From winning a business deal to getting certified for “rescue” as a scuba diver, Cheryl Miller is not afraid of challenges, either in life or business.
Miller is the newly named CEO of AutoNation — and her deep career in automotive will help steer the company on a course that embraces today’s business while seeking new directions, company and industry analysts say.
In 2017, Miller’s go-getter attitude helped AutoNation, known for its coast-to-coast auto dealerships, secure a partnership with self-driving company Waymo. The deal with the cutting-edge technology company sent AutoNation’s stock soaring to a new high.
At the time, AutoNation was one of 10 companies competing for the auto-maintenance partnership, according to Shaun Stewart, CEO of innovation hub New Lab in Brooklyn, New York, and former executive at Waymo. But the potential deal with AutoNation was going nowhere — until Miller took the wheel.
“By end of day we had a meeting scheduled. A week later we were reviewing proposals,” Stewart said. “I’ve never seen a turnaround like it.”
After AutoNation snagged the partnership, Miller continued to manage it. “Lots of people are good at winning a partnership,” Stewart said. “It’s another thing to see how a partnership performs once it’s inked. The continual support we had from Cheryl was impressive.”
How she got to CEO
Miller, 47, was born in Puerto Rico. Her mother is originally from the island while her father, from New York, served in the Army. He later worked for the U.S. Postal Service. The family resided in Maryland, and then Virginia, where she went to college, earning her bachelor’s degree in finance and business administration.
Her older brother, Mike Scully, also is a CEO, of a credit-union service company in Maryland. “I grew up in a family that thought anything was possible, which is a great way to grow up,” Miller said.
Miller’s automotive career actually began with Circuit City, where she worked on financing for the CarMax spinoff.
In 1998, she came to South Florida to join entrepreneur H. Wayne Huizenga’s company, Republic Industries, a predecessor of AutoNation. She later worked at auto-related company JM Family Enterprises in Deerfield Beach, and became its treasurer. She rejoined AutoNation in 2009, and has been chief financial officer since 2014.
Now as AutoNation’s CEO, she earns a base salary of $1.05 million a year, and is eligible for stock and financial incentives, according to a recent regulatory filing.
Miller leads 26,000 employees and operates 325 auto dealerships across the country.
The New York Stock Exchange-traded company recorded $21 billion in 2018 sales. Her challenge will be sustaining AutoNation in a weaker auto market than the past few years, and keeping the company relevant in the industry’s changing times, analysts say.
But she has shown she can make the hard decisions.
Before leaving as CEO to become executive chairman, Mike Jackson tasked Miller with a restructuring of AutoNation’s operating structure. The headquarters reorganization took out $50 million in expenses, and included about 20 layoffs.
Cliff Banks, a longtime auto-industry analyst in Fort Lauderdale, cites Miller’s experience in automotive retail as why she’s a good choice for CEO.
“She knows and understands this business. She’s well thought of in the investor community,” Banks said. One indication of their approval: AutoNation’s stock jumped nearly 15% in the days after the July 22 announcement.
Banks said Miller also grasps AutoNation’s workplace culture. “You have to be tough, smart and savvy to navigate that. There been a lot of strong personalities there, people trying to get to the top. She’s clearly shown she has a handle on that part,” he said.
In February, AutoNation had announced that former USAA insurance Chief Operating Officer Carl Liebert would become CEO. But four months into the job, Jackson said he and Liebert mutually decided the position was “not a good fit.” Miller, who was one of the internal candidates originally considered, was named the new CEO on July 22.
Surviving industry twists and turns
In 2008 and 2009, Miller says she had a “front row” seat to the financial crisis, a period when auto giants General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy and credit was curtailed.
But as a result, she learned how to navigate some of the worst business times in the industry.
The challenging time was a “great lesson in resilience and agility,” she said.
It taught her that “when things look bad, that doesn’t mean they’re always going to be. … You have to deal with today while always having an eye toward the future.”
As chief financial officer at AutoNation, Miller admits she hasn’t always agreed with Jackson, who was the face of AutoNation on CNBC-TV and wasn’t afraid to share his opinions on both automotive and national issues.
“One of Mike’s favorite phrases is, ‘I heard you the first time,’ ” Miller said. “Sometimes he’s right, sometimes I’m right. … You want a relationship where you challenge each other, but when you come to a solution, you come out aligned.”
Former colleagues observe that Miller is the type of person who “jumps right in” on projects, and leads the way.
“She has the ability to take something complex and break it down and simplify it,” said Lisa Kitei, president of the Broward Performing Arts Foundation, where Miller serves on the board.
Mark Walter, chief financial officer of Boca Raton-based flooring company Q.E.P., said Miller “has a very easy confidence about her. She can be assertive and she can be persuasive.”
Walter and Miller, who both formerly worked at JM Family, both enjoy scuba diving, earning advanced certifications in the sport.
Scuba diving is one way Miller says she copes with stress. “When you’re down 70 feet looking at a turtle, it takes you away from thinking about business and your daily concerns,” she said.
In South Florida, Miller’s appointment stands out because she is the first woman to be named CEO of public company.
In the entire state, there were only four female CEOs of 109 top executives leading public companies in 2018, according to 2020 Women on Boards, a national organization that advocates for women in corporate leadership.
Nationally, there has been progress. Miller notes several other women who have led the way on the automotive front: Mary Barra, CEO and chairwoman of General Motors; Pam Nicholson, CEO of privately run Enterprise Holdings, which owns Alamo, Enterprise and National car rental companies; and Joy Falotico, president of The Lincoln Motor and Ford Motor’s chief marketing officer.
One female executive who also oversees one of South Florida’s high-profile companies, Carnival Cruise Line, thinks AutoNation will benefit from having a female driver.
“I think that we see more and more recognition that women are really the influence in buying decisions, whether it’s a vacation or a car, ” said Christine Duffy, who has been president of Carnival since 2015 where she reports to CEO Arnold Donald.
Duffy, who formerly was the first woman CEO of a St. Louis travel company, knows what it’s like to be the only woman in a boardroom or at the negotiating table. “At some point you get used to it and move on,” she said.
She says Miller’s transition to CEO should be smooth, as long as she builds a good team and receives board support.
“I hope we reach the point that we have the best candidate, and if that happens to be a woman, so be it,” she said.
Cheryl Miller, CEO of AutoNation
Education: Bachelor’s degree in finance and business administration from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.
Career Highlights: Treasurer at JM Family Enterprises, 2004-2009; joined AutoNation in 2009 and became chief financial officer in 2014; named CEO on July 22.
Hobbies: Scuba diving and running.