Cathy and Pete Miller pose for a portrait on the front lawn of Brenau's Historic Gainesville Campus. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Fun Makes the Difference for Trustee Pete Miller

ForeverGold logoPeter D. Miller, the 13-year veteran chair of the Brenau Board of Trustees, started his career in the Georgia banking world in the early 1970s when it was a relationships-based, person-to-person business. Bankers did deals with people they knew virtually on handshakes and promises – letting all the paperwork catch up later.

Like the saying “all politics is local,” that’s about how it was in Georgia banking then: Institutions by law could not grow much beyond their home turfs. Multistate financial empires were foreign concepts, present only in strange places like North Carolina and Florida.

The mojo in the Georgia system revolved on the philosophy of relationships that the Chinese call guanxi. Those blessed with guanxi have an extensive network of people that they not only know but also to whom they are bound by mutual obligations and trust.

Almost exactly as Pete Miller went to work for a large Atlanta-based bank, the state’s financial industry felt the first heavy rumblings of the tectonic shift that would change everything. He worked in one of the five headquarters skyscrapers of the major Georgia banks that, in the 1970s stood like sentinels at the core of downtown Atlanta. Over the next few years they all ceased to exist, gobbled in a string of mergers and acquisitions with institutions based in other states. The regulatory environment changed as well – not always for the good, from Miller’s perspective.

However, the growth mode became a great catalyst for Miller’s career development, and he retired in 2010 as regional president of the Alabama-based multistate Regions Financial Corp., which in 1996 had acquired the locally owned Gainesville bank that recruited him as a rising executive about 20 years earlier. Miller oversaw all of Regions’ banking operations in five Southeastern states.

Miller says that growth worked out well for him, but when he approached retirement age, he was ready to move on. “Banking changed in the last few years and it wasn’t nearly as fun as it was previously,” he says whimsically. “And fun makes the difference. The older you get, the more you want your journey to be fun, and if it’s not fun, it’s not worth taking.”

Pete Miller, the chairman of the Brenau Board of Trustees, speaks about Brenau President Ed Schrader's 10 years at the university.
Pete Miller, the chairman of the Brenau Board of Trustees, speaks about Brenau President Ed Schrader’s 10 years at the university.

Early Riser

Miller is having fun these days, he says, “thoroughly enjoying what I do.” His retirement lasted only about a couple of months before he took a job with Willis Investment Counsel, a financial consulting firm in Gainesville. He’s up early and done with his day’s work at the office in time to spend most afternoons in the myriad social and service activities he has undertaken, like his obligations on the Brenau board, his church finance committee, Challenged Child and Friends advisory board, the board of the Quinlan Arts Center and various Northeast Georgia Health System committees. Unlike the banking days, he often leaves his necktie at home. Neckties are not fun.

Cathy and Pete Miller pose for a portrait on the front lawn of Brenau's Historic Gainesville Campus. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
Cathy and Pete Miller on the front lawn of Brenau’s Historic Gainesville Campus. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Miller’s partner in all the fun these past 45 years has been his wife Catherine Cox Miller, BU ’99. Cathy grew up in Springfield, Ohio, where her dad was a dentist and her mother taught dietetics to student nurses at the hospital. She majored in education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, then migrated to Atlanta to teach school. She subsequently enrolled in a master’s degree program in education at Georgia State University.

New York-born Pete Miller moved with his family to Augusta, Georgia, where his father was opening a plant for General Electric. He returned to New York state when he was in high school, did some college work in his hometown at Syracuse University and the University of Buffalo but ended up enlisting in the U.S. Army. He rejoined his parents in Georgia after he returned from Vietnam as a decorated combat veteran. He earned a degree in finance at Georgia State, landed a job as a bank examiner for a state government agency and met Cathy. They have two grown sons – Todd and Drew, both of whom work in the environmental sciences field – and three grandchildren.

Both sons graduated from Gainesville High School and the University of Georgia in Athens. Todd, the younger, oversees the regulation and proper disposal of hazardous waste, including biological and radioactive materials, at the University of Georgia – a big deal considering the kinds of materials at play in various research activities throughout the university. Drew, the elder, works for the Athens-based environmental consulting firm Nutter & Associates. “He’s down in Florida now,” Pete said at the time of the interview, “probably out in a swamp in a T-shirt, jeans and waders testing water. It’s a lifestyle he enjoys and that’s just fine for him.” Both father and mother seem a bit baffled as to which fork in the family tree produced that interest for their son.

When their younger son headed off to college, Cathy says “I just felt the need to change directions and maybe reinvent myself.” So she enrolled in Brenau and completed a second undergraduate degree in interior design. You can see some of her handiwork in the remodeling of the Yonah Hall lobby and Lockett-Mitchell Parlour on the Gainesville campus.

Her hand, too, is visible in their home on Lake Lanier. When the boys left home, Cathy says, they built the home with an eye toward downsizing from the home the family had occupied when they first moved to Gainesville in 1977. “Downsizing, however,” Miller says, “was not to be.”

Pete had worked previously for National Bank of Georgia, probably best known for the brief leadership tenure of the Gainesville-born Georgia politician and banker Bert Lance. Lance headed the Georgia Department of Transportation for his good friend, Gov. Jimmy Carter. Then, after an unsuccessful 1974 campaign to replace Carter, Lance served as NBG president until 1977 when then-President Carter named him director of the federal Office of Management and Budget – the same year that Pete took a job as a trust officer with First National Bancorp of Gainesville, which operated with a community bank ethic.

“I don’t want to use words such as ‘community bank’ and ‘big bank,’ because that’s not really what it was all about,” Miller said. “But it was an environment and a time when you and your banking customers really developed strong relationships.”

Bedrock Philosophy

Although they really do not like to talk about such matters, Pete and Cathy Miller possess a bedrock philosophy: When you are blessed, you give back a portion of whatever you’ve been blessed with. End of story.

However, that also is guanxi, which bespeaks a comfortable melding of one’s sense of obligation as well as coming to terms with expectations of others. For example, since their arrival in Gainesville 40 years ago, the Millers have been totally immersed in the social fabric and ethos of Gainesville, which is, as Pete puts it with precision, “a community of givers, I think more so probably than many communities our size and demographic makeup.” So, in their view, when you participate, you want it to count.

Outgoing SGA President M.K. Jabbia, right, laughs, while Board Chair Pete Miller and SGA President Elect Sara Hubaishi listen during the Brenau University Board of Trustee's Annual Spring Meeting. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
Outgoing SGA President M.K. Jabbia, right, laughs, while Board Chair Pete Miller and SGA President Elect Sara Hubaishi listen during the Brenau University Board of Trustee’s Annual Spring Meeting. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

“[Brenau President] Ed Schrader often says that he wants our students to make a difference in this world, and hopefully the time and talent, the energy and the financial resources we can contribute will help in the pursuit of Brenau’s mission of preparing students for making a difference.”

Since Cathy’s student days at Brenau and the beginning of Pete’s tenure on the board, which began in 1998, the Millers have made substantial financial contributions to the university on an annual basis. They have also strengthened their relationships with the university community with contributions of time and energy to Brenau activities.

In 2006 they created an endowment program that supports international studies for Brenau students through scholarships, faculty development and other related expenses. The Millers see Brenau as a change agent in the lives of students and, as such, believe it has an obligation to its students to do what it can to enhance their global perspective and experience so that they can function successfully in the changing world. They see themselves as having an obligation to Brenau because of their personal connections to it.

In the first two years of its existence, the Miller family endowment provided some level of help for 140 students and instructors for study abroad – for 54 biology and health science students in Yucatan, Mexico; 24 business administration students in London; art students in Italy; psychology and business students in Paris and, although the destination was not in a foreign country, for 16 biology students to work on an island ecology research project in Hawaii.

More recently the Miller family largesse paid for some start-up investment costs in the university’s fledgling 2+2 programs with Chinese universities, including paying for Brenau American “student ambassadors” to travel last summer to Anhui Province to meet and establish relationships with the first group of Chinese students so they would have a support network of friends and acquaintances when they arrived in Gainesville in August.

Ed Schrader, Brenau's president, and Pete Miller, Brenau's board of trustees chairman, in china visiting Anhui University.
Ed Schrader, Brenau’s president, and Pete Miller, Brenau’s board of trustees chairman, in china visiting Anhui University.

“We have an interest in our [American] students’ learning from our Chinese students about their culture,” Pete Miller says. “We have an interest in helping our students go to China. … In giving them an opportunity to see a world that perhaps they have not seen before, the opportunity to understand a culture that is, I think, greatly misunderstood. You can understand it when you get past the politicians. You go to China and you rapidly discover that so many Chinese students know so much more about America than some of our students know about America.

“Our youth, to be competitive in a very competitive world going forward, need to have the opportunity to learn, to understand, to reason, even to speak the language – with the particular emphasis on China. That does not diminish the importance of other countries in this world, but we are at a significant disadvantage [against China] in a very competitive world.”

The Millers traveled to China together in recent years to help build relationships with government officials as well as with faculty, staff and students at the universities. Pete Miller has accompanied Schrader on six additional trips. As far a crossing items off a retirement bucket list goes, Pete Miller says, “I probably don’t need to go back to China. But if the university needs me to, and I can add some value, I will do it.”

The 2+2 deals that Brenau has with Chinese universities are extremely important to Brenau. Briefly, such programs involve long-term contractual arrangements in which tuition-paying Chinese students will complete the first two years of undergraduate study at their home institutions in China, then transfer to Brenau for their junior and senior years and graduate with a Brenau degree. The first 18 arrived from Anhui Normal University in August to work on the last two years of their degrees in elementary education. Brenau has other 2+2 agreements with ANU for English majors and Anhui School of Traditional Chinese Medicine for nursing students. The Millers authorized spending from their endowment for startup costs in a program that will gross (in tuition and room and board fees) about $1.3 million a year in revenues when all three cohorts operate at full capacity in 2017-18.

Schrader envisions and is already in discussions about additional 2+2 programs in other disciplines. When you take the chair of your board of trustees halfway around the world with you – especially when he and his wife have committed significant financial resources to make sure the program is as strong as it can be – it goes a long way to strengthening those all-important relationships.

It makes sense. Who better to understand guanxi than a community banker?

Brenau President Ed Schrader speaks with Maria Teresa Kumar, Democratic commentator and CEO of Voto Latino, and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Pete Miller before Beyond the Talking Points: What Election 2016 Really Means to Women. The discussion was a part of the Douglas and Kay Ivester Programming Series at the university. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)Beyond the Talking Points: What Election 2016 Really Means to Women. The discussion was a part of the Douglas and Kay Ivester Programming Series at the university. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
Brenau President Ed Schrader speaks with Maria Teresa Kumar, Democratic commentator and CEO of Voto Latino, and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Pete Miller before Beyond the Talking Points: What Election 2016 Really Means to Women. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

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