Rick Miller ’87, the founder and CEO of Avamere Health Services, Inc., describes his professional life as an unending charge toward excellence.
"If you celebrate success too long, or too often, you lose your edge and usually lose to competitors that are focused on being better," he said. "But if you are always on the path to success, never reaching the end, your drive for excellence doesn't falter."
For Miller, life's path took a sharp turn at a young age when he received devastating news. During his first term as a freshman at the University of Oregon, he was diagnosed with a large pituitary tumor, located under the frontal lobes of his brain. He underwent surgery, radiation therapy, and drug treatments for the next year, but returned to the UO in the fall.
"I buried myself in school and did well in business classes," he said. "I toyed with the idea of being a doctor but always felt pulled toward business. I met a lot of great people at Oregon, both students and professors. Ultimately, my experiences with hospitals and doctors led me to the healthcare profession. I cannot imagine doing anything else in life."
His business path has been one of constant evolution, Miller explained.
"When I started the business, I sold everything I had including my house and car, moved back in with my mom, and used all I had, $23,000, to get started," he said. Miller bought a single nursing home and revitalized it top to bottom.
The improvements proved life changing for both residents and employees. Miller decided to take on the colossal challenge of improving the senior care system, creating communities where residents enjoy independent living and the appropriate level of care, all while receiving the best in innovative health services through mobile health technology.
By 2012, Avamere had evolved into a company counting some 5,000 employees serving more than 10,000 seniors every day. The focus is on keeping seniors healthy, independent, and out of nursing homes and hospitals.
In tandem with constantly moving forward, Miller realized this phase of his career would also include looking back and giving to the place where it all began.
"It was easy to identify the University of Oregon as one of the most influential institutions in my life," he said. "I think it is important, in fact our obligation, to give back to our school. If not us, then who? It is a great investment with returns that will last generations. I hope to be able to give much more and make a real impact on the lives of Oregon students, our great professors, and to help Dean Kees de Kluyver and the Lundquist College of Business achieve its long-term vision of being among the nation's most distinguished business schools."
While much has changed since Miller was an undergraduate at the business school, some of the best elements, like the world-class faculty, remain intact.
"I cannot say or give enough to the professors who gave me the fundamentals to start and grow my businesses," he said. Small business management and HR management were favorite courses for Miller.
"Both instructors taught part-time while holding full-time jobs in the areas they were teaching," he said. "They gave me B's, when I thought I deserved A's, but their letters of recommendation were instrumental in helping me get my first job after graduation. They probably never realized what a difference they made in my life."
Miller enjoyed the blend of academic rigor and real-world experience so much that when Dean de Kluyver proposed the creation a "professor of practice," wherein a seasoned professional brings expertise to the university via a three-year, nontenured professorship, Miller invested $1 million in the project.
"I think everyone will be delighted with the types of people that are going to be on campus as professors of practice over the next couple of years," he said.
And companies will continue to be delighted with the skills and insights Lundquist College of Business graduates have to offer employers. "I spent a little time with some of the students a couple months ago and was impressed with their maturity, intelligence, and eagerness to learn in class and from interested business leaders," Miller explained.
Another high point for Miller was his session with the college's Entrepreneurship Club.
On top of all his other contributions, Miller also joined the college's Board of Advisors this year.
"Our brand will be as clear as the Nike swoosh and the power of that brand will be well-known," he said of the board's ambitions. "The Lundquist College of Business will be a leader among business schools across America, if not the world."
While balancing the needs of raising a family, leading a thriving company, and cofounding a private equity firm (Rogue Venture Partners), Miller has made it a priority to give back.
"Oregon is a big part of who I am today and I will be forever grateful to the university and the professors who taught me so much about life and business. I am enjoying the process of starting to give back with time and money."
The UO Lundquist College of Business is proud of Rick Miller and his accomplishments and grateful he is giving back and helping us on our own path to continued excellence.
Full Transcript of Interview Follows
UO Business: Thinking back, how did you come to business as a major?
Miller: I started off as prelaw but quickly found business classes to be a good fit. I grew up working for my grandparents in their small construction company and found myself thinking about how much better of a business they could have had if they used some of the fundamentals being taught in my classes. I thought the coursework was relevant, classmates were interesting, and the professors very willing to help understand the concepts. I enjoyed competing with other students for our grades.
UO Business: How has your UO business school experience shaped your business decisions generally?
Miller: I am proud to have earned my business degree from the University of Oregon. It is a wonderful and respected school.
I learned early on in one of my business classes about the concept of obsolescence—that companies must evolve over time or die. Needs and expectations of customers change over time and so must your products and services. Embracing change is an absolute to remain competitive in any industry. This concept stuck with me over the years, and I have applied it in my professional life. Avamere started off as a nursing home company and now, eighteen years later, we spend most of our time and resources focused on keeping seniors healthy, independent, and out of nursing homes and hospitals. We now offer a variety of services in ten states including home health; retirement and assisted living; specialty locations for dementia care; postacute transitional care including orthopedic, respiratory, and cardiac rehab; hospice; pharmaceuticals; outpatient rehab therapy clinics; and contract rehab therapy. Together, we have 5,000 employees impacting over 10,000 seniors every day. I also enjoyed classes on mission and strategy. We were taught that organizations must be clear on both. At Avamere, we take this seriously and review our mission, values, and strategies every year. We revise our rolling three year plan and create clear and measurable operating objectives each year.
I also remember a challenging experience in one of my classes. Our group was challenged to pick a sub $1 billion company, study it, and determine if it would break the $1 billion revenue barrier. Our group picked Nike. We worked hard and arrived at the decision that yes, one day Nike would be a $1 billion business. Our professor disagreed, thought we hadn't learned much, and gave us a C. This experience taught me early on that life is not fair, that not everyone is going to agree with you, there are many obstacles to success, and that thriving in business means, in part, expecting and facing adversity head on. Success, many times, involves seeing through and over these barriers and challenges and is often due to sticking through tough times when others quit. Success often is a difference of minutes or inches in business. I feel like my experience at the University of Oregon made me a very competitive business person.
I enjoyed classes that forced you to work in small groups and learned more when professors used experiential learning techniques. These were the most challenging and, ultimately, the most helpful classes I took. We had to learn how to get things done together as a team, working with people of varied experience, talent, egos, and commitment. Getting results through others is necessary if you want to be successful in larger organizations. I learned a lot about myself in these classes as well. I will always remember spending time out at Hinman Vineyards, learning about their business and putting together a direct marketing campaign for them—great team and experiential process. Small business management and human resources management were also favorite classes of mine. I loved the instructors.
Both instructors taught part-time while holding full-time jobs in the areas they were teaching. They gave me B’s, when I thought I deserved A’s, but their letters of recommendation were instrumental in helping me get my first job after graduation. They probably never realized what a difference they made in my life.
UO Business: What adversities and challenges did you face on your way to business success?
Miller: My professional life could be described as multiple failures and intermittent success. In fact, I believe owning and running companies is all about facing challenges, learning from mistakes, picking yourself up and evolving each time, and enjoying those short moments in time when you can celebrate success. To be successful in business, I believe you have to enjoy adversity and the struggle to compete and win. Business is tough and thanks to our free market economy, only the strongest survive. Success usually does not come quickly or easily, and it shouldn't be celebrated too long! If you celebrate success too long, or too often, you lose your edge and usually lose to competitors that are focused on being better. But if you are always on the path to success—never reaching the end—your drive for excellence doesn’t falter.
When I started the business, I sold everything I had including my house and car, moved back in with my mom, and used all I had—$23,000—to get started. I have faced many terminal threats like liquidity, being too optimistic in forecasting performance, letting my ego and emotions get in the way of making good decisions, environmental and regulatory changes, litigation, the banking credit crisis, being beat by the competition, not having the right relationship, and so forth. It has been a constant learning process to compete and survive. I am not sure you ever get to "success." You are always on the path to success, but if ever reach some end, it is probably time for you to sell or leave.
One of the challenges I embraced was living in several of my communities for a year. I wanted to get a better understanding of our customers', and employees', experience at Avamere. It was an eye opener. We were doing many things right, but we also needed to improve to deliver the kind of environment for our residents and employees that we are committed to. Today, based on these experiences, Avamere is a better place to live and work.
UO Business: What do you hope will be your business legacy?
Miller: That I worked hard, was fair, made a difference in the lives of those we served, was an example of good work ethics for my kids, and that I gave much of what I earned back to the people and institutions, like the UO, that made any degree of success possible. I hope I made the lives of those we serve better.
I cofounded a private equity firm called Rogue Venture Partners. Our purpose is to make Oregon relevant by investing in local entrepreneurs with good ideas and the ability to execute on the ideas. We are entrepreneurs and business people who use our own money to invest back into our great state. I am really proud to be a part of this organization.
UO Business: What are some of your nonbusiness joys in your life and what is your greatest personal success?
Miller: My wife, my children, family, and friends. Life is short, so I make the most of it. I am learning to be in the moment everyday.
I am a good husband, father, and friend. I try to live by my personal values; to have fun, to forgive, to be loyal, to live with integrity, and to be reliable. If I can be all of these things, I will have lead a successful life. I have grown to laugh at myself more. You get to be good at forgiving because you make enough mistakes in life that if you can't forgive yourself and others, you will be miserable.
I also hope I am making my grandfather proud. His perspective was simple—put food on the table and protect your family. He was a good man. He was my hero.
UO Business: Why is business education so valuable in the world today?
Miller: The world is smaller and more competitive than ever. Starting, running, and growing businesses in today's climate is more challenging than at any time in recent history. I cannot imagine being in business without the fundamental skills learned in business school today. College also offers exposure to different cultures, values, and relationships—all important in business today.
Business schools also teach basic values to its students. I think our brand at Oregon begins with a deep appreciation for the free market economy: the opportunity to compete and to fail—and to use these failures as evolutionary lessons to learn and grow from. The United States has become a very successful and powerful country in a relatively short period of time, and as we look to our future I hope we never forget about basic values that made/make us so great: hard work, earning our way, giving more than we receive, creating value for our employers and customers.
UO Business: What role has the University of Oregon played in your success?
Miller: It's funny, I hadn't realized how important the university has been in my life until I got reengaged with the Lundquist College of Business last year. The University of Oregon is a big part of who I am today, and I will be forever grateful to the university and the professors who taught me so much about life and business. I am enjoying the process of starting to give back with time and money. I cannot say or give enough to the professors who gave me the fundamentals to start and grow my businesses.
UO Business: What are your impressions of the college, it's faculty, and students?
Miller: The school is vibrant and the building is welcoming. I spent a little time with some of the students a couple months ago and was impressed with their maturity, intelligence, and eagerness to learn in class and from interested business leaders. The Entrepreneurship Club is a fantastic place for serious business students to learn and share ideas. I am impressed with the number of students that stay after class to study independently or in groups. The professors—though some are still around from when I went to school—seem even more qualified and eager to teach their students how to be successful.
UO Business: How has the University of Oregon changed and evolved since you were a business student?
Miller: The physical space is much better. The process is much more experiential for the students. Individual learning and success has given way to group process and team competition, and I like that. I also like the emphasis on entrepreneurship and international business.
UO Business: How did you become so passionate about senior health care?
Miller: I graduated with an interest in healthcare because of medical issues I faced while a student. I had a brain tumor (pituitary tumor) diagnosed during my first term. I wanted to work in hospitals but couldn't get a job in that space, so I took a job as a bookkeeper in an old nursing home. I enjoyed the people I worked with and the customers we served, and I thought it was a great place to make a difference in people's lives, so I stuck with it. I love trying to get it right for seniors and believe we will be instrumental in changing the way services and housing are provided to seniors by the time we are finished.
My grandparents were also influential. They moved into one of our retirement communities and helped me understand how to make it better. I lost both of them within a year of each other; one with hospice and the other without. It is through this experience that I learned the real value of hospice and death with dignity. Today, we have a thriving home health and hospice business. It is challenging and rewarding to get that right.
UO Business: You generously gave $1 million to the UO Lundquist College of Business to create a professor of practice. Can you share what inspired you to make such an investment?
Miller: I was asked by another college to sponsor an awards banquet a couple years ago and found that experience to be very rewarding. It made me think about giving back to those things in my life that have been important to me. It was easy to identify the University of Oregon as one of the most influential institutions in my life. I think it is important—in fact our obligation—to give back to our school. If not us then who? It is a great investment with returns that will last generations. I hope to be able to give much more and make a real impact on the lives of University of Oregon students, our great professors, and to help Dean Kees and the Lundquist College of Business achieve its long term vision of being among the nation's most distinguished business schools. This is achievable. They just need our help, particularly as state funding for higher education in Oregon pales compared to the cost of running an elite university program.
UO Business: How do you hope your gift will have an impact on students and businesses in Oregon and beyond?
I think I kind of surprised the school when I called them and told them I want to give $1 million. They asked what I wanted to happen with the funds and I said, "Whatever Dean Kees wants to do with it.". There were no strings attached. Kees identified the professor of practice for the Business Innovation Institute as a high priority so that's where the money went. I am excited to see the money put to use. Rather than recruit one person with the funds, as originally intended, the institute's first managing director, John Hull, will be able to use it to attract several very dynamic and successful people to teach and interact with the business students, one quarter at a time. I think everyone will be delighted with the types of people that are going to be on campus as professors of practice over the next couple years. By the way, I am delighted by the school's decision to hire John Hull as the Business Innovation Institute's managing director. His education, life experience, business success, intelligence, and vision for the school will result in remarkable growth for the institute and value creation for the students and companies that hire Oregon graduates.
UO Business: You recently joined the college's Board of Advisors. Having the insider perspective you do about the college from the position, what do you see as the college's greatest strengths? Where do you see the college in five to ten years from now?
Miler: First of all, let me tell you how lucky the school is to have such a fine group of successful alumni and interested people who have made the decision to invest so much of their time and money at Lundquist College of Business. These are busy people who don't have a lot of spare time, yet they have chosen to make the University of Oregon and Lundquist College of Business a priority in their life. Wow, I am humbled to be a part of their group.
Our brand will be as clear as the Nike swoosh and the power of that brand will be well-known. The Lundquist College of Business will be a leader among business schools across America, if not the world. Messaging will be clear throughout the organization and every stakeholder will understand the role they play in advancing UO Lundquist College of Business toward this vision. Our mission and values will be used to attract and select the best students, to attract and retain the best professors, and to produce the most capable and competitive business leaders the workforce has ever seen. A degree from Lundquist College of Business will provide a high return on investment to both graduate and employer. We are on our way, and it will be a remarkable experience.
UO Business: What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
Miller: Understand your strengths and weaknesses and surround yourself with people who compliment your weaknesses.
Honor your lenders and investors and always pay your bills on time.
Avoid a get rich quick approach, building a company for long term success is a good thing.
Not all start ups need to be venture/private equity backed. Think about using debt. If you choose venture capital or private equity, be careful to choose the right one for you.
Over capitalize from the start and maintain sufficient access to liquidity.
Avoid partnerships if at all possible. Although I have been involved in some successful long term ones, they usually fail and should be avoided.
Think about your brand: what do you want to be known for, and what are your values that differentiate yourself and your business?
Don't ever underestimate your competition.
Plan for the downside in every decision. Optimism and ego can be deadly.
Expect the unexpected. Plan for it.
Be reliable. Don't produce unrealistic performance expectations. It gets old reading unrealistic proformas that will never be hit.
Find a mentor.
UO Business: You are familiar with the college's compelling new Business Innovation Institute. From your perspective, why is innovation so imperative to business today?
Miller: Every organization is either moving forward or backward—moving closer to customer needs and expectations or not, continuing to find ways to differentiate itself or not, delivering more value to its customers or not. Every organization evolves or becomes obsolete. Global competition for products and services is increasing rapidly and innovation keeps you competitive. You must stay ahead of the competition or die. Innovation often leads to greater efficiency and higher returns for investors.
Innovation comes from people, planning, and understanding the experience of your customers and employees. Get close and stay close to the customer. Use your products and services. If you are not delighted, neither will your customers be. Get close to your employees. Put tools in place to understand their experience and routinely improve it. Hire the best and invest in them. Surround yourself with curious people.
UO Business: You have spoken about the health issue that piqued your interest in the healthcare field back when you were a freshman. It seems a turning point in both your personal and professional life.
Miller: Facing significant health concerns does change your perspective on life, sometimes for the good, sometimes not. Looking back, issues related to my brain tumor started when I was a teenager. For most of my childhood, I was a good student and athlete. That changed late in middle school and through high school, where I struggled with grades, physical development, and socially. I was always tired and battled with depression. I had a lot of severe headaches. After running away from home my parents were convinced that I was on drugs so they put me into an inpatient rehab center for troubled youth. This was a difficult time as I knew something was wrong, but didn't know what. It was not drugs or alcohol. The answer came during my first term as a freshman at the University of Oregon. I was diagnosed with a large pituitary tumor, located under the frontal lobes of the brain. The pituitary controls most of the hormones in your body. I had high amounts of some hormones like growth hormone (which is why I am seven feet tall now), and low levels of others, like testosterone—a bad combination as a young man. The night before surgery the surgeon came to visit. I had given a lot of blood to be used during surgery. I asked the surgeon what would happen if they needed more than I had given. He said I would be dead as that would mean one of the surgeons had nicked my carotid artery and there would not be enough space in my head to repair it. For the first time, I realized that life was short and tenuous. I remember waking up from surgery elated that I had survived. They could not remove all of the tumor so I had radiation and drug treatments for the next year. I came back to UO the following fall and attempted to get back into sports—basketball. While conditioning I damaged my left knee twice, requiring two knee surgeries between August and October. That was the end of my dreams of walking on to the Ducks. No great loss to basketball kind though because I had not played in quite some time. The next few years in college were some of my best and worst times. It was difficult being seven feet tall and not being an athlete. I buried myself in school and did well in business classes. I toyed with the idea of being a doctor but always felt pulled toward business. I met a lot of great people at the University of Oregon—both students and professors. Ultimately, my experiences with hospitals and doctors led me to the healthcare profession. I could not imagine doing anything else in life. The last eighteen years since starting Avamere has been like a fifty yard dash. I think my experience in surgery gave me a shorter perspective on life, and so I have tried to over achieve as a business person, parent, and friend. Life is interesting. Although I have a bucket list, if life ended today, I would have no regrets.