It’s not a stretch to say Future Electronics Inc. is at the core of Robert Miller’s life. Although he has numerous interests outside of the company, many of these intersect with the distributor’s activities and Miller unabashedly emphasizes that Future, which he founded nearly 50 years ago and built into one of the top 5 global electronics components distributors, is a tool for advancing his goal of leaving a positive mark on everyone he meets and the less fortunate. – This report is the second part of a series on Robert Miller, founder and CEO of Future Electronics and the company itself. The third and concluding part will explore the founding, growth and expansion plans for Future Electronics. (See: Getting to Know Future Electronics’ Robert Miller, Part One).
The philanthropic activities Miller, Future and its employees are involved in are not known to many primarily because the CEO doesn’t like to be interviewed and keeps these efforts hidden from the larger public. Yet, each year, Miller and Future donate millions of dollars to individuals, foundations and nations globally. Perhaps one day the stories of these activities and the people they have impacted will be told. For now, Miller keeps mum about many of these events.
Miller isn’t a recluse, though. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A former deejay, he loves music and whenever possible treats Future employees and close friends to samples from his collection. He has cultivated friendships with politicians and is actively involved in the world of charity where his activities have had major impacts on individual employees at Future, countless others in Canada as well as people displaced by natural disasters in China, Haiti, Japan and the Philippines.
What’s indeed true, though, is that Miller values his privacy. He grants very few interviews – so far, in the last four decades or so Miller has spoken with a total of about four journalists. Like many other proprietors of large private companies and CEOs of publicly-traded enterprises, Miller is often accompanied by security folks for personal safety.
That’s about the extent of what Miller believes set him apart but it is no different than the lifestyles of other rich people, politicians and celebrities. Miller insists he is as normal as any other individual you meet on a subway and tries his best to lead as regular a life as possible. The Future Electronics CEO drives himself, lives in a simple building devoid of palatial trappings, mingles with friends, family, colleagues and others freely, splurges on almost nothing but likes a good meal and likes setting and achieving goals that seem impossible to others.
“I’m guilty of outrageous behavior, in a good way,” Miller said. “I dare to do things most people wouldn’t do.”
Like establishing a world class electronics components distributor, helping a cancer-stricken employee, a road accident victim or anyone else fortunate to cross his path fight hard to beat staggering odds, daring workers to be their best professionally and as individuals while providing the incentives and environment to help them achieve their dreams. Miller who believes he has led a “charmed life” that’s taken him from having to work in a snack bar and broadcasting to pay for college now dreams of contributing to the creation of a world where wars, conflicts and geopolitical challenges could be resolved peacefully.
“That’s a goal he looks forward to every day,” said Lindsley Ruth, executive vice president at Future Electronics. “It’s a goal I believe comes from his personal attitude. One of Mr. Miller’s strongest assets is that he doesn’t differentiate on the basis of color, creed, titles or positions. At Future, employees know they will never be held back as a result of any of these.”
Future Electronics is at the core of Miller’s interaction with the global community. It would, in a sense, be correct to say that the company was founded to help Miller achieve many of the goals he is passionate about. Interestingly, though, Miller stumbled into the electronics distribution business via his other passion – broadcasting. In the 1960s, while attending New Jersey’s Rider University (then known as Rider Business College) Miller worked in broadcasting and, though he was a “pretty decent DJ” as he puts it, the field wasn’t going to “enable me have the kind of money I wanted for the impact I wanted to have on people.”
Miller worked for Ben Manis at Specialty Electronics in Montreal before striking out on his own with the establishment of Future, in 1968. After buying out Eli Manis, his initial partner, Miller began building Future into the electronics distribution powerhouse it is today. From the beginning there was no doubt in Miller’s mind that Future would become a success and a major global player, he said.
“People ask me frequently if I ever believed I would be able to build a company of Future’s size and I always say ‘yes’,” Miller said.
Future was built on more than just pure conviction or good timing, though. A self-confessed workaholic, Miller once worked more than two years straight (765 days to be precise) without taking a single day’s break, putting in 16 hours or more daily to give the company a good start. He recalls telling someone that the company was about to hit $2 million in sales. “They said ‘this year’ and I responded ‘no, this month’,” recalls Miller. “It wasn’t easy growing to our size without borrowing or taking public funds and it took us 45 years to become an overnight sensation.”
Today, Future Electronics is a $5 billion revenue and 5,500 employee company with extensive operations in North America, Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East/Africa region. The company serves customers through hubs in Memphis, Tenn., Leipzig, Germany, and Singapore. Its operating divisions include Future Lighting Solutions, Future Energy Solutions, Future Display Solutions, Future Connectivity Solutions, FAI and the Advanced Engineering Group with hundreds of engineers helping OEM and EMS customers transition products quickly from design to manufacturing.
As this journalist found out over a two-hour interview, separating the founder’s work ethics and dedication to the company’s customers and suppliers from what makes Future Electronics a unique distributor is quite difficult. Miller shaped Future in his own image, focusing it on service, innovation, dedication, excellence and a passion for giving.
Over the last 25 years, Future has given away more than half of the profits generated, according to Miller, and the distributor continues to reach out to underprivileged people in Canada and other countries. Miller encourages employees to support charities of their choice and personally matches these donations 100 percent. Natural disasters bring out the giver in Miller himself. Future helped with earthquakes in China, Haiti, Japan and more recently when typhoon Haiyan devastated communities in the Philippines. The company is currently building three housing projects for the homeless in the country in addition to buying fishing boats for the relatives of an employee originally from the Philippines.
“We give until it hurts and yet the pleasure to give is incredible,” Miller said. “It’s the reason I work. It has become a lifelong passion for me.”
Miller wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth and the impetus to make a difference in the lives of people around him came from years of observing how a single donor can turn around a disastrous situation for others. Also, Miller said he believes everyone should try and leave an imprint of their existence for others to see. That drive came from attending the funeral of an acquaintance who Miller described as a very decent man but who had only three people present at his burial.
“It was as if the guy’s life was just a ripple on the water. Now you see it and now it is gone,” Miller said. “I told myself at that moment, I wouldn’t be just a ripple on the water. Instead, I decided to make a real difference in the world by helping others. I want to help people to whom diseases have handed a death sentence and change the course of that history. We’ve been able to take the opportunity over the years to do things that have impacted a lot of people.”
The most worthwhile feeling for Miller is to help cure or greatly extend the lives of individuals who have been diagnosed with life-threatening diseases. Once he makes the commitment, he takes it to the limit regardless of cost sometimes paying for hospital care in the United States, where Canadians are not insured and treatments can be quite expensive. The cost is immaterial Miller says, adding “What’s a human’s life worth?” Through his experience, Miller has become quite an expert on where to go in the world to find the best treatments for serious diseases. In fact, Miller has three thick binders of success stories in his office where he has helped people to overcome illnesses against all odds.
Being the sole owner of a major company helps, and seeing the positive results of his actions have also been personally rewarding to Miller. He wants more, though. As he gets older, Miller is looking beyond Future Electronics to a larger world that can benefit from his experience and advocacy for the displaced, the poor and those with major health challenges. So, what should Miller do next?
“He could be on the world stage making the same sort of impact,” Ruth said with a smile. True, but the world would also have to be introduced to Robert Miller first. This is a start.