These interviews took place on August 28 and September 18, 2007, at Vera Bradley corporate offices in Fort Wayne, Indiana.Learn more about Patricia Miller
Part oneSkip to next interview transcript
SCARPINO: It should be on. And as I said before I turned the tape recorder on, and the recorder is on now, I am going to ask for the record for permission to record the interview and transcribe the interview and to place the interview and transcription in the IUPUI Special Collections Archives for the use of that institution’s patrons.
MILLER: I agree to that.
SCARPINO: Thank you very much. And I am going to spend part of the time we have together asking you questions that led up to your development of Vera Bradley, and so on, and then I will leave time to work in all the standard leadership questions.
MILLER: All right.
SCARPINO: I want to start long ago and far away, and ask you a few questions about your high school and college years and just begin with the question, who were your parents?
MILLER: My parents were Eugene and Wilma Polito—P O L I T O.
SCARPINO: A good Italian name.
MILLER: A good Italian name.
SCARPINO: And you lived in Illinois?
MILLER: I lived in Farmington, Illinois. I was born in Dixon, Illinois, a birth place of one of our presidents, Ronald Reagan. Shortly after I was born my parents moved to Farmington, which is the town that they both went to school. That was their home town too.
SCARPINO: And I understand that your grandfather lived there and he had a grocery store?
MILLER: Yes, my grandfather Santo, Sam, and his wife Antonina were there. They were from Sicily originally and immigrated to this country landing in Boston and then went to Farmington because of the strip mining, the coal mining. My grandfather started a small grocery store, and for all practical purposes everyone in that little town of two thousand was Italian. I thought that was America. [laughing] I thought all American names ended with vowels.
SCARPINO: Did you learn to speak Italian as a child?
MILLER: You know I didn’t because if you’ll remember, and you might be too young to remember, but during World War II the Italians were not our allies and so my grandparents chose—which is to this day I am miserable thinking that I cannot speak Italian—not to teach me Italian. I mean I have listened to it enough; I think, and this is maybe one of my dreams, would be to live in Italy for at least a year and pick up the language and learn more about the culture.
SCARPINO: Did you work in your grandfather’s store?
MILLER: I did. I worked there from before the time I could even see over the counter. And I think that is the basis of my life-long love of business because I did everything in that little store that I do here or have done in business.
SCARPINO: How did the customers feel about coming into a store and seeing a little girl looking over the top of the counter?
MILLER: Well, I think they liked it; I think they liked it. My father is one of eight children. He was the second youngest. He worked—I think everyone probably worked there for a time before they went on. I think I learned everything about business there, from customer service, inventory control; I remember talking to the salesmen that came in to take orders, and this was a little grocery store. I learned about display—and if you see the markets, the little markets in New York City now where they have the produce beautifully displayed in the pyramids and the beautiful flowers. We sold a lot of tobacco and a lot of candy and a lot of produce. Not a lot of canned goods, that sort of thing. It was a busy, busy place because we didn’t have a supermarket then. That came and …
SCARPINO: …did it put your grandfather’s store out of business?
MILLER: It didn’t go out of business, but it was certainly the beginning of the end.
SCARPINO: Did you have any brothers or sisters?
MILLER: I have a brother who is three years younger than me.
SCARPINO: And his name is?
MILLER: His name is Lewis.
SCARPINO: Was there anyone in your family your mother, your father, your grandfather, your grandmother who had a particularly important influence on the businessperson or the leader that you later became?
MILLER: I think both my grandparents—my other, my maternal grandparents lived on a farm and it was a farm-farm. They had crops, and they had animals and chickens and my grandmother, I remembered her cooking on a cook stove, and she used corncobs for fuel in that cook stove and she prepared fabulous food for thrashers. You know your hear, well it’s like you’re cooking for thrashers, well she did. Sitting in the front yard and making ice cream at night. Going to…
SCARPINO: …hand-cranked freezer?
MILLER: Yes. That is; it’s saying I am old because I can remember all that. But, that was such a—I had a fabulous childhood.
SCARPINO: Where was their farm?
MILLER: Their farm was just outside Farmington. Canton, Illinois.
SCARPINO: You went to high school in Farmington. What was the name of your high school?
MILLER: Farmington High School. [laughing]
SCARPINO: That would work. [laughing] Was there anyone during your high school years that inspired or influenced your development as a businessperson?
MILLER: I don‘t know about business, but I had such good teachers. My first grade teacher also taught my parents in first grade, Miss Pettyjohn. You know you can always remember these names. And then in junior high school I had Miss Wilson, and she was a poet; she was a published poet. And I think of all the classes I had either in grade school or high school, hers was my favorite because we memorized poems like Evangeline and the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. She mesmerized me with the reading of poetry and good literature. And this was in a little town of two thousand, and we had these wonderful teachers. Chemistry teacher, Mr. Bankston, I was afraid of him because I would [both laugh]—But he was good, he was very demanding. Algebra took me for a ride, but I had a wonderful, wonderful teachers. I liked school.
SCARPINO: Do you think that schooling prepared you to step out into the public arena at some point in the future?
MILLER: I don’t know. I don’t know. The thing I think of is so many of my class mates still live there and chose to live there. I always knew that I wanted to go away to college and away then meant I didn’t want to go in state for some reason. My poor parents. I had to go out of state, which meant the tuition was more.
SCARPINO: I understand. I have two boys. [laughing]
MILLER: So, anyway, I had a neighbor, her name was Marilyn Crane and she went to IU and she was a music major. And even then IU had a great music school. When she would come home for vacations I would listen to her sing and play piano. She let me sit on the bench. She would tell me stories about IU and show me pictures of the campus and so when we did visit, when I was a junior, I fell in love with it. I think the esthetics have always been so important to me, how something looks. It looked like I thought a campus should look.
SCARPINO: Beautiful campus.
MILLER: It’s a beautiful campus, and I still feel that way.
SCARPINO: My son just graduated from Bloomington.
MILLER: It’s a great school.
SCARPINO: As you look back on your high school years were there any events that happened while you were in high school that had an influence on either the business person or the leader you became later on?
MILLER: Well I think that, when you are—Yes. I think when you’re in a small school like that if you don’t participate in most activities you don’t have them. And, so, I was on the school newspaper. I was in the chorus. I was in a vocal ensemble, and I don’t know how I did that because I have a terrible singing voice. I was probably an officer. You just had to participate or you didn’t have enough people to do it. It’s probably good and bad because I to this day seem to be a dabbler. And a master of none.
SCARPINO: It seems hard to believe, but that’s. . .
MILLER: . . . And I always think that if I just concentrated a little more. The other thing I regretted was that at that time girls were not allowed to participate in sports. I was always a tree climber. I loved sports, and I grew up playing baseball and softball in vacant pastures you know. Girls weren’t allowed to do that. We were able to play basketball, and that was half court unless you were a roving guard, which I always liked to be at the noon hour. That was such an injustice, and I felt that then. So, I think that having sports as a back ground, even though we weren’t able to do it in school, I loved the team concept. I liked what sports taught you about winning and about losing. I think the ah—both are lessons that are good for your decisions throughout life.
SCARPINO: I was going to ask you how you ended up with IU but you told me that already. What did you major in at Indiana University?
MILLER: My freshman year, and I was also—I used to love art, and I shouldn’t say used to, I still do. But, I used to paint and draw, which I don’t do anymore. Some day I will do that. So I started to major, I think I majored in art and minored in Phys Ed or vice versa I can’t remember. I wanted, I loved the Phys Ed and I enjoyed art. It meant that I was in class three hours for every hour of credit so I left the dorm in the dark and I got back in the dark. At Christmas when we went home for a holiday break my uncle said what are you doing? And I realized that I was not that talented in art. So he said, why don’t you just major in business? By that time I had enough for almost a minor in art or Phys Ed. I must have majored in Phys Ed, I did, and then minored in art. So I changed my major to business and had a minor in Phys Ed and it was Business Education. Because, again, I didn’t think outside the box enough. I am sure I could have gotten a business degree. I am sure there are plenty of women that did. But everyone told me, well, you have to be a teacher. So, I was a teacher.
SCARPINO: So you moved in that direction?
MILLER: Um Hm.
SCARPINO: You must have found some time to do something besides go to class because I read in some material that you met your husband at a football game. [laughing]
MILLER: Yes. See, there the sports theme continues. But I did our senior year. We met at a football game. I was a Kappa Delta at IU, and he was a Sigma Nu and the houses were next to each other so we met at a football game.
SCARPINO: Were you an officer of Kappa Delta?
MILLER: I was not. I remember doing calligraphy of the sorority prayer. We were new on campus; after we were on campus at one time, and then during the depression went off campus. So I was in a class, I think the second class, of a new, fairly new sorority. A new, old sorority. So, I was the artist of sort and did the sorority prayer. We very soon had a visit of one of the national officers. One of the questions was where is your prayer? It is supposed to be hanging on the wall. Well the answer was that it was in my closet. I hadn’t finished it. But I was not an officer. No, I was working. I had to work because of going out of state and the tuition. My freshman year I worked in the dorm in the cafeteria and did not like that job. It’s always good to have a job; you know you don‘t want to do that.
SCARPINO: It helps you make some important choices in life.
MILLER: It does; it does. And then I was able to get a job in the scholarship office. I had that for the remaining three years.
SCARPINO: Several years later when you were getting down to the business starting Vera Bradley did you draw on your design experience and your art classes, your interest and passion for art, did those eventually connect up in some way?
MILLER: Yes, I believe so because when we decided to start this business of women’s bags, we knew that we wanted to design cotton fabric. The design element was part of that. Even though we worked and collaborated with the textile designers it was our eye and our meaning. My business partner, Barbara Baekgaard; we knew what we liked. I think that probably had something to do with that.
SCARPINO: You helped me out. I was going to stumble over the pronunciation of Baekgaard.
SCARPINO: During your years at Indiana University was there any individual or individuals who inspired or influenced you as your career developed later on?
MILLER: Well, I will say, my parents did not go to school, college, and so it was a very new—we didn’t talk about it because they didn’t have that experience. Joining a sorority, and then we thought IU was big. I can’t even remember the student body population at that time, but it wasn’t like it is now. When you have a smaller community within a large community like that it helps. That helped me quite a bit. It also gave me some mentors, some women that were in the sorority. Not only Kappa Delta but other sororities. It helped with social graces. I mean we had exchanges, we were taught table manners, etiquette, not that you didn’t have it growing up but it was a more formalized education. I think that was very helpful because I had never been, other than one trip, I think to Canada to visit some relatives, we didn’t go anywhere. We didn’t take long vacations like our children have taken. When I look back to think that I did decide to go to Indiana I didn’t know a person there when I went. I think you know that was maybe somewhat brave of me to do that then. So it was a good learning experience and probably gave me some self confidence every time you walked through a door that you’re a little bit shaky about and you do it.
SCARPINO: Do you think self confidence is an important quality for a business person or leader?
MILLER: I don’t think you can say how important it is. It is so important. How do you teach someone self confidence? Raising my own children I’ve asked that question. Some have it; some don’t, in one degree or another. Self confidence is very, very important, and I think that every experience that you push yourself a little bit and you do it gives you some more self confidence.
SCARPINO: Do you think that somewhere out there, out there on the self confidence spectrum, there is a line that one crosses from self confidence to arrogance that sometimes gets leaders or business people into trouble?
MILLER: I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen that happen. I hope it hasn’t happened to me.
SCARPINO: No. There’s no implication of that. [laughing]
MILLER: No, but I’ve seen that happen. My thought on arrogance is they’re not self confident. I think that is somewhat a protection. The leaders and people that I have met and respect are not arrogant.
SCARPINO: How do you think a leader manifests self confidence? How do you know it when you see it?
MILLER: They are—They obviously have a vision that they are able to communicate. Communication is another big word. They treat people the way they would like to be treated, because if you‘re a leader you need to be a leader of people. Those people, if you‘re smart, you choose very carefully and you choose very good people who care about your vision. Probably the best thing to do then is to give them a directive that is clear and get out of the way and let them do what they do best. Certainly to choose people that do things, certain things, better than you can.
SCARPINO: Does that characterize your style?
MILLER: Yes, yes. Going back to team work again. I enjoy that. I like to work with people.
SCARPINO: While you were in college, and I think you graduated in 1960, so it must have been 1956 to 1960, were there any events that took place that shaped your development as a leader or businessperson whether it was locally or nationally or internationally?
MILLER: I was able to hear speakers of world renown—the university, not only speakers, but even musicians. I heard Errol Garner; I heard Duke Ellington. I loved jazz and loved music. Upton Sinclair, I heard him speak.
SCARPINO: Oh my.
MILLER: It was awesome. In fact I just read the other day that appearance at IU was one of his last. It was one of these little bits of information you don’t expect to pop up, but I remember very clearly listening to him and certainly reading his books. The university—and I wanted to go to a Big Ten university, because I felt, not that smaller universities and colleges don’t attract these people, because they do. But I did want that far reaching element.
SCARPINO: And it worked for you at Bloomington?
MILLER: It did work. It did work. And of course Herman Wells who was the President; he is still revered. You still feel his presence there. He was a brilliant businessman, a brilliant leader, but he was also so very, very accessible.
SCARPINO: I was actually fortunate to meet Herman Wells a few times before he died. He was quite an individual, well into his eighties and nineties.
MILLER: Yes, he was.
SCARPINO: Did you ever think of yourself as a leader while you were in college?
MILLER: I probably didn’t. I probably didn’t.
SCARPINO: I read an interview that you gave with Indianapolis Woman, November of 2005. And in that interview you talked about your college years, about women’s roles in the fifties and early sixties, and you said something that you alluded to a few minutes ago. You said: “When I look back and think I was not looking outside the box. Women were in a box then and I did not look outside of it.”
SCARPINO: What did you mean by that?
MILLER: Well, I will give you a specific example, when I had graduated from IU and then we went back for graduate work, and I was married at the time. My husband was starting law school, actually was in his second year lawyer, or a law student. I wanted to teach in Bloomington. I went in for the interview, and we were expecting our first child. The interviewer said I could not teach because I was pregnant. It didn’t even occur to me to argue the point. It was discriminating, and that was such a valuable lesson too. Another time when I graduated my counselor told me when I was interviewing for a teaching job that I should definitely have a face to face interview. I suppose you would always do that, but he said because with your last name being Polito you will be discriminated against and you are also a woman, although teaching that will be no problem. But, that was a valuable lesson, because I felt discriminated against when he said that. I think I have a better understanding, certainly not as good as I should, but I have a better understanding of how people feel when they’re discriminated against. There’s no better lesson then to experience something.
SCARPINO: Do you think that a successful leader needs to be able to think outside the box?
MILLER: Absolutely, yes.
SCARPINO: How do you figure out where the box is? [laughing]
MILLER: I know. [laughing] Well, we always tell, I always tell people you want people with a point of view even if it’s not an acceptable point of view or a point of view that is [pauses to think] in the box. I think you need people to always be pushing a little bit. I love to have ideas and I—in a meeting, people come up with ideas. You say there are no dumb questions. Well you say that but you know that everyone, no one, wants to say something that everybody looks at him like, what are you thinking? I think that’s a part of being a creative person. I think leaders have to be creative. They have to always stay fluid because there’s such a danger of becoming solid not moving and that’s a big danger. You always want to stay fluid.
SCARPINO: Do you think there’s some balance or tension between creativity on the one hand and safety and comfort, standing inside the box, on the other?
MILLER: I suppose. I heard an expression the other day that I loved and I never heard of it. Somebody said, everyone thinks that they’d like to live in an artist’s colony until they do and then they want some type of structure. I suppose that’s true; life is a balance. So, you want creative people, but you also need to have some processes and structure in place so that you know, a river has banks but between those banks it flows freely. So, you need some type of structure or boundaries. Certainly, in between, you want to be pretty free.
SCARPINO: So, do you think some of the responsibility of the leader is to be creative on the one hand and to figure out where the banks are on the other?
MILLER: Yes. Yes. Because people need to know what your vision is, what your direction is, and how you are going to get there. You need to measure. Measuring, one thing I learned from Governor Daniels. He always said that unless you’re measuring, you’re just practicing. So, you need measurement.
SCARPINO: When you gave that interview, and you said that women then were in a box and you were talking about your college years, do you think that’s changed?
MILLER: Oh, yes. Yes. And being the mother of three sons and I see them in the workplace now and they are working side by side with women. The women who are often superior in the workplace to them. I may be wrong but I think that they accept that as a very natural thing. They accept the work place. Of course there are always going to be the exception to that, but I see them as working side by side with women and thinking that’s fine. Of course maybe their mother had some influence on that because I usually—I worked during the time they were growing up.
SCARPINO: Do you think of yourself as a role model?
MILLER: You know, I do. I do. I think it’s important to do that. If someone calls me and asks for—it happened yesterday—I had a phone call and someone said, I have some great ideas for bags. And then they said, I am not going to take any business away from you, but I don’t know where to start. We had to help. We had people that would listen to us and give us some advice. The best advice is no advice. The best advice is to throw back questions and let that person answer some questions, which is what happened to us.
SCARPINO: Who supplied you with advice, particularly when you were thinking in terms of creating Vera Bradley?
MILLER: When we started with this idea we needed most of—both Barb and I are somewhat right and left brained. Barb is definitely more right brained than me. She is very, very creative. Very talented. Very talented designer. I am probably more left brain. So, we went to SCORE: Service Core of Retired Executives. A friend of ours who had a design business, furniture and interior design business, said you should go to SCORE. So, I looked it up in the phone book, and we have a SCORE chapter in Fort Wayne. I called. They sent out the form. Do you need help with marketing, sales, finance, and I checked all of them. I took our box which was our office with some of our prototypes in; it was our office. George Cook was the person they had us see, and he had just retired as Executive VP from Grey Magnum Wire, which is a branch of Alcoa. George being an accountant was just the right person for us. He is still here. In fact I was saying I am going to call him this week because I haven’t talked to him in a while. He is in his late eighties now and a wonderful man, taught me so much, because he’s the one that never answered my questions. I said George, we need a system; we need to be plugged into a system thinking of a franchise or something. He said “I can‘t do that.” You have to walk before you run; you need to figure things out. Being in business, this is our twenty fifth year in business, we figured some things out. We still have a long way to go, but we did figure some things out and he was a huge help. Huge. And it was free.
SCARPINO: You must have been his most successful pupil?
MILLER: We got more than we paid for. It was free.
SCARPINO: I am going say a few things for the record here.
SCARPINO: So, that when somebody listens to this tape in twenty years it will all be in one place. You graduated from college in 1960 and from 1960 to 69 you taught school, middle school, high school in various places. You spent a couple of years teaching in Hammond, Whiting, and Bloomington, Fort Wayne. I think you taught business and Phys Ed, is that right?
SCARPINO: And some adult education?
SCARPINO: And then you moved to Bloomington where your husband went to law school and then in 1965 to Fort Wayne when he accepted employment with a law firm?
MILLER: Um hm.
SCARPINO: And then I understand you stopped teaching when your third child was born. Your son, Jay, who was born in 1969. Is that right?
SCARPINO: Okay. So, did you like to teach?
MILLER: I loved it. I loved it. I thought it was great. I enjoyed it very much. Liked the high school kids. When I taught junior high when we were in Bloomington—that‘s a funny age; they‘re junior high.
SCARPINO: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. [laughing]
MILLER: How we ever get through middle school, I don’t know. I did; I loved teaching. I enjoyed it very much.
SCARPINO: What did you like about it?
MILLER: I could see the progress of the kids. I could see them learning something and of course everything I taught is now in the Smithsonian. I taught short hand. I taught typing, which is now keyboard and I am so frustrated that we didn’t have computers then because I missed that. I use one now, but I had to learn. My kids learned by osmosis. I swear they were born with a computer gene in their brain. I loved to see the progress of the kids. Something like short hand, which no one does anymore, that you went from nothing to teaching them the skill. I loved to teach. It was fun.
SCARPINO: Do you think that the skills that you developed as a teacher carried over into your work as a business person and a leader?
MILLER: I know they did. I know they did being able to get out in front of a group and speak. That was invaluable. Having an organization, lesson plan and learning how to get along with students and teachers who came from varied backgrounds. Some kids had many advantages; others had none. How to work with those different types of people.
SCARPINO: I’d like to start talking about your work as a business person and your friend and partner’s name is Barbara Baekgaard?
MILLER: Baekgaard, like your back.
SCARPINO: Now for the sake of the poor person who has to transcribe this recording I’m going to spell it and I hope I get it right and it’s B A E K G A A R D.
MILLER: Yes. It‘s Danish.
SCARPINO: All right. I recognized the double A. The pronunciation was eluding me. I read an interview with her in which she talked about you and she was quoted as saying, talking about the two of you, “Our backgrounds are totally different. You would almost think we had nothing in common.” What was different about your backgrounds?
MILLER: I told you I came from this little farming community in central Illinois and she came from Miami Beach. Her father was a very successful businessman and a very nice person, very nice person. And her mother—wonderful person.
SCARPINO: What was his business?
MILLER: He was a salesman, and then he bought the Vectra Light Candle Company and later sold that to Lenox. It’s now Lenox Candles. He also had a cream shampoo that he sold and it became Luster Cream Shampoo, which the young people listening to this won’t remember that but it was…
SCARPINO: …Well I do for the record…
MILLER: …It was a very big shampoo. A very successful and from a big city, although she went to a very small Catholic school in Miami Beach. I think her school might have been smaller than mine.
SCARPINO: High school?
MILLER: High school, grade school, small Catholic school.
SCARPINO: You ended up in Fort Wayne because your husband accepted employment here in a law firm. How did she end up in Fort Wayne?
MILLER: Her first husband bought a paper company here. She moved into my neighborhood, Wildwood Park, and I was the welcoming committee of one. I knocked on her door. Jay, who was I think five then, my youngest son was with me and she said “I’m nice.” I said “welcome to the neighborhood.” And she answered with “do you know how to hang wall paper?” And I said “no” and she said “well come on in, I‘ll teach you.” So, we had a wall paper business that was our first business venture together.
SCARPINO: Is that the firm you called Up The Wall?
MILLER: Yes. That was Up Your Wall.
SCARPINO: Oh, Up Your Wall, okay.
MILLER: We hung wall paper, and we also sold paper. We drove to Chicago or Columbus where they would have discontinued papers—warehouse full of them. Buy the paper, the rolls of paper, for maybe fifty cents a roll. Drive it back in our station wagon, in our basement called all of our friends and said we have great wall paper for a dollar a roll. Not a bad profit.
SCARPINO: Sounds like a healthy mark up.
MILLER: Sold the paper and said, by the way, if you need it hung we’ll do it. So that was our first business together.
SCARPINO: So, how did you learn to hang wall paper?
MILLER: She was a good teacher, too. I wasn’t the only good teacher. She was a good teacher.
SCARPINO: She already knew how to do this?
MILLER: She knew how to do it. Yes.
SCARPINO: She also said that your backgrounds are totally different but you had nothing in common but then she said that you and she shared the same core values the same approach to life and business. How would you characterize those core values?
MILLER: Both have a good work ethic, enjoy it. We both like things to be right. We’re picky. I think she’s probably pickier than me but we’re both picky. In fact when I was kind of looking at some things, reading some things knowing you were going to come—and I probably won’t be able to find it now… yes—it was an article I had read by Danny Meyer who’s a restaurateur of some renown. Union Square Café in New York is one of his restaurants. It was an article about a salt shaker that was in the middle of a table and that’s where he wanted it, exactly in the middle. If people moved it, he would come back put it back in the middle. His philosophy, as far as being a leader, was consisted of three words—constant, gentle, pressure. As far as being picky, we are, but not in an abrupt loud way. It’s constant, you keep reminding people exactly what you want and that it has to be the best. Do it gently because that’s how you‘d like to be treated. But keep the pressure, keep moving that salt shaker back to the middle of the table so that everybody gets the message. And, I think that has been an important message here for both of us feel that way. We do things in a very special way, we think.
SCARPINO: Is it common in your experience for good friends to become good business partners?
MILLER: Well, when I was in business school at IU they told me a partnership was the most difficult relationship. I think whether it be marriage or business. It’s probably true; probably true.
SCARPINO: Okay. Your wall paper business, do you remember what year you started that in? I just violated one of the oral history rules by asking you a date.
MILLER: A date.
SCARPINO: But I thought I’d fish for it.
MILLER: I can tell you, it would have been 1974. Without children I don’t know why that I would ever remember a date because I always go by how old they were.
SCARPINO: Would you characterize that as a successful business?
MILLER: I think it was—it was. We wanted a flexible business because we were raising children at that time. Barb had four and I had three. We could take a job whenever we could and we were paid cash so we had some money. We had fun. We knew we were good partners because I liked the straight walls, and she liked the doors and windows. We liked doing the same things, but we brought different skills.
SCARPINO: This, I assume, is the kind of wall paper where you clean the walls with whatever; you put the paste on and all that stuff.
MILLER: All that, all of the above. I think that’s why we started Vera Bradley. We got tired of having paste in our hair.
SCARPINO: Hard work?
MILLER: It was hard work but it was fun.
SCARPINO: How do you manage…?
MILLER: …You notice how we manage to say fun?
SCARPINO: I did notice that!
MILLER: That is so important.
SCARPINO: You think that a person to be successful ought to like what they’re doing?
MILLER: Yes. You know like what you do, love… What is it they say? Like what you do; do what you like.
SCARPINO: I’m glad to hear—I don’t know how many times I have had that conversation with graduate students. If you’re not enjoying this you’re in the wrong business.
MILLER: You are in the wrong business; you’re right.
SCARPINO: How in the world did you manage, the two of you manage, to develop a business while raising seven children between you?
MILLER: You know, that’s a good question. I look at my business associates today, a lot of them young women having children, I can tell that I’m slowing down a little bit because I go home and I don’t have children at home and I’m doing all that I think that I can do. I suppose youth has something to do with that. Enthusiasm. Enthusiasm generates energy. If you’re not enthusiastic about something it’s a drag, and we were enthusiastic about it. I’m not saying when our head hit the pillow at night we weren’t out. It’s so great to be enthusiastic about something.
SCARPINO: Did any of those seven children become business people themselves?
MILLER: Yes, they’re all in business. They’re all in business.
SCARPINO: I also read that the two of you did home clothing shows.
MILLER: We did.
SCARPINO: And were those clothes that you designed and …
MILLER: . . . No, no. The women listening to this if it still continues—I don’t know how long this will be in the archives or available—but when you say a home clothing show right now you have Carlisle and you have Doncaster and a company owns the inventory. And then they send the inventory to a home for, say, a week. And then we have that inventory for a week and we invited, I don’t know, three hundred of your dearest and nearest friends to come to your home during that week, try clothing on, and buy it. That’s what we did. It was a clothing company called Dunworthington. It was out of Cleveland.
MILLER: Dunworthington. Barb had a friend visit her one weekend, and she said every day she came down the stairs in the sharpest, cutest outfit. She said, where’d you get those cute clothes? She said, well I went to a Dunworthington Show. So, we contacted them, and they had a week open, and it was Thanksgiving week. Nobody wanted it. No one else was out of Cleveland, but we said we’ll do it; we’d like to do it. So, we drove to Cleveland in a U-Haul trailer, little trailer, picked the clothes up, brought them back; had them in our home that week. In the spring and summer Barb would have it at her house, and I would have it in the fall and holidays. So, two weeks out of the year spring/summer one, fall/holidays two.
SCARPINO: You put the clothing out on display, and people would try it on?
MILLER: Dining room table, everything. Rented some racks and invited friends. And sold clothing one week and Barb had, has, two daughters and we’d send them to high school, they were in high school then, in cute outfits and the girls of course, their friends, would tell their moms they had to come to our house and buy these clothes. We had a wardrobe for about forty percent off of retail. That was the beginning of Vera Bradley because at this time we had the idea for Vera Bradley. We had some prototypes made up, of some bags; duffels, smaller duffels, handbag, and we’d bought the fabric at a local fabric store—retail.
SCARPINO: I assume you’re not doing that anymore?
MILLER: No. But we had a woman, Mirabella, who was an alteration person and she would be at the sales, so if you bought something and you needed it shortened or altered she could do it right there. We asked her to make these prototypes, and I think we made about a dozen bags. We decided we needed a name that wasn’t our names because this was our marketing research and so we came up with the name, Vera Bradley, which is the question most asked. Where is Vera Bradley? Where did that name come from? Well, Vera Bradley was Barbara’s mother‘s name. My mother’s name as we’ve said is Wilma Polito. We didn’t know much about business, but we knew that Vera Bradley might be the better name, so it was Vera Bradley.
SCARPINO: It does roll off the tongue a little easier.
MILLER: Yes, yes.
SCARPINO: Was her mom still living when you…
MILLER: …She was, and we did get permission to use her name.
SCARPINO: No, no. Actually, I was wondering if she lived long enough to enjoy the success of your company named after her.
MILLER: She did; she did.
SCARPINO: The home clothing, I mean, part of it—I admit I don’t know much about this—but it seems to me that in order to be successful you had to figure out how to market it. Was that sort of a training ground for things you did later on?
MILLER: You know, I think you’re like wet cement. I think everything that lands on you leaves an impression, good or bad. I am sure along the way and even those clothing shows—because we had to, as I said I used to teach business, I taught book keeping too, so I was always the one kind of keeping the books, and Barb was selling.
SCARPINO: I read in one of the pieces that I pulled together that you actually came up with this idea in the Atlanta Airport.
MILLER: We did!
SCARPINO: Is that true?
MILLER: Yes, it is; it is. Barbara’s father had a birthday in February, which is a great time for a friend’s father to have a birthday that lived in Florida. So Barb and I and her sister and her sister’s friend who lived in Columbus, Ohio, went down to spend a week in Florida and left our families here, our husband and children here, in the ice and snow. On our way home we had a layover in the Atlanta airport. We noticed that the men were carrying carryon luggage, the canvas garments, duffels, Land’s End-type luggage, but the women were carrying that as well. We thought that they should have that carryon luggage that was functional but should be pretty, should be feminine. So, when we got back to Fort Wayne, so that was in February, and I know our sale was the Saint Patrick’s Day week, I remember that, the home clothing sale. We thought, well, we’ll make some prototypes up. There’s nothing very creative about a duffle bag. The silhouettes were—In fact, I remember we went to the store and looked at a McCall’s pattern for a duffle bag. You’ll still find them in there. That’s what our duffle bag looks like. We picked some fabric out and put those bags in the sale and that’s where we had to have the name Vera Bradley because we said it was a company out of Florida. We sold them all, so we thought well we might have an idea that would sell. We each put in two hundred and fifty dollars.
SCARPINO: So you started the business . . .
MILLER: . . .with five hundred dollars . . .
SCARPINO: . . . with five hundred dollars? So, how, then, did you ever get this company up and running? I mean, I have some specific questions I can fill in with, but, you have five hundred dollars and some ideas and you sold some prototypes but how did you go from there?
MILLER: Well, one thing that helped us was that our husbands were employed. When I look at men or women who are starting a business who are the breadwinner, the chief breadwinner. I think that is rough, because we still had income coming in, and we didn’t take a salary or make any money for at least two years. We ran out of money. We ran out of that five hundred dollars believe it or not, and so then we went to the bank and asked for a ninety-day note of two thousand dollars. The banker gave it to us. We took some prototypes in to say this is what we’re doing. He really didn’t ask any questions, nor did he have any kind of enthusiasm for this great idea that we had. So, we got two thousand dollar note, and I remember my hand shaking as I signed that, and we came through the revolving door. We were out on the sidewalk, and we looked at each other and said, “He didn‘t say anything.” He didn‘t say, “that‘s a great idea; that‘s not a good idea; I like your bags; I don‘t like your bags.” It was just flat. We said we need another banker. So, we went back in that day, probably ten minutes after we walked out, we went back in and we said we would like to see another banker. And, they gave us Bob Marshall who was, who handled commercial business. Bob was perfect. He went on to be a VP, and in another bank. Actually, we moved banks because he moved. He always asked, how are you doing, can I help you? He was a true partner.
SCARPINO: And this was in 1982 when you got started?
MILLER: Um hm.
SCARPINO: So, two thousand dollars was worth a lot more then than it is now.
MILLER: It was. It was. And, then we mortgaged our homes, and our husbands agreed to do that. So, we had good partners at home and commercially in banks.
SCARPINO: I mean, one of the questions I was going to ask is how were you able to finance this? How did you persuade vendors to work with you?
MILLER: We started small. We went to a store here in Fort Wayne; Nobsons was a women’s clothing store. We contacted our friends and relatives from wherever they lived and sent them a bag and said do you like this? If they said, yes, we said, how would you like to sell for us? Again, connections and networking with your friends and family.
SCARPINO: How about marketing? I mean you talk to your friends and family but after you’d sold to people you knew and their friends how did you go from there to brand your product?
MILLER: We decided that from the beginning—and here’s the vision part that you, probably everyone you talk to probably talks about their vision and their direction. We knew that we didn’t want to have this business as a, in a fair, or a—we wanted the big time. We wanted to go to either the apparel mart, the apparel shows, or to the major gift shows. How we knew that I don’t know because—Well, I do know, because Barb’s father had been a salesman, and he did gift shows. We went to Chicago and walked the show because of the proximity. It was close. To see what it was like. We didn’t know if we wanted to be in the gift business or the apparel business. Because with bags, women’s bags, you could either be in the apparel business as a fashion accessory or the gift business. In the apparel business there would be so many bags. In the gift business when we walked through that Chicago show, you didn’t see many at all. Another good point was that in the gift business you have two seasons. You have spring and summer, and you sell spring and summer in January and February. And fall and holiday and those shows are in July and August. So, we decided to be in the gift business because we didn’t have much competition there, and it was a simpler season. You had two seasons so you had to come up with new items twice a year rather than in the apparel business; it’s many more seasons. Also, in the gift business the delivery was, then, four to six weeks. It has changed. We’re in the time of immediacy right now. But it was four to six weeks so that gave us some time; some more time. That was a good decision.
SCARPINO: Was part of what you did, identifying the niche for your business?
MILLER: Yes. What market are you in, and do you want to sell at the Goshen Fair or do you want to be bigger than that? It’s curious, I had a phone call yesterday; I think I mentioned this woman that had an idea for a bag business. She didn’t have that vision. She wanted to work out of her home, and we didn’t.
SCARPINO: But you started that way as I recall.
MILLER: We did. In 1982 International Harvester was one of the, if not the, largest employer in Fort Wayne, and they announced that they were moving to Springfield, Ohio. That was a devastating blow for Fort Wayne. We put an ad in the paper for home sewers. You wouldn’t want anything that I sewed. My mother made every home-ec project I had. But I was good at keeping numbers, and we both agreed on design and that sort of thing. Barb didn’t want to sew it either even though she could. We decided we would be the managers, and we would have someone else do the production. The phone just rang off the hook. People needed work. That was probably the toughest time of the business because we would ask people; we would give them a kit, we would give them a prototype, and we would give them a cut out fabric. At this point we were cutting out patterns on the ping pong table in the basement.
SCARPINO: You were cutting the patterns out in your basement?
MILLER: With orange handled Fiskar Scissors. And we said we need you to make X number of bags. They had to be able to make minimum wage so they had to time themselves, and they have to be perfect. Well, perfect to you isn’t perfect to someone else, so trying to find the best sewers was a tough—that was a tough time. That was also the time when we were in our home and trying to raise family and, you know, juggle everything.
SCARPINO: But at some point you must have had to make the transition from cutting patterns on your pool table and having women sew your bags to centralizing it somewhere. How did you go about doing that?
MILLER: Yes, yes. Well, finally the cream always rises, so we found the ones that were the best, and Kim Adams was one of those people. I just went to Vanward, Ohio, the other day, where she gave—her business gave ten thousand dollars for a butterfly house in a park in Vanward. She employs probably almost two hundred sewers, and we have about five different sewing companies. We still sub contract our sewing, but they do a marvelous job.
SCARPINO: So the sewing is not done at this building?
MILLER: No. We do some sewing but for the most part we let someone else do that. We do everything else. We cut out the patterns. We design it. We market it, sell it, market it, and ship it but someone else does the construction.
SCARPINO: After you sold to your friends and neighbors and family and so on, how did you develop your marketing plan from there?
MILLER: George. George Cook helped us with that. We got a consultant to help us do the marketing. But, we did go to the Chicago gift show, and you know how they say luck is also part of the equation of a successful business? That happened to us, too; probably in several ways, but I can give you an example of that. At the gift show, and the gift shows are in every major city, so there’s not just one. But, it happened to be in Chicago. The gift industry, the Chicago gift show, was owned by the George Little Management. Companies owned the gift shows. They had a party one evening for all of the exhibitors on the roof top of, that was then McCormick Place. So, went to that, and we noticed this darling little girl. She was Asian, and she had little earrings that little girls have, magnets behind their ear and it just sticks, you don’t have pierced ears. We were oohing and ahhing over her. And her mother was there. Her mother, we found out later, went to IU, Indiana University, and all of a sudden the mother said, “Shhh, my husband is speaking.” Her husband was George Little.
SCARPINO: Oh, my.
MILLER: And so she must have told him about Vera Bradley. The next day we were in the basement of McCormick Place in this little ten-by-ten booth, because we were just beginning. I will say it was a beautiful little booth with fresh flowers and draped fabric, and it looked nice even though if I looked at it today I would probably wonder how we sold anything. But he came down.
SCARPINO: Maybe for the record you could say a little bit about who he was?
MILLER: Well, George Little, his father had started the George Little Management and George and his brother were taking over from the father and they owned several gift shows including the Chicago gift show. They still are in the business, and we still know them. We were pointed out to him. I don’t know, he might have walked through the show. These are thousands of booths, it’s a big show. But the fact that we happened to be with his wife and his little girl at the time and we made the Indiana connection, you know, that six degrees of separation. Connection is important, but we were lucky that we were there and she was there and made that connection.
SCARPINO: Do you think that luck makes an important role in a successful business venture?
MILLER: I think it does. Of course, they always say when you do have something like that happen hopefully you’ve made a good impression. Being people-people, we like to talk to people, and genuinely interested in people. I mean somebody else could have sat next to her and maybe not even talked to her…
MILLER: …but we did.
SCARPINO: I’ve got two more questions I’m going to ask and then I am going to switch to the standard leadership questions that you already have.
SCARPINO: We’ve been talking for a while and so maybe if you want to take a break or …
MILLER: It’s fine. And if you do?
SCARPINO: No, I’m fine. You’re doing all the talking. [laughing]
SCARPINO: I read an article about you where you spoke at DePauw University’s Management Fellows Program.
MILLER: Um hm.
SCARPINO: October 2005 you received the Robert C. MacDermond Medal for Excellence in Entrepreneurship. One of the things that you said when you spoke, or at least it was reported that you said, kind of struck me. You said, “doing business is all about relationships like anything else it’s the people you work with. It’s how you treat them and how they treat you.” I was wondering what you meant by doing business is all about relationships.
MILLER: It is. It is. The people that you hire and I mentioned you need to hire good people that care about your business. It’s about your reps. A friend of mine, when we started, said every time you sign that commission check to a rep you do it with a smile on your face because if they’re making good money you‘re making money. That is so true. It’s about vendors. When we started we had CBD—check before delivery—for fabric, and it’s a good way to do business if you don’t know if somebody can pay. You have certain milestones in your business when you finally get some credit. Everything from our banker to George Cook to our employees to our customers—it’s all about relationships and the name Vera Bradley. One of the reasons we wanted a person’s name was that if you put a person’s name on a business it’s your endorsement; and we think that’s important. So, it’s all about relationships because the brand, and the brand name, is so valuable.
SCARPINO: Do you see yourself in some ways as like the personification of the brand name?
MILLER: That’s a good question.
SCARPINO: The reason I’m asking this is I’ve done a fair amount of reading about your background, and I actually had a graduate student spend some time this summer pulling information together and you seem to be the public face of the company, not your partner.
MILLER: Well we both are in different arenas. Barbara’s husband, Peer Baekgaard, was in the gift business as well. She’s probably better known in the gift business than I am. I seem to be the person that—She does not like public speaking, although she’s very good at it. I seem to be the person who is in the other arena. As you know was in the public arena then as a public servant for the state for a while too.
SCARPINO: Secretary of…
MILLER: . . . Commerce.
SCARPINO: Under Governor Mitch Daniels?
SCARPINO: Do you think that there are differences or similarities in the style and practices between successful male and successful female entrepreneurs and leaders? Are there things that they do similarly and things that they do differently?
MILLER: I think there is a difference. I think there is a difference. I was privileged enough to work with men when I was Secretary of Commerce, some very, very talented, successful businessmen. I think perhaps because of the generation that I am and the fact that, being a teacher and starting Vera Bradley, I’ve almost always been my own boss. But when I worked for the state and my boss was the Governor it made me a better boss because I was the employee. I realized the pressure that is on someone in that position. Also, I was working with men who were either my equal or superior and that had not happened before. I was very aware of that. I was aware of the fact that I desperately wanted to do a good job. I wanted to make them look good. I love to play tennis. Here we go back to sports! And if you are playing doubles in tennis, your job is to make your partner look good. In other words: set up the shot.
SCARPINO: Um hm.
MILLER: If you don’t put it away yourself then at least set up the shot so when it comes back your partner can put it away. If I sound competitive, I am. [laughing] I like to win. When I was working, particularly at the state, but also here, and maybe that goes back to teaching. I love it when other people look good because of the way I have done something. I think that’s that team philosophy. I had this miraculous light bulb going off and I thought the first time I have a boss in business and it’s the Governor. [laughing] So that’s pretty heady stuff. He was a boss that I respected, who was definitely a leader. I had a clear vision of what my job was. I was on the other end, but it was exactly the way I felt.
SCARPINO: Did you articulate that vision or did he?
MILLER: He articulated the vision, but he chose me as an entrepreneur. I think that was such a good idea, because I was not only working with the Rolls Royce and the Hondas and the big companies—Lilly’s—but I was also working with a mom and pop shop that makes most of the colored clay that your school, grade school children, work with. They probably had three employees, and they had a wonderful little business. So, I was working with all sizes and all types of businesses. I think they could relate to me and I could relate to them because we’d actually started a business from scratch.
SCARPINO: Do you think that there are any differences, significant differences, in the way men and women approach leadership?
MILLER: I think that statement is too blanket a statement. I think some men approach it in the same way I do and some don’t. Blanket statements are dangerous. I can…
SCARPINO: Well, let’s try it a different way then, if there were a spectrum of leadership…
MILLER: …Um hm…
SCARPINO: …do you think that female leaders would tend to cluster at one part of the spectrum and male leaders at the other with some overlap? Or? Are there any differences and similarities based on gender?
MILLER: I think there probably are differences but I think those differences are fading away. As our image of women changes. I read once: it’s maestro not macho. I see a leader as being more a maestro, more a conductor, than a macho. At least that’s how I like to see business.
SCARPINO: In 1987, five years after you co-founded Vera Bradley, you were recognized by Venture Magazine as Entrepreneur of the Year for the state of Indiana. I’m not a math wiz, but that seems to be about five years from the time you founded the company. How do you account for that level of success that you went from cutting cloth on your pool table to, you know, Entrepreneur of the Year for the State of Indiana?
MILLER: I don’t know. We were so surprised. I remember that T. Boone Pickens was the celebrity at that, was in the Rooftop Ballroom in Indianapolis. They had a reception for the candidates, and we talked to this woman who had an oil refinery in Whiting. And, we were so impressed. She started that. I remember I said before you started typing, before you started recording, I’ve always wanted to belong to a club that wouldn’t have someone like me as a member. That’s how we were feeling at that reception. Oh, my gosh; we’re here, right, we were only five years old. And then, when they announced our name, it was incredible. But they said the reason we won was that we had started a business from scratch.
We started with an idea, with very little money, and kind of did everything, the marketing; the sales. So, we took the award and ran home as fast as we can before they changed their minds. [laughing]
SCARPINO: I don’t think they can that. [laughing] Well, if you had to analyze your own success, I mean, how would you? What do you think the key elements of that success were?
MILLER: Oh, probably, a vision, finding great people to work with, optimistic, energized. Passionate about what we did. Having fun. Being friends. The size we are now. We have about four hundred employees, it’s very disconcerting because I’ll see someone in the hallway and I’m thinking, do they work here? Because we knew everyone and their families and what grade their children were in. We still, to this day, everyone that has a birthday gets a crisp fifty dollar bill and a birthday card signed by us.
SCARPINO: My goodness.
MILLER: And the reason we started that was we were all women when we started, and we knew that if we gave a bonus or anything it would probably go to the grocery store. So we would give a fifty dollar bill and say “this is for you. We want you to buy something for you, do something for you, we don’t want you to spend it on your children or groceries or anything.” And that’s how that started. And we still do it.
SCARPINO: With four hundred employees now…?
SCARPINO: …a lot of birthdays!
MILLER: I think, should we still be doing that? I guess we should…
SCARPINO: You know, ten years later, in 1997, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce recognized you as Business Leader of the Year. So, by 1997 you had become a highly successful entrepreneur and leader recognized by the State Chamber of Commerce. How would you characterize yourself as a leader?
MILLER: I hope I lead by example. I hope I do. I do believe, again, in hiring great people. Give them a clear understanding of what their job is and let them do it. Maybe like the salt shaker in the middle of the table, you have to nudge a little bit, gently. But just let people feel that you appreciate them, that they’re doing a necessary job, a good job. Let them know why they are doing a good job, just not saying you’re doing a great job, but say—well look, you cut this many patterns last week, this week you’ve done this and we have this many mistakes but we’re cutting down on that. Let them actually see what the score is.
SCARPINO: You said in another interview that I read, it was actually November 2005, you were talking about Vera Bradley, and you said you are as enthusiastic about it today as you were twenty three years ago. How do you sustain the enthusiasm for twenty three years?
MILLER: I love it. I do…
MILLER: I feel every year we have been in business has been the most exciting year. We are opening our own stores now. Every year we keep growing and I don’t mean growing number wise, but our sales increase, profits are good. But, we venture into new areas.
SCARPINO: Such as…?
MILLER: Such as licensing. We license now. We have a stationery line, a rug line, a furniture line, eyeglasses…
SCARPINO: I saw a cookbook on your table out there.
MILLER: We have a cookbook—that was our second cookbook. We have had two now. That cookbook sprung up from—we have a Happy Committee, and it is made up of employees. And, it’s a rotating committee so you are on for maybe a year.
SCARPINO: You said a Happy Committee?
MILLER: It’s called the Happy Committee.
SCARPINO: Okay. I’ll ask why?
MILLER: I took this idea from a friend of mine who’s in business. We plagiarize a lot, too. We hear a good idea we glom onto it right away. They plan our holiday party. We have a family picnic in the fall. Maybe it’s a year for the Olympics and we might at that time—but we can’t do it now—but we’d have a pitch in where everyone would bring a dish for lunch. Those dishes were so good we said, gosh we should do a cookbook; we really, we should do a cookbook with recipes that are very good and not that complicated because we’re all busy people. So, that was the impetus for the first cookbook. And that was successful so we did another one.
SCARPINO: I am going to shift gears here a little bit and ask you the standard leadership questions.
SCARPINO: I know that you’ve seen them ahead of time and I saw that you took some notes, but maybe the fact that we’ve been talking for an hour or so will take some of the pressure off.
MILLER: Sure, all right.
SCARPINO: Again I am going to say for the record for anybody who listens to the interview that these are the questions that we ask everyone we interview for the Tobias Project so there is some basis for comparison over time. If we have time afterwards or are able to schedule the second interview I want to talk to you more about your business and about your philanthropic activities and your involvement in state government. Standard leadership questions start with the basic question, what do you read?
MILLER: Um hm. That’s a good question for today because I woke up early this morning and finished a book. It was Suite Francaise, that’s the name of it, by Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian woman and they’ve found—well she was an author and a Jewish woman. And, during World War II they did not publish Jewish authors for a time. I hadn’t thought about that. But anyway, I just finished that book. But, that is an easy question for me to answer because I love biography. I am very excited because September 21st my favorite author is coming to Fort Wayne.
SCARPINO: And who is your favorite author?
MILLER: Doris Kearns Goodwin.
SCARPINO: Oh, my.
MILLER: And my favorite book is No Ordinary Time about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. My second favorite book is Team of Rivals, rivals about Lincoln’s administration and she wrote that as well. I had met her one other time—I was able to introduce her at IU. She was a speaker and she writes history in such a way that you’re there.
SCARPINO: Um hm.
MILLER: And I enjoy it so much.
SCARPINO: Do you read much history?
MILLER: Yes, I enjoy history.
SCARPINO: Do you think a leader should read?
MILLER: Absolutely, yes.
SCARPINO: Okay. Do you ever read about other leaders?
SCARPINO: You mentioned like Lincoln and FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt.
MILLER: Um hm. I like Jack Welch. Biography, or I like a good novel, too, as long as it—I don’t like science fiction. I like something that’s real. But I do like biography.
SCARPINO: Who do you think are important leaders that—living or dead?
MILLER: Well, Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my favorite people. I suppose because she’s a woman but she was also probably a co-president with FDR because she was his eyes and ears and legs when he wasn’t able to do that. When I look back at what she was able to do at the time she did it—it was amazing. I look at our presidents and our governors, some of the business people—when you’re successful and can give back I respect that very much. So, if the leaders are good leaders and some have been very poor leaders, but to assume a responsibility like that says something. Leadership corrupts they say but sometimes it doesn’t. I also added educators.
SCARPINO: As leaders?
MILLER: As leaders. Some of the teachers I had.
SCARPINO: The follow-up question I was going to ask was—who inspired you?
MILLER: Many, many people. Many people. I just couldn’t name any specific one.
SCARPINO: And obviously if somebody goes back and listens to this there were teachers and so on that you named, people that you encountered.
SCARPINO: Are there particular individuals who helped you along the way? Along your way to being a successful business person or being a successful leader?
MILLER: Again, I have to say many people. Experiences have been more help to me than individual people—just experiences. Like the work that I’ve done whether it be in the scholarship office or knowing I didn’t want to be, work in a cafeteria all the time. Just experiences, and with each experience I had someone that I worked with and enjoyed.
SCARPINO: Do you think that somebody who ends up being a successful leader is somebody who has the ability to learn from the experiences that they pass through?
MILLER: Speaking for myself, I hope that I learned something every day. But certainly everyone that I’ve come in contact in a major way has been a great influence on me.
SCARPINO: Do you think that having a mentor or mentors played a role in your development as either a business person or leader?
MILLER: Probably so. Probably so. I just; there isn’t any one person that stands out or two or three people, there have been so many.
SCARPINO: And you mentioned a few, the man from SCORE, and your banker.
MILLER: Yes. Yes.
SCARPINO: Do you mentor other people?
MILLER: I try to. I try to. If somebody calls and wants to ask me a question, I try to always say, yes. Or, employees, or whatever, I try to.
SCARPINO: Is that hard to do sometimes when you get a lot of calls?
MILLER: Not a lot. Not a lot. I particularly, I love going to universities. I went to IU one time and spoke, and it was during lunch. And, we were in a big room, big table. Everyone brought a sack lunch in, and we just talked. They asked questions. That was so much fun to do that.
SCARPINO: It was like a brown bag lunch?
MILLER: Yes. Yes. I think that’s a good way to do it.
SCARPINO: Students were asking the questions?
MILLER: Yes. Students could come in. They have a, it was an entrepreneurial club and students, if they wanted to, could just bring their lunch in and sit down with me. We just talked. They asked questions and we just talked. I enjoyed that.
SCARPINO: What do you try to get across to the students as you were visiting with them?
MILLER: I suppose by doing it in that informal way, I mean I can stand up and tell you the Vera Bradley story and all that, but to get some insight into what kind of person you are, to know that I’m just like everybody else. I’m not on a pedestal. I’m a good person. Pretty logical person. I’m not a genius, I’m not—when you’re a business person unlike; well, I just read Isaacson’s biography of Einstein recently. Now, there’s a genius. I’m not a genius. In certain professions, like physics, you need to be a genius or it helps anyway. But being a business person is about the same thing. It is just choosing the right people, having a vision. It’s—it seems pretty obvious to me how you can be a good business person.
SCARPINO: Well, maybe if it was that obvious there would be a lot more successful business people! [laughing]
MILLER: You know when you go into a restaurant—of course that’s a hard; that’s a tough business.
SCARPINO: Yes it is.
MILLER: And you see, you critique businesses and you think, oh if they’d only do this or they’d only do that.
SCARPINO: Do you find yourself doing that?
MILLER: Oh, all the time. All the time. All the time. And I’m sure people do it with us, too. Why don’t they do this? Why don’t they do that? It’s tweaking all the time. Tweaking. Continuous improvement, never being satisfied.
SCARPINO: Do you think that maybe that’s one of the reasons why Vera Bradley has been so successful?
MILLER: I think so. We are never satisfied. We tweak all the time.
SCARPINO: What do you think are the qualities that distinguish effective leadership?
MILLER: Well, I think you want to have integrity, honesty. Great work ethic, be positive. Trust your instincts. Let people do what they do best and hire people that complement what you do. And not a clone of you, but fill in your gaps.
SCARPINO: How do you find those people?
MILLER: That’s hard. I’ll tell you the hardest part of a business for me is hiring someone and then find out at a later time that it is not a fit. That you have to let someone go. Because I feel that I’ve let them down. Because, perhaps I didn’t give a clear vision of what I wanted. And, it’s very tough to let somebody go. Very tough. But, on the other hand, you think well maybe this isn’t the right spot for them and you’re doing them a favor by saying this just isn’t working. You need to find something else. That’s the hardest.
SCARPINO: Is this something you’ve had to do very often?
MILLER: Fortunately, not too often, but it happens. It happens. Or, as we’ve grown, perhaps the job has outgrown them, and you try to find another place for them and sometimes there isn’t.
SCARPINO: It actually occurred to me as you were talking about jobs outgrowing people and stuff, there must have been some people—this isn’t one of the standard leadership questions, this just popped into my head—but there must have been some major technological revolution in this business in the years that you had it.
MILLER: Oh, we didn’t even have a computer to start with. George helped us put our first computer in. And then we used to cut our fabric. Well, we went from the orange-handled Fiskars to a motorized razor, ten inch razor blade, it looked like a jigsaw. I was always so worried someone would cut fingers off. Well, when we were able to justify buying a computerized cutting machine, it was a happy day for me for two reasons. It did a better job, and it meant no one was going to cut a finger off. We were able to do in eight minutes what it took us an hour to do before. So, the technology—and now we just opened a distribution center, and it’s better than Disney World. We have such technology.
SCARPINO: That’s a distribution center for your products?
MILLER: Yes. Our raw materials, finished goods, inventory. It’s about a two hundred and forty thousand square foot distributions center.
SCARPINO: Where is it?
MILLER: It’s just on the south side of Fort Wayne. We moved in, in January. We are so technically advanced now compared to where we were. It’s just fabulous to see.
SCARPINO: So, how do you climb that learning curve?
MILLER: You hire people who know how to do that.
SCARPINO: But you still must have had—must have needed to have vision to realize that was what you had to do. There had to be points on the horizon somewhere?
MILLER: Yes, and again, because we used to be right here in this building where we’re having this interview. There’s a point, I can remember before we had our first fax machine. We didn’t even have a fax machine. And we kept saying, now remember, most of our customers—we don’t sell to big department stores. Most of our customers are small specialty shops. That’s where we wanted to be, and that’s where we still are. Because we wanted—we don’t want the big department store. They’re more cookie cutter and so most of those people don’t need a lot of technology so we had to convince them they needed a fax machine. Not everyone, but now of course the store owners are much younger probably than we are for the most part, and they’re okay.
SCARPINO: Do you sell on the internet?
MILLER: We do.
MILLER: We do.
SCARPINO: So is there a Vera Bradley website, and people can order with their credit card right off the website.
MILLER: Yes. We have a great website. That just happened about three years ago.
SCARPINO: What criteria do you use to define successful leadership?
MILLER: Successful leadership? In business?
SCARPINO: We can start with that.
MILLER: Are you going to say in business?
SCARPINO: Yes, in business.
MILLER: Well, I suppose you’re a successful leader if your business is able to pay its bills. That means you’re going to stay in business a little bit longer. If you have people that buy into your vision and like what they do. I want my employees to walk in the door every day with kind of a bounce in their step, maybe not every day, but most days. And who are never afraid to walk in your office and come up and say—what I’d love is someone to come in and say, I just had the best idea. Also, to grow that brand. As far as a leader it means if you’re able to grow your business the way you want it or even beyond what you thought, you’ve probably been a successful leader.
SCARPINO: Do you think that it’s more important for a business leader to be able to sell the vision or the product?
MILLER: The vision. I think the vision because then you’ll have people who sell the product. A leader has the vision, and the managers do it. That’s a hard lesson when you start a business by leading and doing. You know, you do everything. And then there comes a time when you need to manage, and then you need to lead. I remember very well a day I was out in shipping and I got these looks like, we don’t want you here! You’re messing up our system. You realize that your job description has changed.
MILLER: Being an entrepreneur that is what happens. Your job description changes too.
SCARPINO: I’m going to follow up on what you just said and sort of bring one of our standard questions into focus. Do you see a distinction between leadership and management?
SCARPINO: What is the distinction in your mind?
MILLER: Yes. Well, the leaders are the ones who have the vision, have the ideas, and can communicate it in such a way that your managers understand what you want and your employees do too. And the managers do it. There is a difference, and that was a lesson that I had to learn, and I think probably every entrepreneur stumbles on that. You are so used to being in control…
SCARPINO: Um hm.
MILLER: And you still need to be in control, but you have to let go, to let other people do it. Chances are they will do a better job.
SCARPINO: Do you think that is a measure of an effective leader, knowing when to let go?
MILLER: Yes. Yes. I do think that.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you a couple of questions that sort of pull together some of the things we talked about. They both relate to your concept and style of leadership. The first question is—how would you characterize your own idea or concept of leadership?
MILLER: Now, say that again.
SCARPINO: How would you characterize your own concept of leadership?
MILLER: Ooh… One thing that’s very important is to treat people like you’d like to be treated. And, again, that’s a no-brainer. Also to make sure—I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker one time, and it’s people sitting around a conference table like we’re sitting at right now and every person has one of those balloons over their head. One balloon has an orange the other has a banana the other has a pear and the leader’s saying now we all understand this, right? [laughing] So, it’s like that children’s game where you start telling the next person to you something, and then it comes out all different. To give a clear message to your people what you want and, here’s the maestro again, what that team will look like when everyone does their specific job. That’s what a leader does. They inspire.
SCARPINO: Related to that how would you describe to your style as a leader?
MILLER: Well, I worked with Mickey Mauer at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation.
SCARPINO: We should probably say for the record who Mickey Mauer is.
MILLER: Mickey Mauer is an incredibly successful man who served as Secretary of Commerce, after me and he was President of the Indian Economic Development Corporation. The Governor was Chairman of the Board and I served as CEO. Our styles were different but I think that was the strength of that team. He said I was a push over. [laughing] He was stronger but we were fair. I think we had the same vision. Even though our styles were a little different I think we complemented each other and we’re great friends yet. I think you can have different leadership styles. It doesn’t mean that there’s one style; just like there are; everyone’s different. You have to be you; I think that’s important. You have to be who you are. When you are starting out some times you think you should be a certain way or being a leader is, I don’t know what.
MILLER: Yelling at people or whatever. And I had to go through some of that I think because you have to know yourself and that isn’t always the easiest thing to do.
SCARPINO: So, maybe, without leading the witness, do think it’s possible that part of the person’s development as a leader is figuring out who you are?
MILLER: Yes, very much so. I remember, remember I said I like biography. I remember reading Madeline Albright’s biography. When she was asked to be Secretary of State, and I’ve heard this from other leaders, she started doubting herself—whether she was up to the job, whether she was capable. So she called Sandra Day O’Connor, and Sandra Day O’Connor said I had that same feeling when I was asked to sit on the Supreme Court. I think many leaders take a position not feeling terribly confident about it. Maybe you’re prepared, but when you start on a new venture there are many unknowns. I felt that way when Mitch Daniels asked me to be Secretary of Commerce.
SCARPINO: But you were willing to walk through the door into the unknown? [laughing]
MILLER: I did. I did. That was a big decision.
SCARPINO: I asked you a couple of questions about your concept of leadership and your style of leadership. What do you think has worked well for you about your own concept and style of leadership? What’s worked out?
MILLER: I think that I know who I am. I’m the same person. I’m the same person to everyone. Now, that’s what I think. Maybe somebody else would say differently. I truly believe in people. I’m a people person. I like to work with people. I like to hear ideas from other people. I’m not a micromanager.
SCARPINO: Do you think an effective leader can micromanage and be successful?
MILLER: Very tough. You’re not going to grow very much if you micromanage.
SCARPINO: Are there things that haven’t worked so well in terms of your concept and style of leadership?
MILLER: There’s something I think—if there was an area I need to improve on and there are many—I would say I have ideas. I have a lot of ideas, but I tend to be enthusiastic about them and tend to present them before I have thought about it and how to best sell the idea. Because, an idea is only as good as how well you’ve sold it, because you have to have other people buy into it. I can do a much better job. I get an idea and I’m so excited to share it that I’ll just blurt it out and then people say that’s a terrible idea. I need some diplomacy. I need to know how to sell something better.
SCARPINO: As you think about your own style of leadership, and we’ve spent quite a while talking about that, can you think of an event or incident that really demonstrates or brings into focus your style of leadership?
MILLER: Well, it was interesting when I left Vera Bradley I had to take a sabbatical when I served as Secretary of the Commerce. In effect we started a business because the Governor abolished the Department of Commerce and started the Indiana Economic Government Corporation and when he asked me to do that…
SCARPINO: And you were the first person to occupy that position? Is that correct?
MILLER: Yes, I was the first Secretary of Commerce. When he said corporation, I said I think I can do that. I wasn’t sure about the Department of Commerce but when he said corporation, which was a quasi-public/private corporation. I think that building that company, which is what you were doing, was something that I had done before. And here’s the self confidence thing. Even though I was somewhat shaky—when I knew I had Mickey, I knew I had Nate Feldman, I knew I had Governor Daniels and some talented, talented people that we had hired, it was a team and I can do that. I can do that. You need to be able to inspire people to do their best.
SCARPINO: Did you see any differences in between being a leader in business and private enterprise and being a leader in government?
MILLER: Well, the difference was you were in the public eye. Instead of a business I was trying to help hundreds of businesses—in the state and out of the state and out of the country, even, and help them to either come to the state, stay in the state, grow in the state. The scope was very different and the fact that you were in the public eye. Here we can be somewhat anonymous about our decisions, and we can say yes this is what we’re going to do. But, there, being in the public eye was different. The responsibility, I felt, to hundreds of businesses was a big responsibility.
SCARPINO: So, what were you selling as Secretary of Commerce?
MILLER: I was selling Indiana. We were trying to be the most business friendly state we could be. How do you do that? Just like we do Vera Bradley. Customer service, if we had; if somebody calls you don’t get that call you call, you call them back. The sheer volume—I’ll tell you what was so difficult—email!
SCARPINO: Oh yes…
MILLER: Can you imagine how many emails you get in a government position now? And you know in your own business…
SCARPINO: I know how many I get. I can’t imagine how many you got… [laughing]
MILLER: It was overwhelming, so how to figure out how to do that. We made a pledge to…
SCARPINO: Did you answer your own emails? Is that a fair question?
MILLER: I did; I had an assistant, who went through them and tried to prioritize because I’ll bet I had a hundred a day sometimes, and it was just; that’s about all you could get done if you didn’t prioritize.
SCARPINO: There’s kind of a literature that exists about leaders and leadership and some of the people who write that literature want to argue that an individual’s views of leadership are sometimes formed in a particular event or a particular crisis. Was there an event or crisis that helped you forge your view of leadership?
MILLER: I don’t think so. You asked a similar question before about leaders and I’m fuzzy on both of those measures. Maybe that has to do with—maybe I’m not focused enough, but there have been so many events. Maybe that goes back to dabbling in high school. I have had so many different—I serve on a lot of boards; that has helped me. And, when I speak to students I tell them to try to hold positions of officers in organizations in their, whatever it might be—a position where you will be leading one, two, three people, or whatever, because there’s nothing like experience…
SCARPINO: …Um hmm…
MILLER: …to give you that self confidence and for you to learn. Learn by doing.
SCARPINO: Do you think leaders are born or made?
MILLER: Both. Both. You can become a better leader. I can become a better leader. Every day I can—there’s your continuous improvement. But, somehow I was born a curious person, and I think curiosity is very important.
SCARPINO: Element of leadership?
SCARPINO: Do you think it’s important or necessary for a leader to have a positive and reasonably well supported set of goals and projected outcomes?
SCARPINO: Can you give an example out of your own career?
MILLER: I’m a lister. I like to make lists, and I like to check them off, too. Again, being a leader you have to communicate to your people where you’re going. The old Yogi Berra: If you don’t know where you’re going you’re going to end up somewhere else.
SCARPINO: Do you think it’s possible for great leaders to pursue goals or outcomes of questionable utility or morality? In other words, to put that question in plain English, would you consider people like Idi Amin and Adolph Hitler to be leaders? Al Capone . . .?
MILLER: . . . Well they were obviously leaders, weren’t they? There’s no disputing they were leaders. But, it’s so important to have integrity and honesty. It’s so important. Yes, they were leaders. If you have millions of people following you, you’re a leader.
SCARPINO: Do you think there’s a difference between a leader and a demagogue?
MILLER: Yes. Yes. I suppose it’s the—it‘s human nature. Some people are better than others. Fortunately, in our country if someone is doing something that isn’t right they‘re often found out.
SCARPINO: We’ve been talking for about two hours which is…
MILLER: Have we really?
SCARPINO: …which is about the time you promised me. Actually, we haven’t had the recorder for quite that long but I would, I’m going to ask you one more question…
MILLER: …Um hmm…
SCARPINO: …and then if it is possible at some point in the future I’d like to have an opportunity to talk to you about government service and philanthropy…
MILLER: …Um hmm…
SCARPINO: …and some of the things we didn’t bring it up. Here’s the question I want to ask you. Based on the things we talked about today is there anything that I should have asked you, or that you’d like to say, that I simply didn‘t have the insight to ask you?
SCARPINO: This is the pitch over the plate for you…[laughing]
MILLER: Yes. Yes.
SCARPINO: Anything that you think that I should have brought up?
MILLER: Well, you said we were going to talk about philanthropy next.
SCARPINO: I would really like to talk to you, and not give it short shrift.
SCARPINO: I realize that I have; you’ve been kind for over two hours.
MILLER: I feel like I’ve been a broken record because it’s all fairly simple when you break it down. That is, I guess what I’ve been saying—you have to have the vision; the drive; the competence; the team; you know, the right people, and bring out the best in people.
SCARPINO: But, you know, as I listen to you talk about those various subjects, the thing that keeps running through my mind is that if everybody could that we’d all be leaders. I mean, there is something people who…
MILLER: Well, you have to be a risk taker. I guess we haven’t talked about that, and you have to be a risk taker. I brought this; I kind of went through; I tear things out. And, this was kind of cute. I just; it says, don’t be afraid to go out on a limb, that‘s where the fruit is.
SCARPINO: Do you think that is a quality of successful leaders? Knowing when to take a risk?
MILLER: Yes. And to be curious and not be afraid if a door opens. And you—and a calculated risk, calculated, to go through it, because you may have an experience far beyond anything you ever imagined, and it will mean so much to your life. And I was; whether I decided to go to college. What a huge decision that was because I knew I was going to have to work. But that also was good. Wanting is okay. And, starting a business was a risk, a calculated risk. We had a backup plan because we had a bread winner there in our husbands. Saying, yes, to working for the State was a risk. I remember one of my friends when I—I commuted on the weekends. I had to live in Indianapolis when I did that, and I have a wonderful husband.
SCARPINO: It was ’04 to ’06, is that right?
MILLER: I started campaigning for him in May of ’04, and that was a full-time campaign. I was in a parade almost every Saturday. On the road, but then he won the election, and so my tenure as Secretary of Commerce was January to January ’05. But had I not done that I would have missed one of the most fantastic experiences of my life, and one of my friends when I was home on the weekends said, what are you doing, you’re missing out on life? And I thought that is so wrong. I am having such an experience that this will be a huge part of my life. So, that’s the difference maybe between us.
SCARPINO: And you end up feeding that experience back into your business?
MILLER: I think so. I think so. It was tough coming back because I was gone a little over a year and a half. And things change. And so, it was tough coming back. I learned to be a better employer because I had a boss and had built a company, the IEDC, and built a team. I didn’t do it by myself. I had a lot of help. I just think that it made me a better person.
SCARPINO: Well, I thank you very much for giving me two hours of your time this afternoon. I’ll look forward to following this up at some point in the future. Thank you very much.
SCARPINO: The tape recorder is on and today is September 18, 2007 and I’m interviewing Patricia Miller. This is the second interview with her and we’re at the recently opened distribution center for Vera Bradley on the south side of Fort Wayne. She is the co-founder and co-owner of Vera Bradley. In the first interview, we concentrated on Ms. Miller’s founding and development of Vera Bradley along with the standard leadership questions asked of everyone interviewed for the Tobias Project. Today we’re going to concentrate on leadership related to philanthropy and government service. Once again I’d like to ask your permission to record this interview, to transcribe the interview and to have the recording and the transcription deposited in the IUPUI Special Collections and Archives for the use of the patrons.
MILLER: You have my permission.
SCARPINO: Thank you very much. You and I have talked ahead of time so you know that before we talk about philanthropy and government I have a couple of questions that I want to ask you that are related to the overall subjects that we’ve covered. The first relates to the fact that you were nice enough to give me a tour of your new distribution facility here today and I wonder if you could say for the record a few things about this lovely facility that we’re in. How many square feet? How many people are employed here? What’s the process that takes place in here and that sort of thing?
MILLER: Uh hm. Well, we have about 230,000 square feet and it’s a beautiful facility when I think back that 25 years ago we were in a basement on a ping pong table and then every time I take someone like I did you today through on a tour it’s very exciting for me every time. We have state of the art technology right now and we have probably, and I know the head count changes every day, but I would say probably have over 200 people here. That head count will probably remain about the same because of the automation. It’s just, I think I told you, it’s better than Disneyworld for me.
SCARPINO: It certainly was a fascinating tour. Could you say a little bit about the—I know we talked about this last time—but about the machinery that you use to cut the cloth and then the system that you use for filling orders and checking quality control and that sort of thing?
MILLER: Well, we have had this fabric cutter for quite a while but it’s a Gerber and it’s a computerized cutting machine that cuts fabric and I’m sure Gerber probably makes cutting machines that cut other material. But it’s so wonderful because we used to use a ten-inch motorized razor blade which was like a jig saw and I was always very, very worried that someone would cut a finger off. It never happened, thank goodness. But now I don’t have to worry about that and as you saw today when we were going through, our fabric for the most part is quilted. So we have a top layer, a filling layer, and a bottom layer of fabric. That makes a very fluffy layer of fabric and you don’t get a real clean cut and I usually use the analogy of cutting an angel food cake. So, what the Gerber does is, we have a vacuum table and that maybe twenty layers of quilted fabric go through. There’s a plastic put on top. The vacuum table sucks that down as hard as it can. Then we cut the fabric. So, not only do we get a cleaner cut, a better cut, but the Gerber also lays the pattern out so that we get the most efficient cut and do not waste any fabric because that’s where you have so much of your cost. So it’s a great way to cut fabric. I’m sure there are many other ways of cutting fabric but this certainly is a good one for us.
SCARPINO: But it’s a big step from doing it with a pair of shears on the table in your basement.
MILLER: A big step from those orange handled Fiskars which is a wonderful scissors but when you’re doing thousands of cuts this is what you want.
SCARPINO: So once the Gerber cuts the fabric, pre-cuts the pieces, they are then sent out to different facilities where they’re actually sewn into the Vera Bradley products.
MILLER: Yes, yes. We do everything here except the construction and we do do some construction and that’s at this present time. Someday we may do everything. But right now and for the 25 years we’re always—we started as a cottage industry. I spoke about that earlier. And then we let the sewers that did the best job open their own sewing, encourage them to open their own sewing factories and we have over 1,000 sewers in northeast Indiana that do that.
SCARPINO: Once the pieces that are cut on the Gerber are shipped out and sewn into the products they then come back to this facility.
MILLER: As finished goods.
SCARPINO: Finished goods, right. Where they are then shipped out once you receive orders.
MILLER: Yes. Come back as finished goods. We inspect them for quality and then they go on the shelves and then shipped out to our customers.
SCARPINO: Can you talk about the computerized automated system whereby you ship these materials out to your customers?
MILLER: We have, our conveyers have, conveyers now and it’s a wonderful thing. We use SAP [Systems, Applications and Products in Data Processing] and I’m sure there are many others but this is a system that we chose and we think it’s a wonderful system. What it does it weighs, it knows every item that we make. How much it weighs. Then we have what we call a pick-to-light picking
system as well. So once you’ve picked an order and it knows how much that box should weigh and if it doesn’t weigh that much then it is channeled off to a quality control area where they hand inspect to make sure that the order is filled correctly. It’s a great system. We still probably make some mistakes but our goal is 100% accuracy. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there but we’ll try.
SCARPINO: I noticed when you and I stood and watched that system in action that it begins with an empty box or somebody puts what looks like a computerized packing label with inventory on there and then it’s set up so that as the box travels down a conveyer it actually stops at the right station so that the person can put whatever the item is in the box.
MILLER: Yes, we, for years have done it where you’d have a grocery-cart like cart and the picker would move the cart and pick and the picker would move. Well, now the box moves and the picker has an area that they’re in charge of and when the box bar code senses that they’re at a station that they should fill the box with an item, it automatically shoots off to that area. They know from a sign what goes in there. Pick it, put it in, get it back on the conveyer again and it goes to the next station.
SCARPINO: Now, I know from walking through this facility and from talking to you that Vera Bradley is no longer a cottage industry but do you still strive for that market impression?
MILLER: We sure do. We want customer service. We want people to feel the Vera Bradley culture; that we’re a family; that we include our retailers and our consumers in that family; that we listen to you and are very proud of the brand. So that has to continually be reinforced.
SCARPINO: I noticed when we walked through the facility that you called most of the people you encountered by name and I didn’t see anyone who didn’t appear to know who you were.
MILLER: Well, I, that’s one of the things about growing. We now have over 400 employees and I am so sorry to say I don’t know everyone by name. In fact, I might not even—if I recognized someone’s face or I might not recognize them. When you start with two people and are used to knowing everyone’s name and their families and where their children are going to school or whatever, it is disconcerting to not actually know everyone. I wish I could say I do and I try. I work at that very hard to do that.
SCARPINO: Now, I understand that in addition to this recently completed distribution facility that you’re about to begin construction of a new corporate headquarters adjacent to this.
MILLER: Yes. We bought about 72 acres off of US, or Hwy 69, just south of Lafayette Center and west of 69. We have two ponds and we use that water for our heating and cooling system and we call this Stonebridge, is the campus, and we’ll actually have two stone bridges here. As you can see, it’s certainly not nearly complete because we’ve haven’t started our corporate headquarters. But, we want this to be a destination. We’ll conduct tours. We hope to have a visitors’ center. We’ll have our foundation headquarters here and want this to be a destination center for people who may be traveling, vacationing, or just live in this area.
SCARPINO: When you have an opportunity to watch this facility and look at all the technology and the volume of raw materials that come in and finished products that go out and all the employees and so on, what do you think?
MILLER: I think wow! I do. It’s a wow. People will say did you ever imagine? The answer is no, I don’t think either Barb nor I imagined. But, we didn’t not imagine. I don’t think we put a ceiling on anything, but certainly, this is terrific.
SCARPINO: Do you think that the ability to not place limits on yourself is a mark of a leader?
MILLER: Probably so. Probably so. If, sometimes if, you think you can you can do it. We were watching Tiger Woods play golf this weekend and some of the amazing scores that that man is posting and I mentioned to my husband—it’s almost like the time that the five minute mile was broken—sometimes the mindset actually works as a barrier. If you don’t think you can do it often you can’t. But if you see that you can. I mean that’s the wonderful part of being a human being. You can continually improve.
SCARPINO: The last time when we did the first interview we did it at your current headquarters which is on the north side of Fort Wayne and as a person walks into the lobby where visitors are received there’s a display of Vera Bradley products and so on but one of the things I didn’t do that I should have done was to ask you to describe in your own words your original product line.
MILLER: Alright, well we—and I think earlier on I talked about the fact that the men were carrying the Land’s End canvas and we thought women should have a utilitarian bag but it should be attractive and feminine. So, our original thought was, if we had an original thought, was that you should be able to see a Vera Bradley bag and even though we have many different patterns, maybe as much as fifteen or more right now, that you would recognize it as a Vera Bradley and that has happened. Our bags go anywhere from a duffle bag to many, many different accessories. They all have a trim which was the inspiration. I think part of that inspiration was seeing the Provence look on bags and they all had a trim which makes it much more appealing, much more interesting. So we always have a trim on something. It is usually a cotton-quilted although we do have bags that are microfiber now or other materials. We’re expanding the product line. But I think you can still see – I was showing someone through the other day and they said your patterns have evolved because some of them are very bright. Some of them are bigger, floral patterns. I’m used to more—we call them little ditseys [this is a term for a specific fabric print]. Well, we have changed but we still have that original look. But we’ve expanded it and some of our other patterns look much different but always a lot of color, a lot of pretty design. We like to think that when you look at a Vera Bradley fabric that it’s very pleasing; that you like it. Everybody has certain colors they like. You might be a blue person. You might be a red person. And that we have enough variety that you find something you love. I think I might have mentioned before that it is a collectible too because you might have a pattern that you love and you can’t go out and buy everything you want at once but you can tell someone I have a birthday coming up. I love Villa Red. I have the duffle bag. If you want to buy me a present I’d love would be the garment bag to go with it or the cosmetic bag or whatever it might be. So it’s a collectible because it is—you might have a matched set.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you for the record to explain what Provence is.
MILLER: The Provence fabrics actually evolved from India and if you think of Indian fabric you think of paisleys and foulards which are little designs and I read once, and I think this is true, that the French started buying so much Indian fabric, this was years and years ago, that the French government put a high tariff or duty on the importation of Indian fabric to France. So what they did, I think they smuggled the wooden blocks that you used to use to print fabric and they started printing their own fabric but they used their own color pallet and they, in that way, got around paying the high duty because people liked it. Well, we liked it too. So a Provence fabric is a small little design usually, beautiful colors and most of the Pierre Deux which is a brand will have bags made out of this fabric and it usually includes some type of trim.
SCARPINO: You work mostly in cotton fabric?
MILLER: We work mostly in cotton. Yes. We do have other fabrics but primarily cotton.
SCARPINO: Now in recent years you’ve clearly branched out from hand bags and travel bags and accessories to other design categories—tableware, stationery, eye wear, furniture, rugs, and linens. I understand and I read somewhere that you have a pet collection. Is that true?
MILLER: We, you know, pets are huge. We have department stores where you can buy things for your pet. So we made a pet carrier and we also have pet collars and pet leashes in our fabric.
SCARPINO: We talked last time about the fact that you, Vera Bradley’s published two cookbooks—Our Favorite Recipe in 2000 and Cooking with Friends in 2006. What was the business objective of adding these new product lines?
MILLER: The original cookbook idea came from when we used to have many fewer employees and we’d all gather together for example if the Olympics was on and we’d say well let’s have a pitch-in which is when everyone brings something. We’re all busy and we had a lot of women employees and you’d say oh, this is great. I’d love the recipe. We should do a cookbook. Well, we did and it’s a cookbook with very good recipes that aren’t that difficult. You don’t have to go to specialty food stores to find the ingredients necessarily and it was a hit. So we decided to do another one. It is just another extension of the brand.
SCARPINO: So that would include then the furniture and all those other things.
MILLER: Uh hm.
SCARPINO: Is it an effort to develop new markets?
MILLER: I think to keep that corporate culture because the cookbook will identify this is Susan Brown’s recipe and she’s customer service and then she might say something about the recipe. It’s that personal touch that makes a difference.
SCARPINO: That obviously is a part of the corporate culture of Vera Bradley…
SCARPINO: …even when you have this huge distribution facility, is to try to hang onto that personal touch.
MILLER: Yes and it’s something that is more innate than not. It’s not something that we have to play at. It’s what we are.
SCARPINO: Do you think that adding the new product lines represents business leadership on your part?
MILLER: I suppose it does because not every item that we introduce is a huge seller. So we have some blips too. But it—we mentioned the other day—we were thinking, well how many tote bags do you need? How many handbags do you need? How many cosmetic bags? Do they cannibalize one another? You know, the perfect manufacturing as far as efficiency would be if you made one of something in one color and you made millions of them. That would be easy.
SCARPINO: Right and it was an unlimited market.
MILLER: In an unlimited market. It’d also be pretty boring.
MILLER: And especially in this society. We’re in a throwaway society and people always want what’s new, what’s new, what’s new. So we think we have to keep that pipeline going and it’s also good for us. It keeps our creative juices going.
SCARPINO: Would you say that your original Vera Bradley products were aimed at any age cohort among women?
MILLER: I would say it wasn’t. In the beginning we heard many people think it was, maybe, a little country. It was, maybe, for an older woman and maybe it was. As we have evolved we’ve introduced a lot of color and also Phil, I think I told you earlier, we weren’t originally able to design our own fabric because we weren’t printing enough fabric. You have to print a certain number of yards to be able to print your own designs. Once we got into that, then we could do whatever we wanted.
SCARPINO: We actually looked at hundreds of rolls of fabric that have been designed and does your partner, Barbara, design the fabric?
MILLER: She’s head of the product development and we have an entire department of product development.
SCARPINO: I’ve asked you several questions about your own personal philosophy of leadership. I’m wondering if you think it’s possible for an institution or a company like Vera Bradley to exercise leadership.
MILLER: I think so.
SCARPINO: In what ways do you think?
MILLER: By example. I think by example. We were reading the newspaper the other day and someone was doing something that we didn’t agree with and in fact we were disappointed. It was someone who was running for public office and he said something that we said was just a little bit wrong. It’s my philosophy that to live within parameters of right and wrong, that once you move out of that into just a little bit of wrong, it’s much easier to go out again and again. So there aren’t many black and whites in the world but I truly believe that you need to always do the right thing. Now that isn’t always obvious but most of the time it is. To always do the right thing because if you rationalize and think no, just this one time it’s going to be alright. It isn’t.
SCARPINO: You were, as we were talking and walking through the facility here you mentioned that you had originally had an appointment today with Mrs. Jordan and her first name is?
MILLER: You know, I don’t know. This was arranged by someone else.
SCARPINO: Okay. I shouldn’t have asked you on the record.
MILLER: It was Michael Jordan’s mother. Yes.
SCARPINO: The context for that was an interest that you share with her in education.
SCARPINO: I wonder if you could just say a few words about that and then I’m going to just switch the subject.
MILLER: Well, I think even if I hadn’t been a teacher, certainly as a mother and as an employer, I believe education is certainly one of the, if not the most important avenue for someone to improve themselves. If we’re going to have a strong country and a strong economy we need to have the most educated workforce we can possibly have. With an education people also gain self worth and that, going back to Andrew Carnegie, what did he do? He built libraries so people could learn. That was his way of—even in the little town I grew up of 2000 people we had a small library but it was a wonderful library and it was an Andrew Carnegie Library. That was amazing to me. I didn’t realize it at the time but when I look back and I see that library I think how amazing that he did that in little towns as well as big, large cities all over the United States.
SCARPINO: I think Indianapolis originally had—I think it was seven. Quite a few. There are only a couple that are still standing. Who was it that facilitated the contact between you and Mrs. Jordan?
MILLER: A gentleman by the name of David Reynolds is head of Merrill Lynch Northern Indiana. I don’t know how he happened to contact me but he was, he is a friend of Stedman Graham and Stedman is a motivational speaker and also he calls, Oprah Winfrey’s boyfriend is how he acknowledged himself. So Stedman did come and I met with him. He gave a motivational program for business women that evening. But during the day he stopped at two women owned businesses in Fort Wayne—Vera Bradley and to DeBrand Chocolate. So when he came through this building that we’re in—and then he also stopped at a Vera Bradley store that’s at Jefferson Point, one of our malls—he was very humble. Very gracious. Wonderful personality. Very interested in everything here and I thought him to be a very nice person.
SCARPINO: You said your particular focus was the schools here in the Fort Wayne area. What do you preliminarily think could be done or what needs to be done?
MILLER: Well, we’re working on it. I’m part of the Northeast Indiana Corporate Council which is made up of CEOs from northeast Indiana and we have an education roundtable coming up very shortly. Every business owner knows that you have to have an educated workforce in order to be the best that you can. So we’re doing whatever we can to help that.
SCARPINO: Do you think there’s room for improvement and if so what direction do you think that improvement might take?
MILLER: Always room for improvement in anything, always. We just have to somehow show the children and students what connecting the dots do for them. If you do this, this will happen. If you do this, this will happen. If you have a baby at 15, life’s going to be tough. Why would you do that? If you get good enough grades in high school to go on for more education and not necessarily college—you might go to a vocational school to learn a trade. I feel strongly that we don’t emphasize the value of a vocational education. Where would we be without all the people that help service us every day? They are a valuable part of our economy and our lives. So you hear all the time: high school-college, high school-university. So what does that tell someone who might be interested in motors or might be interested in whatever? That they are of no value? That they’re secondary citizens? That isn’t true.
SCARPINO: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your role as a philanthropist. 1998, you and Barbara Baekgaard established a Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer. Why that particular cause?
MILLER: When we reached the point where we could give back monetarily Barbara’s college roommate contracted breast cancer and Mary Sloan died at age 51. She was just a wonderful, wonderful person. We heard the statistics—one in every seven women. Which, when you think of sitting at a table for dinner or at a program where you’re at a table of eight, one of those people will contract breast cancer which is an epidemic and just not an acceptable statistic. So we didn’t stretch very far to decide that it would be breast cancer. Thank goodness for Betty Ford. She was one of the first celebrities to come out saying—I have breast cancer. People just didn’t do that before. We first worked with the American Cancer Society but then were approached by Indiana University—Myles Brand and Joe Franklin. Joe Franklin’s a friend of mine who worked for the Foundation. They suggested that we endow a chair for breast cancer research. Ten minutes after they suggested it, we signed it. It was for 1.6 million that we agreed to raise in—it’s hard for me to remember now—it was three to five years: sounded like a lot. You know, you talk about a million… Who was it? One of the senators said a million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.
SCARPINO: But it’s your money though. A million dollars is a lot of money.
MILLER: It’s a lot of money and it was a long time ago.
MILLER: But we felt we could do it. We decided on a—that this golf and tennis tournament called the Vera Bradley Classic would be one of the vehicles and we have that every end of May/first of June. However it works out. It’s the first Monday in June is our golf tournament and we have, right now, we started with just a nine-hole tournament. Now we have two nine-hole tournaments and an eighteen-hole golf tournament and we have a tennis tournament. So we have…
SCARPINO: Where do these tournaments take place?
MILLER: Well, the tennis exhibition starts on Friday at one of our tennis centers—Wildwood Racquet Club.
SCARPINO: Here in Fort Wayne?
MILLER: Here in Fort Wayne. So we have a tennis exhibition and a reception. Then on Saturday we have an all day tennis tournament that is maxed out as far as people line up at five a.m. to sign up for it when the registration opens. I forget how many, close to 200, tennis players playing. Then, we have the golf tournament on Monday and that tournament is an eighteen-hole golf tournament at Sycamore Golf Club in Fort Wayne and two nine-holes. That nine-hole moves around from Fort Wayne Country Club, Orchard Ridge, Pine Valley. It’s just a terrific tournament and on Saturday evening after the tennis tournament we have this enormous tent at Sycamore Golf Club. We decorate it to the nines, absolutely gorgeous. All the tennis players and sponsors of the tennis tournament are there for a wonderful dinner and the tennis dinner has a DJ or live band. Tennis players have fun. Not that golfers don’t, but tennis players like that. Then on Monday evening we have the golf dinner. We had close to, oh gosh, I think we had close to 900 people.
SCARPINO: At the golf dinner.
MILLER: It’s huge. It’s the biggest tent, I think in, one of the biggest in Indiana and it’s just a wonderful event. On Sunday evening we have the sponsors that have contributed—and I believe this year it was 2500 and above—to a reception at a private home. We want it to be, if not the finest, one of the finest women’s charity events in the Midwest and I think we’ve done it. Last year we raised well over a million dollars.
SCARPINO: In a single year.
MILLER: That’s just the tournament in a single weekend.
SCARPINO: My goodness.
MILLER: We’ve raised more than that for the Foundation because we always have at least one pattern, we design one fabric, that we make different bags and that fabric is the breast cancer fabric and it has pink and pink ribbons in it. Part of the proceeds of that will go to the Foundation. Then we have all of our, not all of them, but those who want to particulate, the retailers can contribute to the Foundation. We also have…
SCARPINO: That is, retailers in the city or retailers with whom you work?
MILLER: Throughout the United States. And our vendors. We also have the Pink Ribbon Campaign. We have huge pink ribbons on stakes and going up to the country club or to the tennis center are pathways of pink ribbons and on every pink ribbon is a name of either a survivor or in memory of. Very, very touching—thousands. So our goal, of course is, to eliminate as many women as possible that succumb to this disease.
SCARPINO: People purchase the pink ribbons?
MILLER: Yes. They can put…
SCARPINO: So it’s a donation?
MILLER: Five dollars or whatever.
SCARPINO: So they become like a physical symbol of the donation?
MILLER: Yes and we wanted people who either didn’t play golf or didn’t play tennis to be able to contribute in some visible way so we came up with the Pink Ribbon Campaign. So for as little as five dollars you can purchase a pink ribbon.
SCARPINO: So you endowed, at the suggestion of Myles Brand and one other individual, a Chair in Oncology at Indiana University.
SCARPINO: When did you do that approximately?
MILLER: I think about ’98. I should have these numbers in front of me.
SCARPINO: I should have them in front of me just to let you off the hook.
MILLER: Well last year was our fourteenth year.
SCARPINO: I believe it was 1998.
MILLER: So l think last year was our fourteenth year so what does that make it? Anyway, we looked for probably three years. We, I should say we—it was Indiana University Medical School—for someone to sit in our chair.
SCARPINO: How long did it take you to raise the $1.7 million that you pledged for?
MILLER: Oh, you’re asking me numbers here. We raised it within the allotted time.
SCARPINO: A few years.
MILLER: We did what we pledged. It was either three or five years. And now with—we have either donated or pledged ten million so far. We keep re-upping.
SCARPINO: To support the research?
MILLER: Yes. Dr. Malkas is the bio-scientist, the PhD that we found to sit in the chair for breast cancer research, the Vera Bradley Chair for Breast Cancer Research.
SCARPINO: That’s Linda Malkas?
MILLER: Dr. Linda Malkas. She came from the University of Maryland. We joke: we’ve taken the Colts from Maryland and now we take Dr. Malkas. But she and her team of scientists which includes her husband, Bob Hickey, work at IU and they have found a detector for breast cancer. It looks—you saw all the bar codes we had out there. It’s a bar code and, you see, it’s a blood test, so when they—don’t ask me how they do this—but if they take a blood test and this machine reads it, if I have one molecule of breast cancer and there’s several different kinds of breast cancer. There are other cancers that it will also pinpoint. One molecule, it will identify that. So what it means is early detection. She’s not saying I’ve cured breast cancer. But early detection will push the survival rate into the upper ninetieth percentile and she is very close to getting these kits, this knowledge, to the docs so that women can go to their doctors, have the blood test. I could be sitting here with breast cancer and I’ve had it for ten years and I don’t know it because it hasn’t manifested itself. With that blood test I would be able to tell and the medicines available are strong, good medicines. So my chances of survival and/or cure of that will be in the upper ninetieth percentile.
SCARPINO: So the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer raised the money to endow a professorship in Oncology at Indiana University.
SCARPINO: That professor in turn has a staff of scientists working for her including her husband.
SCARPINO: And you annually raise money to support her research?
MILLER: Yes. The money goes to the IU Medical School and they in turn—you know it’s a lot more complicated. I’m making everything sound very simplistic. It’s much more complicated than that. But they know that we are supporting Dr. Malkas and her research.
SCARPINO: I—I mean truth in advertising—I have done some fundraising so I have some familiarity with the bureaucracy that goes along with it.
MILLER: Yes. I think the thing we’re very proud of is Vera Bradley pays our Director of Philanthropy, we pay her out of corporate money. So our ratio of what we raise and what we contribute is very, very high.
SCARPINO: People sponsor the golf tournament? Sponsor the tennis tournament and the dinner and all that stuff?
MILLER: Yes, yes. But Vera Bradley’s the biggest sponsor.
SCARPINO: Any idea how much money that the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer has raised since 1998?
MILLER: Right now we’re well over six million and we might be more than that but I know we’re going to get to that ten, again, before the due date. We will get there.
SCARPINO: What happens after that?
MILLER: Hopefully, what we hope for, and here goes back to if you think you can do it you can do it. I think she can do it. If we have to go to another cause such as ovarian cancer or whatever, we would be thrilled to death.
SCARPINO: I read a little bit about the Vera Bradley Classic Golf and Tennis Tournament which noted that the goal was to raise funds for research, education, and patient services.
MILLER: Uh hm.
SCARPINO: Could you talk a little bit about your visions in each of those areas: research, education, and patient services?
MILLER: Well, we want everyone to, we want to help people who cannot afford mammograms to be able to do that. There are just many other ways that you can help women, and men are 1% of the victims, of this disease. Very small but, in fact, I have a friend who contracted breast cancer—a man. But we think that the impact is going to be felt with the research. But we do contribute to the mobile mammography vans and we contribute to other services but primarily we think we’re going to get more bang for our buck with the research. That’s what we’re interested in.
SCARPINO: I read an interview that you gave in 2005 in which you said—talking about philanthropy and the money you raised for breast cancer—you said this is about giving back and being a good corporate citizen. How do you define a good corporate citizen? What makes a good corporate citizen?
MILLER: I like to see our managers sit on boards or anyone, any employee, to be able to contribute to sit on boards, to contribute to your community in any way that helps the community and I think you always get back more than you give when you participate. And maybe it’s part of growing up in a small town where, I think we talked about this before, you had to do a little bit of everything and how I’m a dabbler. Because growing up in a small town you had to be on the school newspaper, you had to be on the yearbook. I suppose you didn’t have to be but in order to get any of that done you just—you had to multitask. I’ve always enjoyed that and I’ve always gotten more out of participating in something like that than I’ve given. It’s also a learning process. If you engage in something and participate in something you learn so much. That was one of the—my husband and I went to the master’s golf tournament one time and I was told that most of the crowd control people were some of the top CEOs in the country. And if they helped, and I don’t know if this is true either, but if they helped—it’s a good idea if it isn’t—with that they were able to play Augusta even though they weren’t a member at some time. That gave me an idea. The idea was that we would like—by the way, the Vera Bradley Classic golf and tennis—only women can be the players. Men cannot play. This is a women’s tournament: both golf and tennis. But we want, for example in the golf, we want a top CEO to be the scorekeeper for that foursome. Thinking that if you do more than write a check, if you actually participate and actually see what the event is about it is going to be much more rewarding to the person who is sponsoring or donating to that and it’s also important to the event as a whole because it’s more meaningful to everyone. And I think that’s what—and I thought of that when we went to the Master’s—when those CEOs were doing the crowd control they became a part of that tournament. So I want the movers and shakers of not only northeast Indiana but anyone to be a participant even though they can’t play the golf or play the tennis game, but to be a participant rather than just sending in a check. We’ll take the signed check anyway. But it’s more meaningful if you actually participate.
SCARPINO: Now, do people come from outside the metro area to participate?
MILLER: They do! They come from all over. We have people from all over the country coming. It’s a fabulous event.
SCARPINO: 2002 you received the IUPUI Spirit of Philanthropy award which is usually given in Indianapolis at a luncheon ceremony. What did that award mean to you?
MILLER: I think philanthropy is probably one of the most significant rewards. It’s a reward for me, and I know I speak for Barbara as well, to be able to give back. I don’t remember if I mentioned seeing an interview by Andre Agassi and he has built a school in Las Vegas in an area where they have children that are truly underprivileged. That school has posted higher scores than most schools in the area. What he’s done is remarkable and he mentioned and I think most people that you talk to will say that it’s very, very rewarding to give. It’s like a boomerang. It is so rewarding to give. To know that you are actually making a difference in someone’s life.
SCARPINO: When you first started Vera Bradley did you ever think you’d be in a situation where you could have an impact like that?
MILLER: Probably not. Probably not. When my husband and I got out of grad school at IU and I know we—my husband’s a lawyer—and we were saying if we could ever just make—and this is still a lot of money to people—if we could just make 50,000 a year we would be rolling in clover, you know. But to think that I’m now in a position with the company that we’re able to pledge ten million dollars to charity? It’s special. It’s very special.
SCARPINO: I read, among the research materials that I read about you, August 2005 you spoke at a conference sponsored by the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy and the subject was Women in Philanthropy Gaining Momentum. Do you think that women are gaining momentum in the field of philanthropy?
MILLER: Oh, absolutely.
SCARPINO: Do women have an impact as philanthropists?
SCARPINO: What do you think that impact is?
MILLER: Well, more women are in positions of management—top management. And if you’re making more money you can give more money. I think it’s as simple as that. You can’t give if you don’t have it.
SCARPINO: That’s true.
MILLER: So women are in positions now where they are demanding and receiving equal salary for equal work and they’re in top management. We have a long way to go but they’re in a position to give because they’re making more money.
SCARPINO: You also gave a talk which I read the text of called From Entrepreneur to Philanthropist: Turning Dreams into Reality One Step at a Time. Can you say a few words about your journey from entrepreneur to philanthropist? I mean, you talked about the creation of the Vega Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer and why you did that and the tennis and golf tournament and so on but…
MILLER: Well, I think that there’s—it’s just an evolution. It isn’t—we’re just taking one step at a time. Remember we’ve been doing this for 25 years now. And it’s just a point where you think yes we can do this and again, you don’t start out by pledging ten million. You start out by pledging which was what we thought, and was, a great deal of money—over a million dollars. So it’s just one step at a time. You keep increasing. Continuous improvement again. Whether it’s improving how much you’re able to give or improving your operation of your business or whatever it is. I think most people evolve and there’s no secret to it. It’s just what you’re able to do. It has to be the right time and the right cause. And this cause—people that raise money for certain things know that you raise money from people who have a vested interest whether it be music or health or education or whatever it is.
SCARPINO: Do you consider yourself to be a leader in the area of philanthropy?
MILLER: I consider myself and the company to be responsible to be leaders for primarily the women who are coming after us because Barb and I are of an age where we were on the cusp. Many women didn’t work outside the home other than say nursing and teaching and so to be in the corporate world we were paving a way sometimes I think by our example for women that would come after us. I hear that anyway. It means we’re old. (laughing)
SCARPINO: Well, for anyone who’s interested, we did give your birth date in the first interview.
MILLER: Oh, darn, but I do feel I have made a friend in Alice Dye. Alice was the first woman on the PGA Board, Professional Golf Association, and she’s a golf course architect of renown as is her husband Pete. I read her book recently. We go back to biographies again. She said that she when they asked her to do that she felt a responsibility to be someone who was a first. A woman who was a first to do it because it would open the door for others to come through. Billy Jean King was at our Vera Bradley Classic as a tennis player.
SCARPINO: Is that right?
MILLER: And she said the same thing. Why in the world did you play Billy Riggs? That was his name, wasn’t it? Well, anytime you can do something, a first that would open the door for others, it’s important. So it’s important for us to set a good example.
SCARPINO: We’ve spent quite a bit of time in the first interview and in this one, talking about leadership in the area of business, and a little bit of time talking about leadership in the area of philanthropy. Do you see any differences or similarities between leadership as an entrepreneur and leadership as a philanthropist?
MILLER: Probably a difference. What I realize gaining some recognition in business as a success has allowed me to approach people to ask for certain things. It’s—how can I put this? People like to identify with success. I do. And you like to know how people tick and so if someone like Michael Jordan’s mother says she wants to come here and talk about education and I know she has a program, I don’t know a lot about it, I’m very interested in hearing that. Not because it’s Michael Jordan’s mother but it’s part of the equation isn’t it? Because you do, I don’t know her personally, but you know that she has the capacity to do something and that she’s obviously interested in doing something. So having a celebrity come out to say they have a disease and it helps to raise money. We mentioned Betty Ford but there are people who have a disease who acknowledge that publicly and help to raise funds for that. Katie Couric, her husband died of colon cancer, and she’s a champion for that. And good for them. She’s saving lives.
SCARPINO: You, among the positions that you hold outside of Vera Bradley, you’re on the IU Foundation, Indiana University Foundation Board of Directors.
SCARPINO: Is there any correlation between your service to that board and your interest in philanthropy?
MILLER: Well, the fact that Vera Bradley donates monies to the Indiana University School of Medicine, the Oncology Center, has something to do with that probably. Also, I owe a lot to Indiana University because I had over, well, I was there seven years.
SCARPINO: That’s your education and your husband’s education.
MILLER: My education. I did some grad work and my husband also got his law degree there. Again, education has opened so many doors that would never have been opened for us and I owe them a lot. Yes, and so if I can give back in any way, sitting on a board or raising money for their medical school, I couldn’t be happier.
SCARPINO: You’re also a member of the IU Varsity Club or you were.
SCARPINO: Will you say, for the record, what the IU Varsity Club is and what it does?
MILLER: The IU Varsity Club is the arm of the university that raises money for sports. You might have gathered I like sports.
SCARPINO: I picked that up between the lines.
MILLER: I like sports and we’re trying very hard to—we’ve had some rough times with basketball and football and also…
SCARPINO: Meaning Indiana University.
MILLER: Meaning Indiana University. And actually we have a better record than Notre Dame this year in football which tickles me to death but I’m also interested in women’s sports. With Title IX we’re finally getting equal and I’m very happy about that.
SCARPINO: Do you raise money for women’s sports at Indiana University?
MILLER: Not women’s sports per se although I wouldn’t count that out for the future. I think sports is another part of your education—how to win, how to lose, how to work as a team, how to set goals and reach them. There are many life’s lessons you can learn with sports plus we have a nation of people that are not fit and we have to reverse that because it’s cost: first of all it’s not good and secondly it’s costing all of us so much money. So, I’m a proponent of fitness.
SCARPINO: What impact do you think Title IX has had on the lives of women?
MILLER: A great impact. It’s so great.
SCARPINO: Define great.
MILLER: Oh, it’s so great! They are able to experience, those that want to, an area that they were not privy to before. You think of the scholarships. How many women are able to go to school now that might not have been? And again, it used to be you thought women couldn’t even run a marathon. You’re probably too young to remember that.
SCARPINO: (laughing) I do remember that. Actually in graduate school I was a long distance runner.
MILLER: I do think it’s just wonderful. It’s just wonderful.
SCARPINO: Is there anything else that you’d like to say about your interest in or engagement in philanthropy before I change the subject? Before I get into politics?
MILLER: The only thing, and I don’t know anything about statistics with this but I’ve heard that the upcoming generation of professionals isn’t as giving and I don’t think I believe that. I think they are and I think you just have to reach a certain point and then, you know, we all do get a little smarter as we get older and you realize the value of certain things. Sometimes when you’re younger you’re just very preoccupied with your career and raising your family and timing is important and I do think the generations coming up, in due time, will be great philanthropists.
SCARPINO: So you think it takes a certain maturity?
MILLER: I do. I do. I do. I think so.
SCARPINO: I actually would like to spend the remainder of the time that we have talking to you about your recent foray into state politics. In 2004, you agreed to serve the campaign of then Republican candidate for governor, Mitch Daniels.
MILLER: Uh hm.
SCARPINO: You and I have talked about this off the record but for the record how did you meet then-candidate Daniels? And had you known him before you met him for lunch, I guess?
MILLER: No, I did not know him. And I happened to be at an IU Foundation board meeting and I had a phone call from Jim Morris who was head of the World Food Bank and he had been president of the IU Board of Trustees and he’s on the IU Foundation board. I knew Jim, not well, but I knew him from association in those boards. And he said, phone call, and he said—Pat, I’d like you to drive to Indianapolis and meet a friend of mine, Mitch Daniels. So I said fine. Be glad to. So I did that and went to his campaign headquarters which, first campaign headquarters I think I’d been in because I had not been involved in politics before. I’m now not proud of that I will add because I think that public service is also a part of give back. But, so we met for lunch, the two of us, and he asked me many questions that you’re asking me. What do you do and tell me about your business and I found out, I can’t even remember if I knew he was running for governor, I think I probably did, but I certainly didn’t know him. Had not met him. Exactly an hour later—because he was a busy man, on the road, and RV-1 was parked right outside—I knew that he was a special person. I knew I liked what I heard and somehow there was a connection there. I didn’t know if it was reciprocal or not. So then I was invited to meet other supporters of his and friends and I realized that I was being considered, because he told me for—and he didn’t say what position—one of the positions in his administration should he win. And then eventually he did ask me to run as Secretary of Commerce Designee. There was not a Secretary of Commerce for the state. We had a Department of Commerce and he wanted to…
SCARPINO: And the department was overseen by the lieutenant governor under previous administrations?
MILLER: Yes, yes. So he wanted, should he get elected which of course he did, he wanted to change the Department of Commerce to a quasi-public/private corporation which was the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. He would be the Chairman of the Board, I would be CEO. Mickey Maurer, an incredible businessman would be President and we had Nate Feltman who was Executive VP. So, I campaigned from May ’04—in fact I found an article the other day. I’ve got these all stashed in boxes, all of my articles and memorabilia that some day—it’s like that box of photographs you have—someday you’re going to get them put in an album. Well, I have that with this campaign and when I served as Secretary of Commerce. But from May of ’04 until the election in November I was on the road constantly campaigning for him as Secretary of Commerce Designee.
SCARPINO: I want to back up to that first lunch that you had and I realize that Mitch Daniels is still the governor and so on but I also gather that your impression of him was a favorable one so this then, this question I don’t think will put you on the spot.
MILLER: Uh hm.
SCARPINO: When you met him the first time what were your impressions of him?
MILLER: I liked him. I liked him.
SCARPINO: What did you like about him?
MILLER: He was personable. I was very comfortable talking to him. You know, sometimes when you meet someone and there’s just a—there’s a connection and it’s hard to describe what it is but I felt very comfortable with him. I believed he was sincere and I tell him this and I truly feel this way. In fact, I just wrote a note to him today, this morning. Every day I’m a total political junkie as far as reading now the news. And I put an exclamation mark after his name every day when I read. Because we had a road map and it was truly a map of Indiana and the road map was what he wanted to get done should he become governor. And every day I see that he’s doing it. This morning there was an article in the paper about the BMV, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Now, everyone that lives in Indiana—I heard years ago going to the license branch is the way the state has of keeping us humble. (laughing)
SCARPINO: I was going to say getting root canal. (laughing)
MILLER: But today in the newspaper, The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, there was actually an article saying how pleasant it was to go to the BMV. When we campaigned he wanted you to be able to receive your license plate at the dealership where you bought your car. You can renew your license when applicable online. Why do you have to renew a license every four years rather than… It was thinking how to do things and make it better—continuous improvement. Now, I know they got off to a rocky start in this state because of the antiquated Texas technology they had trying to update it and it had a hard time. But they’re on the downhill slope now. They’re doing so well. It is improving and the article was about how pleasant it was. They’re not calling out your number—number 23. They’re actually calling your name and they’re pleasant and it’s the way it should be. We’re their customers and they’re there to serve us and that was his vision. And it went one point after another of what he wanted to do. The coal gasification was one of the—the clean air. One after another. Attracting, helping to grow business, attract business and keep business here. We have a long way to go and every time I hear him speak it’s always—we have so much more work to do. Yes, we’re making some victories but we have more work to do. It’s continuous improvement. It’s the same as running Vera Bradley or running GM across the road; continually knowing you can do better.
SCARPINO: You campaigned for Mitch Daniels from what, May ’04?
MILLER: May ’04 until November, until the election.
SCARPINO: It almost seemed to me from the material that I read and from watching you across the table as you talk about what you did, you were selling Mitch Daniels much like you would sell the products you make here at Vera Bradley.
MILLER: Well, it was easy. I believed in it.
SCARPINO: Marketing I think is better than selling.
MILLER: Yes. You know, you can sell anything you like or believe in. You can do it I think. It’s hard to sell something you don’t like.
SCARPINO: So what was your role? I mean what did you do as you campaigned for him? How did you go about marketing Mitch Daniels?
MILLER: The reason I believe he chose me to do it was that we had actually started a business, we were growing a business. I don’t know what gender had to do with it. But when you talk to someone who has started a business from $500 to a multi-million dollar business, I don’t know everything; I don’t have the answers to everything. But, I know how to build a team and keep them excited about things and Mitch did the same thing. He saw that if I went through the 250 companies, over 250 companies I went through, that I would have some validity. That I’ve been in their shoes with—he kept saying I want someone that is actually signed their name to a paycheck for someone; that kind of knows what it’s about.
SCARPINO: So were you mostly proselytizing for Mitch Daniels among corporate executives or were you out on the rubber chicken circuit giving speeches?
MILLER: All of the above. All of the above. I went into companies that might have mom and pop that might have four employees and I went through companies that had thousands of employees. Fortune 500 companies and mom and pop shops. Companies that probably would be buggy whip companies very soon because of the outsourcing overseas probably…
SCARPINO: You mean they’re going to become obsolete?
MILLER: Obsolete, yes. And how could they reinvent themselves? We went overseas to try to attract business. We attracted Toyota. Then he did get Honda after we came because we had a number in the hundreds of Japanese companies that are in Indiana.
SCARPINO: I’m going to connect this interview with an earlier one that I did. One of the individuals that I interviewed for the Tobias Leadership Project was John Mutz who ran unsuccessfully for governor after a long career as a politician in Indiana and he felt in analyzing his unsuccessful bid against Evan Bayh that maybe one of the things that hurt him was his championing of Subaru Isuzu and what he thought maybe was, at that time, a streak of xenophobia in and among the electorate. Did you run into any of that? Do you think Indiana had gotten beyond that by the time you were, had the whip in your hand?
MILLER: I think they had gotten a little beyond that because of the globalization of the world economy. It’s a market economy now. There are certain people I’m sure that don’t like to see that. We had a map with all the different countries that have companies in Indiana but we’re in a global economy right now and we have, people have to understand that.
SCARPINO: Who do you think that challenges the chief executive of the state or the secretary of commerce in the state? I mean, what does that challenge those leaders to do?
MILLER: It’s tough. It is very tough. There are certain things that, certain industries, that are on a priority list for us. The only thing is it’s on a priority list for every state in the union. Our wages are more than say the wages in China. And they should be. But it does present many challenges. So, what areas can we excel in in the United States? And there’s your education again with your design, your creativity, your entrepreneurship. We’re used to thinking outside the box. We’re used to thinking as entrepreneurs. Not every society is that way if you haven’t had a market economy. If you—for example, some of the communist regimes where the government owns everything and you have nothing to gain by thinking of better ways to do something or new ways to do something. We have a wonderful society here but the world changes and it’s changing dramatically and it’s changing at a pace that it’s never changed before and it will continue to change faster and faster. So, we have to make sure that we have the vision to know where we want to go, where our priorities are. It’s very complicated.
SCARPINO: So how did you market Indiana to foreign investors in competition with Ohio and Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Florida?
MILLER: Just like I market Vera Bradley—personal interest. Going to a customer, wherever they are, and saying we appreciate your business. Mitch says over and over. You know what we would be happiest with—if you made a lot of money. Because, then the state’s going to get the taxes from it. But, be successful. That would be the best, that would be our reward as Secretary of Commerce and IEDC, if businesses were successful. That’s what we want.
SCARPINO: Well, we know that Mitch Daniels won in November of 2004. He was successful in his bid for governor and he, as he indicated he would, he appointed you as Indiana’s first Secretary of Commerce and Executive Director of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. It’s my understanding, and I hope I get this right for the record, that Indiana had had a Department of Commerce. It was a state agency.
MILLER: Uh hm.
SCARPINO: And what he did was to eliminate the Department of Commerce and create the Indiana Economic Development Corporation but with the Secretary of Commerce as the head of that.
MILLER: Uh hm.
SCARPINO: So you were Secretary of Commerce and Executive Director of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation but those were the same position.
SCARPINO: Is that right?
MILLER: Yes. I was CEO of the IEDC. Governor Daniels was Chairman of the Board. And then I had a president in Mickey Mauer who went on to become Secretary of Commerce. Then when Mickey left Nate Feltman is currently the Secretary of Commerce. Mitch, I should say the Governor, recruited business people. Not in its entirety but many of his cabinet was composed of business people—successful business people. And Mickey was one of those. Nate was a partner in…
SCARPINO: Mickey Mauer’s background was?
MILLER: Mickey is entrepreneur of renown. He’s a tax lawyer. He started many successful businesses. He owns the IBJ—Indianapolis Business Journal. An incredibly brilliant man and one of the most generous people I know. So recruiting these business people to serve in the cabinet, we promised him a certain amount of time. So now when you read that so-and-so’s leaving and so-and-so’s leaving it’s that we weren’t career politicians. We came from a job. We came from business. But we all bought into what Governor Daniels was trying to do. We all use him as an example of how to do it right. He’s bold, audacious, he has an agenda, and whether it’s popular or not, if he thinks it’s right he wants to do it. He’s fiscally very, very sound and it’s an incredibly complex, complicated job to be governor. And I still believe that he’s one of the most brilliant governors in the country and I think we’re very lucky to have him and I, because he works harder and smarter than almost anyone I know.
SCARPINO: So as Secretary of Commerce you were then a member of the governor’s cabinet.
SCARPINO: Okay, what was your portfolio as a member of the governor’s cabinet? What were you charged to do?
MILLER: Attract, grow, and retain businesses.
SCARPINO: Was that the same as your position as Executive Director of Indiana Development Corporation?
MILLER: Same thing. Same thing. Serve the businesses of Indiana however we could. Also, not to just give money away as far as tax credits or whatever but to also get a return on our investment. Because the money we had belonged to Indiana—Indiana citizens. So we wanted to make sure when we invested monies in a company, as far as attraction, growth, or retention, that we felt particularly good about the fact that it would generate more money than we gave.
SCARPINO: So, you kind of looked at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation as a generator of economic growth.
SCARPINO: Okay. If you look at the Department of Commerce that was once an agency of the state government overseen by the Lt. Governor and the Indiana Economic Development Corporation that replaced it, could you talk about what was different about the Indiana Economic Development Corporation? How was it organized? What was its purpose?
MILLER: Well, the Department of Commerce, and again, I wasn’t there when that was going on, but it had Agriculture, it had many, many different objectives. By focusing the IEDC on commerce—and the Lt. Governor now has Ag and other areas—it focused on what the governor and we thought was the most important element in state government to get the wheels rolling and that was to have a healthy, growing economy.
SCARPINO: Now is the Indiana Economic Development Corporation a state agency or public/private partnership?
MILLER: It’s both. It’s a quasi-public/private. And what does that mean? It means that yes we have a leg in the government.
SCARPINO: Because you sat at the governor’s cabinet.
MILLER: And the governor is our chairman of the board.
MILLER: But we can also raise private money.
SCARPINO: So your funding was a combination of tax dollars and private money.
SCARPINO: What did you do with the money to accomplish the mission of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation?
MILLER: With the money that we were able to raise, if we tried to attract, for example, a business from another state. States all over are trying to attract that same business if they felt it was good business. Some states laid cash on the table for them. Some gave tax incentives. All of the above. So we’re all in competition. One conference—they always have a Midwest U.S. Japan conference once a year and it includes nine Midwestern states. At one of those conferences—the year I was Secretary of Commerce—the conference was in Cincinnati. I was able to hear each governor—and not all governors were there. I think there might have been seven—had a ten minute presentation, one right after the other. So I heard Governor Granholm from Michigan, Governor Daniels, the governor of Illinois. One right after the another. We’re all after the same golden ring. So what do you do…
SCARPINO: The Japanese investment.
MILLER: Yes. So what do you do to break out of the crowd? You have to do something a little different. We didn’t have as much money as some states. In fact we were in the red when we went in. We’re not now but we thought well, we can out-customer-service them. We can tell them you’re very important to us. Thank you for your business. We want your business, whatever. We made a vow to return every phone call, to just give the same service that I said, that Bureau of Motor Vehicles customer service. That is a way of attracting business. If you walk in a store and a clerk comes up to you and shows an interest in you and knows what they’re talking about, you may be willing to pay a little bit more.
SCARPINO: How did you go about establishing your leadership as Secretary of Commerce/Executive Director of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation? I mean I assume at some point you literally and figuratively walked into the door of your office and then you have to set up a mechanism in the new administration.
MILLER: We did. We did. And I did it like we’ve done this. We had a team. We had myself, Mickey Mauer, Nate Feltman and we started a company is what we did because in politics when you have a change in administration and we went from a Democratic administration to Republican, the house cleans out somewhat. So we had to make up our team. That was like starting a business. That’s the hardest part of anything because trying to get that team together is an unknown. So that was a tough time but between all of us we interviewed many people, we got recommendations and talked today to my administrative assistant. They’re very special people to me. They become part of your business family.
SCARPINO: Your administrative assistant when you were in state government?
SCARPINO: What was his or her name?
MILLER: Dixie Morton and she was a Dixie. She was a great gal.
SCARPINO: So she’s still there?
MILLER: She’s still there. Yes.
SCARPINO: Can you explain a little bit about how the Indiana Economic Development Corporation worked? I believe it had a twelve member board. The Chairman of the Board was the governor and so on but how did it function?
MILLER: We set up a board and the board was made up of top CEOs around the state in different areas. We met on a regular basis. We presented to the board what we were doing as a corporation as any corporation presents what they are doing to their board. They were able to give us input and suggestions and they also were our ambassadors throughout the state and the world. Some of our board members were in global businesses like Cummins Engine or…
SCARPINO: Who were the board members? Or the ones that you can remember off the top of your head.
MILLER: Well, John Mutz, Bob Cook from Evansville. We had Mr. White from Merrillville—White Signs and he’s a hotel person. John Mutz. I don’t know, did I mention John.
SCARPINO: You mentioned John, yeah.
MILLER: John and we had, let’s see, oh gosh. We had, oh, Dan Miller from Biomet. We had—I’m probably missing very, very obvious people here. We had Sally Burn who was from Lafayette. She’s an entrepreneur; started her own company. We had, where am I, seven. We’ve got more to go. But anyway a very impressive board of people who had done it, were business people. They always say politics is different than business but as far as IEDC, we were running it like a business and we wanted a return on investment and if we were incentivizing a company and they decided to leave the state, we needed that money back.
SCARPINO: Back from the company?
MILLER: We needed the money. If they left before their obligation was over we wanted that back to help invest in another company. We were using your money as best as we knew how.
SCARPINO: So in effect you were, at this point, marketing Indiana.
MILLER: We were.
SCARPINO: Economic opportunity in Indiana I guess.
MILLER: Yes, we were.
SCARPINO: Which is something that you had a lot of practice at.
MILLER: Yes and I went around and spoke as often as I could.
SCARPINO: I did a lot of reading about your time as Executive Director of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and I pulled out a couple of examples that look interesting. So I hope that I’m right and I’m going to hit on some that are worthy of remembering. The Indiana Manufacturing Extension Partnership Center that was affiliated with Purdue.
MILLER: Uh hm.
SCARPINO: What were you trying to accomplish there? I mean I thought that was kind of interesting that a major land-grant university was involved from which you were…
MILLER: Well, IU is a research university. Purdue is also a research university. Certainly, IU’s research, primarily medicine but certainly chemistry, bio-sciences. Then, Purdue with the engineering, also bio-sciences. Universities play a very vital role in economic development because they can assist companies with research to come up with new ways to do things, better ways to do things. And I truly did not understand how significant it was that universities partnered with economic development on a state level as much as it is a vital partnership and they get it. Research companies such as Lilly and many, many different companies that not only have wonderful products but are continually researching new products, new ways to do things. So, Purdue University has the top research center in the country as far as universities.
SCARPINO: In which particular area?
MILLER: Primarily engineering. One of the—with Homeland Security, some of the devices that they’ve been able to come up with—one young man who was a graduate student, as far as detecting objects that should not be in an airplane, like a bomb. So you can see where this would be very—well what it is it’s giving birth to new innovation, new companies, because the companies of the future, many of them, we won’t even imagine today.
SCARPINO: Right. Did you get involved in development of ethanol?
SCARPINO: In what way?
MILLER: We didn’t—we were very far behind in ethanol plants and last Saturday Jay Berry, who opened his ethanol plant, had the grand opening on Saturday, was one of the first projects that I worked on.
SCARPINO: Where was that plant or where is that plant?
MILLER: He’s down around Marion, Indiana and Senator Lugar spoke at that opening. But agriculture is a huge industry in Indiana and you have many pros and cons to using ethanol plants as economic development. It’s a clean fuel. It’s maybe something that’s going to be here a long time, maybe not. But certainly the grain that we raised, the farmers are getting more money for it but it also has a domino effect of the grain prices are going up which means the farmers that feed the livestock have to pay more for the grain which costs them more. I mean we’re all connected and it takes someone much brighter than me to figure all of that out but we started very far in the hole as far as ethanol plants that were up and running and now we’re one of the leaders. That was Lt. Governor Becky Skillman’s area. But it was also ours because it’s a company but it’s also related to Ag. So often our departments were together on businesses because of the Ag business and it was a business.
SCARPINO: Do you think that the benefits of ethanol lie mostly in the area of providing a market for grain or a substitute for reliance on foreign oil, or all of the above or some of the above?
MILLER: I think all of the above. I think we continually have to be looking for alternative fuels. I just bought Alan Greenspan’s book yesterday and one of the statements he made to the press was the reason we’re in Iraq is because of the oil. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know but certainly we know oil plays a big role in that and for many, many reasons we need to find a way to sustain our energy other than oil.
SCARPINO: Did you have anything to do with the Indy Racing Leagues, that option of ethanol as its motor fuel?
MILLER: Yes. The motor sports was under the IEDC. That was so interesting. I didn’t know much about it certainly other than the fact that I’d gone to the 500 Race. But that’s a huge industry—a huge business industry. Some of the schools were starting to have majors and coursework in the auto industry management and the wind tunnel that’s down there now, we had a gentleman at IEDC whose job was motor sports.
SCARPINO: The wind tunnel is where?
MILLER: In Indianapolis. It’s not the only one but it is significant. So we’re known for motor sports and it’s so much easier to keep a customer, speaking of the state, than to go out and find a new customer. So we’d always been known for motor sports but the Daytona and, I mean, you see that other states were also doing this. So we made a concerted effort to pay particular attention to motor sports because we’ve got it. We want to hang onto it. We want to help it grow. That’s going back to those three words—attract, retain, and grow business. So we didn’t necessarily have to attract it. We had it. But we had to retain it and we had to help it grow.
SCARPINO: And when they made the switch to ethanol as the fuel for their race cars, was that something that?
MILLER: That was part of it. That was part of it. It’s like a celebrity saying I have a disease. If the celebrity driving the race car says we’re using ethanol that’s good.
SCARPINO: Did you play a personal role?
SCARPINO: What was your role?
MILLER: Well, to encourage these companies to come here. Oh, you’re talking about the car owners deciding to use ethanol?
SCARPINO: Use ethanol, yes.
MILLER: I did through the gentleman that was in IEDC whose job was paying attention to motor sports, yes. That was one of our agendas.
SCARPINO: But overall, the building up in the motor sports industry was one of the initiatives that the governor.
MILLER: Yes, it was and the governor. That was on his road map in ’04.
SCARPINO: You hired a man named Stephen Akard—A-K-A-R-D.
SCARPINO: Who had been on the staff of…
MILLER: Colin Powell.
SCARPINO: …Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Service Director for International Development which I assume must have meant he was charged with promoting foreign investment. How did he do and how did Indiana fare in the area of foreign investment on your watch?
MILLER: Yes. I think we fared very well. To get someone of Stephen’s caliber. He spoke five languages fluently; traveled the world with Colin Powell. Really set up his itineraries to make sure that everything, all his trips, went smoothly. So, how did we get Stephen? Well he was an Indianapolis person or at least Indianapolis-area. And they had grade school children and he traveled extensively and it was time, he said, to come back to grandma and grandpa-land. You know, when you’re in that time period where you’re raising small children and you’re gone all the time. So, we had this incredibly talented person. We had stories like this at IEDC over and over again. The Midwest is a wonderful place to raise a family. So we were able to get Stephen and he helped us immensely on the trip in ’05 that we went to Japan. We had many, many foreign dignitaries come to the state from all over the world and Stephen was very helpful in that area because of his great experience. So, very fortunate to have someone of Stephen’s caliber and character. Wonderful person.
SCARPINO: Did you pick him?
MILLER: That was one of our great hires and it wasn’t just me. It was our team building this team.
SCARPINO: In June of 2005 you, I guess, gave a keynote at a meeting of the Columbia Club in Indianapolis and you were featured in a session called building a roadmap to the next Indiana. I don’t know if you remember that. You probably gave a lot of speeches but how did you imagine the next Indiana? Where did you think we were going?
MILLER: Well, we have so many natural resources here. We have water. You know what’s happening right now with forest fires and of course a lot of people have water right now. I just said Jackson Hills flooded right now—Jackson Hills, Florida. But with the Major Moves, which was another of Governor Daniels’ initiatives, we were able to—Mother Nature put us, we can’t take credit for it, Mother Nature put us in the middle of the country. So if you’re going east to west, north to south, chances are a high percentage of traffic is going to go through Indiana. So we have many, many highways in Indiana but we need to have more and better; keep them upgraded which Major Moves will allow us
to do because we have the money to do it and we’ll also be employing thousands of people.
SCARPINO: And briefly, for the record in ten or fifteen years, what was Major Moves?
MILLER: Alright. Major Moves was understanding that we were at this intersection. Part of that was the governor leasing the toll-way along the northern border of Indiana.
SCARPINO: Interstate 80?
MILLER: Yes. Yes. A huge influx of money that not only gains interest, huge amounts of interest every day, but we are now able to start building these roads right away. Evansville, Indiana. The only time I had an irate group during the campaign was in Evansville, Indiana. They have been cut off by not having an adequate highway down there for as long as I can—forever. And in spite of that has grown to be quite a nice city. But if they had that highway and they have, they’re on the river—it’s going to help enormously. But I was speaking to a group at one of the country clubs during the campaign and several people finally stood up and said, like the movie, we’ve had it. We’re mad as hell. We’re not going to take it anymore. Bobby Kennedy was here when he was campaigning for president and promised us this highway. What are you going to do? You know, this was when I was campaigning for him. He’s doing it. We weren’t able—it’s like any company or household. If you don’t have the money you can’t do very much. We were in debt. We’re now solvent and we can do some things.
SCARPINO: And you credit Major Moves for that?
MILLER: That was part of it. It was a big part of it.
SCARPINO: As Secretary of Commerce/Executive Director of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, what were you most proud of? What do you think was your greatest accomplishment?
MILLER: Gosh. Probably getting it started and hopefully we let people know that we were working for them. Now I know people at the Department of Commerce, I’m sure they did too. I mean no one goes into work thinking we’re going to do a bad job I don’t think. Not very many people. But with the organization the way it was under IEDC I think we were able to move with speed and flexibility and those are two very important words—speed especially. In this day and age you have to work with speed. We were able to do that. We were able to move faster because we didn’t have to go the legislators for everything. We could do it.
SCARPINO: Was that the point of this type of an organization was speed and flexibility?
MILLER: Yes. Right. Because if you’re going to do business in 2005, 2006, 2007, what’s it about now? It’s about a good product, delivering on time or better than your competitor, and customer service. Same thing I’m doing here.
SCARPINO: What was your good product?
MILLER: Indiana. Indiana was our product, that we have a labor force. One of the things was the—shovel ready. We wanted to have sites for businesses that had all the paperwork done and you come from California to look at a site to build a factory and it’s shovel ready. It’s ready for you to put your shovel in the ground and start building. And you only have to be as good as your competition and much of our competition, the other states, was doing that. It’s like when did you have to have a fax or when did you have to have the internet? There’s a point where you have to have it because your competition has it and you’re going to be left in the dust if you don’t.
SCARPINO: When did you step down from those positions?
MILLER: I stepped down the first part of January ’06. I had been on the road or in that position for a little over twenty months and I promised the governor two years. I knew that Mickey would be a wonderful Secretary of Commerce. It meant that he would have a year to do that because he also had promised two years. And the company, Vera Bradley, was growing very rapidly.
SCARPINO: Had you already broken ground down here at that point?
MILLER: No. No, we hadn’t. But it was, I thought the timing was good. The continuation of IEDC was assured with Mickey and Nate and so I announced that I would come back to Fort Wayne.
SCARPINO: As you look back on your time as the head of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and so on, if you could do it over again is there anything you’d do differently?
MILLER: I’d do it all over again because, I don’t know that I could because I’m a little bit older now. It was exhausting. I don’t think I—because I lived in Indianapolis and commuted on the weekends back to Fort Wayne. But we hardly ever got out of there between nine-thirty or ten o’clock at night. I had treated it as a sprint. I knew I wasn’t going to be there ten years. I knew I had a job to do. It was one of the first times I ever had a boss and of all things he was Governor of the state. And he was doing a heck of a job himself. I wanted to make sure—it made me a better boss—because I wanted to make sure that I did a job that he’d be proud of. I hope I did. I don’t know. I hope I did.
SCARPINO: Do you see any differences or similarities between being a leader in business and being a leader in government?
MILLER: Many similarities. You have to know your business. You have to be responsive to the business. Be responsive to your vendors. Be responsible to your customers. Give them over the top service. Be fiscally responsible. Be morally responsible. Same thing.
SCARPINO: Are there any differences? I mean, between say serving a governor and serving the electorate as opposed to…
MILLER: Yes. If you’re running your own business you can make decisions pretty fast and you don’t have anyone saying—having all these other agendas. It was frustrating at times because when you—but it’s the way to do it.
SCARPINO: What were the other agendas for example?
MILLER: Well, take daylight savings time.
SCARPINO: Okay. Let’s take—that’s an interesting one. (laughing)
MILLER: That was the very first week, I think, I was in office. Someone came in and said—Pat you’ve got to go over to the Senate and lobby for daylight savings time. That was a little daunting because I felt that it was absolutely the thing to do. If you have three states out of fifty who don’t observe daylight savings time…
SCARPINO: Indiana, Arizona and…
MILLER: …it meant that you were out of sync. If you’d had—if we were three states and we were observing daylight savings time and the other ones didn’t then I would have gone in the other direction. But we were out of sync. We needed to get into sync with the rest of the United States. And people were, some people, were getting time zones and daylight savings time confused and what it amounted to—we needed to get the entire state on daylight savings time but some parts of the state would be on central time and they were more economic time zones. So if you lived in northwest Indiana you would identify with Chicago. If you lived in southeast Indiana you might identify with Cincinnati because chances are you might work there. So I can understand certain parts of the state being on different time zones but as a state we needed to all be on daylight savings time. Otherwise, it was just a patch work quilt of times and it was just very, very confusing to everyone. I thought it would be a slam dunk. It wasn’t. It passed with one vote and that vote came from a democrat who…
SCARPINO: Why do you think Indiana was so quirky on the subject of daylight savings time?
MILLER: I don’t know. I don’t know. You know, you heard everything from—our children can’t get to sleep at night because it’s still daylight and all kinds of things. People get set in their ways or have legitimate reasons for why they feel that way. But for the betterment of the state—one company said in order to do business in Indiana, especially because of the computer age, they had to change things for Indiana. It cost millions of dollars to do business in Indiana above and beyond what it should. So it was an economic reason that I was pushing for daylight savings time.
SCARPINO: You must have had to deal with the press on a constant basis.
MILLER: A little bit. Not too much. They seemed to be understanding of what we were trying to do for the most part.
SCARPINO: I mean but, for example, as the head of Vera Bradley or co-head of Vera Bradley, you’re not accountable to the press and to the citizens of the state the way you are…
SCARPINO: …as Secretary of Commerce. So, were some differences there in the way that you exercised your authority and so on?
MILLER: Well, if I was interviewed as Secretary of Commerce I knew that I was speaking for the administration whereas if I’m interviewed for Vera Bradley, I’m speaking for Vera Bradley but it’s different. And also I don’t, things don’t have to be quite as transparent here. If you’re a public servant, anything that you get on the internet is public information or any email or anything. So, not that you would do something or say something you wouldn’t want published but they said to us make sure that whatever you do if it landed on the front page of the newspaper, you wouldn’t be embarrassed by it. And that was—and that’s right.
SCARPINO: In that kind of environment, were there any differences in the way you function as a leader?
MILLER: As a leader, probably not. But, when I did speak to the press I was more—I don’t know, guarded isn’t probably the right word—but I was very aware that I was speaking for the state and I wanted to make sure I said the right thing.
SCARPINO: I’ve just about reached the end of the questions that I wanted to ask you but before I turn the recorder off I want to ask you is there anything that I should have asked you that I just didn’t have the insight to cover or anything that you wanted to say for the record that I didn’t give you an opportunity to say?
MILLER: I think you covered it all. I would mention that I think I’m about one of the luckiest people in the world to be able to enjoy the experience of starting a business, growing a business, later in life being able to participate in public service. That was a, definitely a who’d-of-thunk-it out of the blue. It was one of the most fascinating experiences I could ever dream of and along with that I’ve had a husband who not only puts up with all this but actually enjoys the process as much as I do. I’ve been blessed my entire life to have great partners that make me look better than I probably am and feel very blessed. I’ve had a great time. I’ve had a great time.
SCARPINO: Well, thank you very much for giving me and the Tobias Center the time for two interviews. Appreciate it very much.
MILLER: Thank you.
[end of recording]