WHEN JOHN MILLER WAS STILL A teenager he was managing his own lawn care company. Called Superior Lawns, Miller’s company handled everything from mowing lawns to working with tractors. It was a pretty successful venture. Between high school proms and mid-term exams, Superior Lawns occupied much of Miller’s focus, and before long, he was pulling in enough business to bring some of his schoolyard friends onboard as workers. By the time he graduated high school, Miller was already deeply enmeshed in the industrialist spirit which has brought him to where he is today. As the head of Yellowstone Landscape Group in Dallas, Texas, Miller now guides and oversees the operations of three of his subsidiary companies: BIO Landscape & Maintenance in Houston, Texas, Piedmont LC in Atlanta, Georgia, and Austin Outdoor in various offices throughout Florida.
For those who know Miller well, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn how he got from where he was to where he is. After all, entrepreneurism is a mindset he was raised on. Growing up in western Nebraska, he was exposed very early on to the advantages a little “can-do” attitude can reap. His step-father owned and operated a local ranch in addition to his own retail company, which offered an array of goods in hardware, furniture and mortuary. In the rural plains of the Midwest, such enterprises did not go unnoticed. His stepfather was a local figurehead, an exemplar of good old-fashioned American capitalism. Inheriting these traits, Miller entered his first year at the University of Nebraska to study business administration.
“Actually, my major was arts and parties,” says Miller matter-of-factly. This is his sense of humor. No-nonsense delivery followed by a soft chuckle—his only indicator that he’s putting you on. “That’s a cheap joke, I know.” When it comes to business, however, Miller is nothing but serious. Following his studies at the University of Nebraska, his hard work ethic catapulted him to a career in a rotating cast of Fortune 500 companies, starting with General Motors.
After a couple of years there, he went to work for General Electric for four years, followed by another several years at the FMC Corporation. But by the late 1980s, the hustle-and-bustle of being another cog in a vast corporate clock had taken its toll on Miller. “After a little more than 15 years of working for Fortune 500 companies, my interest was more entrepreneurial,” he says. “I decided that instead of being a corporate animal, I would go off in a different direction. I managed to persuade some folks to invest with me, and I got into the telecommunications industry.” The company he and his investors created came to be known as LeBlanc.
This company owned several dozen companies spread all across the world in continents as far away as Africa and Australia. Each of these companies operated within their own special niches. Industries such as construction, manufacturing, engineering development; all were covered by the companies LeBlanc owned and oversaw. It was an exciting time for Miller, when possibilities felt endless.
After several years of success, LeBlanc was sold off. Many of the original investors had gotten older and wanted to retire. Others wanted an exit strategy for estate planning. “We were really proud of the company, but there’s a time to take chips off the table and realize a return on the years and money invested,” said Miller.
With LeBlanc no more, Miller spent time in his California vacation home, admiring the Pacific Ocean and playing golf. It was a time to recharge his batteries and to figure out what he wanted to do next. Before it was all over, he ended up in the renewable energy field. The company was called Trinity Industries, located in Dallas, Texas. There, Miller took on the role of general manager, helping in the creation of a new subsidiary company whose goal was to provide components to the wind-energy industry. Borrowing from the knowledge of construction Miller gained at LeBlanc, the company, called Trinity Structural Towers, Inc. (TSTI), built towers to support wind turbines weighing more than Abrams army tanks. The company turned out to be quite successful, but inevitably, Miller grew restless and decided he wanted to run his own company once more.
After an unsuccessful bid to buy TSTI, he returned to Malibu for another sabbatical. He worked for a few consulting companies here and there, which included some high level work for the Pentagon. In 2007, Miller went to work for Gridiron Capital, a private equity group in New Canaan, Connecticut. It was Gridiron that eventually provided the money to help Miller create Yellowstone in May of 2008 and merge three successful landscaping companies together.
The experience has been a positive one for Miller, who as CEO, has been able to use his years of knowledge in business administration and business mergers to create a comfortable and lasting network between other business entities. Says Miller, “The concept is that the same successful businessmen who built these companies will continue to do so with some extra help from Yellowstone. The companies also share their specific segment experience and best practices with each other.”
Yellowstone’s philosophy is strength in unity. By allowing BIO Landscape, Piedmont and Austin Outdoor to come together, these companies now have the resources to expand and acquire smaller companies. “They can build their own franchises with much less difficulty than they could prior to the merger,” says Miller. “And they will help each other out when problems arise.”
For example, Piedmont provided crews to BIO after Hurricane Ike struck Houston. In the workplace, Miller’s role is one of mentor and guide. Outside of the workplace, his role is not much different. With three grown children whose ambitions range from investment banking to economics to business administration, Miller isn’t exactly shy of people looking for a slice of wisdom. And he’s glad to lend it. After all, it’s his expertise.