At 90, Paul Miller lights up the showroom at the Ford dealership he founded

The eye-catching exterior of Paul Miller Ford dealership in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 31, 2012.  Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
The eye-catching exterior of Paul Miller Ford dealership in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 31, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

At age 90, Paul Miller is still keeping an eye on business at Paul Miller Ford-Mazda, the car dealership he founded nearly 60 years ago.

Practically every afternoon, Miller is at the dealership on New Circle Road, where he keeps an office, likes to talk to personnel about sales figures and chats with customers.

"When Mr. Miller walks into the showroom, it's like Walt Disney coming in," said Britt Jordan, manager of consumer experience. "He lights up the room."

Recently, he thanked a car-shopping couple for their business in the Ford-Mazda showroom bearing his name on New Circle Road.

"They said, 'Are you really Paul Miller?' They couldn't believe it," said David Wilson, director of service, parts and collision centers.

Miller, who founded the dealership nearly 60 years ago, isn't bothered that people might not know him. Promoting his business never meant promoting himself.

"I'm not the type to put on the dog, never was," he said. "In meetings, I tended to keep my mouth shut, listen more than I talked."

When he visits, "he'll ask about sales figures, how we're doing for the month, how we did last month," said grandson J.P. Miller Jr., who now runs the dealership. "He'll say, 'Keep up the good work.'"

And there's a lot of work to do. The business today, officially called Paul Miller Ford Inc., includes two new-car showrooms — one for Ford and another for Mazda — and a host of other offerings. Among them are used cars, six Fortune Collision Centres, the Paul Miller Truck Service Center, Quick Lane Tire and Auto Centers, Beasley Digital Printing for custom-designed vehicle graphics, an after-market accessories business called Autosports, and Paul Miller Upfitters, a division that outfits police and fire vehicles all over the state.

Becoming a salesman

Paul Miller was born a salesman, a talent he recognized as a youngster.

"I loved selling things. I loved people," he said.

At age 14, he hawked newspapers on a street corner in Charleston, W.Va., working his way up to district manager.

After serving in World War II, he sold cars for a Charleston dealership owned by an Ohio businessman with several other Ford lots in the region. He rose through the ranks quickly and took higher-level jobs at some of those other dealerships. In 1953, he got the nod to help open one in Lexington, and he became president and general manager.

"We date the beginning of the dealership to the time my grandfather came to Lexington," said J.P. Miller Jr., who is president and general manager.

Two years later, Miller bought the owner's share of the dealership at 255 East Main Street and changed its name to Paul Miller Ford.

Over the next decade, the business grew until it was too large for Main Street. He bought six acres at 975 New Circle Road, near the intersection with Winchester Road, and hired Lexington architect Helm Roberts to design the building and its iconic white roof.

It was outside the city limits at that time, although there were a few other businesses along the highway.

Ford wasn't happy with Miller.

"They turned thumbs down. They said it was a terrible location; customers wouldn't go that far out of town," Miller said. "I said, 'That's tough, because I've already bought it.'"

Miller downplays his personal achievements and attributes a lot of his success to luck and timing.

"I'm one lucky guy," he said.

But his luck hasn't always held up.

He tells of a time in the late 1960s when a decline in the coal industry nearly dealt his business a fatal blow.

Miller had sold several dozen large coal trucks to Eastern Kentucky mining companies, and he financed the deal with money he borrowed from a Philadelphia bank. When the coal market hit the skids, the coal companies couldn't make the payments, and the trucks were sent back to Miller. His choice: sell them or pay for them.

He flew to Philadelphia and met with the bankers.

"They told me, 'You owe us more money than a Philadelphia utility company,'" he recalled, chuckling. But the bankers had confidence in Miller to let him go back to Lexington to sell his way out of the situation.

"We sold trucks to anybody anywhere — Mexico, South America, you name it."

Crisis averted. But as a reminder, employees gave him a Christmas gift of a small red coal truck with a small plaque at its base reading, "Lest we forget."

The UK connection

One of the reasons for Miller's mystique is his absence from the dealership's television commercials. For those and other advertising, the company has long turned to University of Kentucky basketball and football coaches.

Starting with Adolph Rupp, the dealership made cars available to the coaches. The game-changer though, in terms of a formal marketing strategy, happened when Rick Pitino came to town.

"That was a turning point for us to dial in with his brand and his success," J.P. Miller Jr. said.

The company created a Rick Pitino Ford Explorer, with customized touches such as Pitino's signature on the doors, a gold key chain and a special matched set of luggage.

The new UK coach had just moved to Lexington from New York, but he and a film crew were flown back to New York City to tape a commercial with the vehicle in front of Madison Square Garden.

"From the Big Apple to the Bluegrass, nobody beats Paul Miller," the coach said in the ad.

The association with UK is one the Miller family has embraced, J.P. Miller Jr. said. Besides its association with UK football and the men's and women's basketball teams, the dealership is a sponsor of other UK sports, including baseball, soccer and tennis. Recently, it also donated a 64-foot box truck to the UK marching band to help transport instruments.

"At the end of the day, when the lights go out and the players go home, it's still the University of Kentucky, and we want to be associated with that," J.P. Miller Jr. said.

Family business

Now 36, J.P. Miller Jr. took over the company six years ago from his father, John Paul Sr., who had been president for more than 30 years. John Paul Miller Sr. is CEO of Paul Miller Ford Inc. and is president of Fortune Business Centre, an office park immediately behind the dealership.

J.P. Miller Jr. has been a presence at the dealership since he was 7 years old. He helped wash cars that first summer. Salesman Geoff Grimes taught him the finer techniques of selling cars at age 10.

The youngster sold his first car that summer.

"It was a maroon Escort," said Grimes, who is now sales manager of the Auto Outlet pre-owned division. "The woman was a teacher. She was a hard sell. We double-teamed her, and J.P. sealed the deal. He got the commission — $30."

Like Grimes, many employees have been with the company for decades. Racking up the most seniority is parts salesman Harold Rainey, 71, who has worked for Paul Miller Ford-Mazda for 50 years, starting when it was on East Main Street.

"We were able to expand because we took care of our customers," Rainey said. "If you take care of your customers, stick with them, they'll come back to you."

Evidence of the love from customers comes in the summers, when tomatoes get ripe.

"We're overrun with tomatoes," J.P. Miller Jr. said. "When Christmas rolls around, here come the cakes."

There could be a fourth generation: J.P. Miller Jr.'s 4-year-old son, Paul Miller II.

"We hope he has some gasoline in his veins," J.P. Miller Jr. said.

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