Bobby Miller, president of REM Development, poses for a photo. (Photo by Cindy Chittenden)

President of REM Development Bobby Miller is proud to say he’s worked hard for what he’s earned. And he is just as proud of what he and his wife, Holly, have given back to the community.

The Millers aren’t ones to boast about their successes. Rather, the couple’s goal is to educate the community about the importance of giving. By putting the Miller stamp on many of the structures they have helped build, they want people to understand it’s community members, friends and neighbors who make the difference behind the scenes. They hope their story sparks people to give back, no matter what the amount.

As northern Vermont’s largest developer of commercial real estate, Miller has built and leased more than 2 million square feet of property. A quarter of that property is located in Essex and consists of office space, manufacturing facilities and warehouse distribution centers on Allen Martin Drive, River Road and New England Drive. In 2000, REM donated the labor to build the Robert E. Miller building at the Champlain Valley Expo. And between 2002 and 2003, the company donated funds to construct the Essex Tree Farm Recreational Fields.

The Millers have donated more than $10 million to Champlain College, helped construct the new Vermont Respite House in Colchester and donated Holly Court, a 15-acre, $13.1 million site with a commercial building in Williston to the University of Vermont Medical Center.

At 82 and sharp as a tack, Miller sat down in his office in Williston to offer some no-nonsense advice to the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Q: Can business savvy be taught?

A: I think you either have it or you don’t. My old boss used to tell me that I was a natural. Don’t ask people to work hard. Work smart and enjoy what you do. Most people go to work every day and don’t want to be there. It’s a matter of survival. I hear kids that get out of college that say, “I can’t wait to turn 65 to retire,” and I think, “You haven’t lived your life yet. Why waste it?”

Q: How important are mentors in business?

A: I think today it’s more important than it was back then. When we were young, you learned how to fix things. Today, kids can’t fix anything. If the cars didn’t start by themselves, they wouldn’t know what to do. They are geniuses when it comes to computers, but they don’t know how to have a conversation.  I honestly believe that the computer is going to take over and do all the thinking. I still do math by hand.  I’m 82. A young 82.

Q: What habits have helped make you successful?

A: I am always on time for meetings, which is interesting because I was always late for school. I graduated high school with 460 hours of detention. I have always been an honest businessman, and I think that you have to make a profit.

Q: If you had 100 potential entrepreneurs sitting in front of you and you could only offer one piece of advice, what would that piece of advice be?

A: I think the most important thing is to tell the truth. Also, be on time for meetings and return phone calls. If you do those three things, you will be successful.

Q: What are some of the challenges a potential entrepreneur might be surprised he or she will face?

A: Managing people is the hardest thing. It’s hard to keep them all happy. Saturday mornings in my office was like a confessional. This guy came home with a woman. He’s married and has two kids. The other is going to lose his trailer. I had 180 employees, but I really had 600 mouths to feed. I used to stay awake at night thinking, “How am I going to keep everyone busy?”

Q: Did you ever worry about making payroll?

A: No, I never worried about that. I always had enough money. Some of these contractors would make money on the job and go out and buy a new car, new boat. I never did that. I know what it’s like to be hungry. I always made sure the company came first. I took a salary, but I never bonused myself. My bonus is my company.

Q: What type of advice do you have for businesses that have a few employees, want to grow, but are scared to take that next step?

A: They shouldn’t be in business. If you don’t believe in the business, how can the bank believe in your business? You go in to ask the banker for $5,000 to $10,000 to expand your business, and,if you can’t sit there, be firm and say, “I’m going to make this happen and here’s how,” you won’t be able to promote what you want. Then, the bank will probably ask for more security.

Q: Did you have limited funds when you started your first company, New England Air Systems, a company you later sold to your employees? What creative strategies did you use to profit $1 million in the first year?

A: I had $18,000 saved. I bid large contracts to have some stability. This way, I could hire you from the other guy. I made sure we bid big work to have the stability to keep our people busy. The other half was finding quick jobs for cash flow.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who has savings sitting in a bank account but doesn’t know what to do with it? 

A: It depends on what your tolerance for risk is. Some of us have a higher risk tolerance. For risk, there is a reward. If my Aunt Nelly left me $10,000, I have always said, if you got debt, pay down debt. If you need to borrow money, use the equity in your house if needed.

Q: How do you know if you’ve had a successful life?

A: I never looked at it that way. I haven’t changed one bit since I was 17 years old. With my second wife, we built a big house, an indoor swimming pool, tennis courts. We looked at each other and said, “This is not us.” My goal isn’t how much money I can make. What satisfies me is how can I help others, give people jobs, get them working and help the unfortunate. We have done a lot of that.