Alan Miller: From Mad Man to magnate

Even though Alan Miller runs a $7.3 billion company that employs 65,000 in more than 220 hospitals and behavioral health facilities, Miller, the chief executive of Universal Health Services Inc. in King Prussia, never intended to get into the health care business. Instead, he was a real live Mad Man, although he likes Italian reds more than the ubiquitous Manhattan, straight up.

As a college grad, Miller landed a job at Young and Rubicam, a big name advertising agency in New York. "I loved Young and Rubicam," he told me during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer. "It was a class act." Miller told me how he snagged the "Galloping Gourmet" as an advertising vehicle for both his company's clients and for the networks. Young and Rubicam had promoted him, and even, in his 20s, Miller had become a vice president with an ownership stake in the company.

Alan Miller

"Just when I made it, I left," he said.

But why? It all started with a phone call from a former Wharton roommate.

"He said, `We could buy hospitals. There are private hospitals out there.''

Miller continued. "I was from New York. Hospitals for me were Columbia Presbyterian or New York University Medical Center -- those were hospitals." But the roommate was talking about small community hospitals in small, but fast-growing areas in the U.S., particularly in California and Nevada. "He made a company and shortly after it went public, I joined the company."

Ultimately, that company was involved in a hostile takeover. The new company asked Miller to stay, but he declined. "I didn't want to join that company," he said. "I didn't like how they conducted themselves."

At that point, he could have gone back to advertising -- work that he loved. That's when Miller did some real soul-searching.

He asked himself, "`What are you going to do for the rest of your life? What’s meaningful?'"

"I’m not putting [advertising] agencies down at all," he said. "It’s essential in our economy to sell products. An integral part of the economy is marketing and advertising and bringing new and better products to the market and making people’s lives better and all that. I totally agree with all that and I was well suited,

"But I thought, being in health care, we’re actually saving people’s lives and putting their bodies back together and fixing their mental problems and personality disorders. That’s a life work. I was thinking about the rest of my life, from 40 on. It’s a life’s work.

 "Other than being a surgeon, which I wasn’t suited for, or being a hands-on treatment person or a provider, what else could [I] do that would incorporate [my] talents? I mean I’m good at business, I’m good at organization, I’m good at leadership, I’m good at building an organization. I know how to do that and motivating people and treating people well and creating a culture and an environment where people want to work. So why don’t [I] do that for the betterment of people?"

So Miller decided to start his own hospital company.

That was 1978. "I took 5,000 or 6,000 square feet down here in King of Prussia and rented furniture --  I had six people," and no business. "I had zero. I had a phone. I got on the phone and I called the people I knew in the investment banking business and [told them] I needed some money in addition to my own money. I had made a considerable amount of money from the sale of my company."

Miller got the financing, and "we bought four hospitals in the first year."