success and their own direction.
You’ve grown the company. How large is it?
We are working on becoming nationwide. We’ve worked in as many as 20 states. We have licenses from California to Chicago and Washington, D.C., and we are positioned to respond to our clients who are also spread over the country, the Fidelity National Financials and the Bank of Americas and Wells Fargos. It’s not enough to just perform work for them in North Florida.
Talk about some of your most interesting projects.
We have quite a diverse history of project performance, extending from 1950 at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Savannah River plant, where hydrogen bombs were manufactured for potential war efforts, and that was also the first nuclear energy plant in the country. We remained on that site for 20 years or more.
Today we are performing electrical construction services for large data centers around the country. They require hundreds of electrical workers.
We perform work for the Jaguars and EverBank stadium even today, and that history goes back to the original construction of the stadium, as well as the stadiums at Clemson University and the University of Florida as far back as the 1930s.
Miller Electric has history not only in Jacksonville but other parts of the state and beyond.
We’ve tried to concentrate our efforts on economic hubs around the country and certainly South Florida, Central Florida and North Florida, accompanied by the Piedmont region with Atlanta, the Carolinas and Virginia.
Our office in North Texas is outperforming all of them and we are very proud of that operation. That gave us the strength to extend to places like Denver and Phoenix and we have our eye on California.
It takes a good number of very talented, dedicated people to accomplish that.
What do you like best about your job?
Creating success for the company, success certainly for myself and my family, but seeing that same success occurring in other families with the company.
You also have successes as a community leader. You chair the JU board of trustees and you were chairman of the JAX Chamber in 2008. What do you like best about community leadership?
Jacksonville and North Florida have so much potential, as you’ve heard Mayor Alvin Brown often speak about and Mayor John Peyton before that. We have a unique city, with the land mass centered on the St. Johns River, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, just a tremendous place to grow up and raise a family.
The business climate in North Florida and certainly in the state of Florida is also unique to the country. The reason 1,000 people per day moved here prior to the recession, those reasons are still here.
Those people will continue to come. As they’re able to rightsize their portfolio in the Northeast and Midwest and move out of the colder climates, they’ll find Florida again.
When you were chair of the chamber, it was really before the recession had completely set into the nation and into the area. What were the conditions then? What were you hearing about Jacksonville? What were the questions that the companies were asking as they relocated here?
There was a tremendous amount of activity in the economic development component of the chamber and that was very exciting as I was able to chair the second-largest chamber in the country, looking at international development.
We took the first trip to China with a delegation from the chamber to explore the options available to Jacksonville and as I used to tell the membership back then, whether you do business with China today or next year, they still impact everything about your life in America as they become a competitor and as they consume great portions of our natural resources. We have to keep an eye on both the opportunities and the threats associated with that.
I was fortunate to be mentored by a number of great people that led me into the world of nonprofits, but more importantly led me into a circle of people in Jacksonville who are really sincere and generally concerned about the future of the city.
Whether that involvement is through United Way, where I chaired a large fundraising campaign, or leading the chamber of commerce and ultimately becoming chairman of the Jacksonville University (board of trustees), all those things happened because of the influence I received from people who were there before me.
The Bob Shircliffs of the world. Mike Cascone had a huge influence on me. The late Bob Helms was very instrumental in getting me involved in a number of key leadership roles.
Do you see more civic leaders coming up through the ranks?
Absolutely, in organizations like JCCI (Jacksonville Community Council Inc.), which has training programs for young potential leaders, and the chamber of commerce as well as hundreds of young people entering the ranks of leadership in their own industries and seeking positions of leadership in the chamber.
As we change the ranks and the board of directors of the chamber of commerce each year, you see new and emerging leaders along with successful CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and anytime you’re able to put that mix together you achieve a great dynamic that’s very good for Jacksonville and our future.
How would you define your leadership?
I’m a pretty quiet guy, but I think what I am able to do is instill a feeling of trust and a mutually beneficial relationship. When you need to get things done you have to surround yourself with people you can rely on, people you can believe in, with no hidden agendas. And I think I was able to accomplish that in a number of organizations.
Do you have any tips for others who might want to do the same?
Keep an accurate self-concept. Don’t make yourself out to be more than you are.
But continually, continuously strive to be more than you are. Continuous education, as I refer to it, is an absolute necessity. The world changes every week and in the last 35 years of my business life I have never seen one week that looked like the last.
What’s next for Miller Electric?
Continued expansion. I hope to have an office in Phoenix, possibly before the end of the year. We continuously look at other cities, but frankly it is more customer driven. As our clients indicate where their growth areas are, that’s where we try to align our resources.
You have about 1,200 employees. That’s a big company.
It was bigger prior to the recession, but we are getting back to those numbers fairly quickly.
What are you seeing with the economy?
Being a specialty subcontractor we’re not really an index for that, but we’re able to be flexible enough, financially capable enough, to move into areas quickly and respond to opportunities and that has provided a path out of the recession for our company that many smaller firms frankly did not have.
So we see as the market recovers globally and certainly nationally that the available market to us and its expanded footprint will be a tremendous opportunity for growth and while we were tripling revenue in a three- and four-year period, we will see that happen again as the economy recovers nationally.
What do you see locally?
Florida is struggling because it was heavily based in residential real estate sales. All the indicators are moving in a positive direction and the inventory is beginning to dry up.
As I mentioned, the reasons people come to Florida are still there and they will continue to come and as that demand curve changes, the economy in Florida will change along with it.
What do you do for fun?
I enjoy spending time on the water, on my boat. Fishing in the Florida Keys, traveling up and down the coast is a passion of mine.
What else would you like to share?
We have a culture in North Florida and it extends into our company as well, and that is why we are a family unit. We take great pride in the success of our individual families in the company.
I am blessed with a wife and three children and four grandchildren and we’re still growing and I’m very pleased that everyone’s healthy and we’re enjoying life as we move ahead.
Do you have another generation coming through?
We certainly do. My sister has two sons in the business. My three children have not found their way to the company yet but I also have grandchildren and it’s amazing how fast people grow up, and the opportunities I hope will be there for them as they were for me.