John Miller's bottom line

John Miller's bottom line

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By Dan Cook

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John Miller presides over a diverse portfolio of business interests from his headquarters in Salem. While Miller has maintained a low public profile, he is well known among the state's environmental and sustainability leaders. 
// Photo by Lynn Howlett

John Miller recalls a moment when things clicked into place for him. He was 10, traversing a forest road outside of Stayton with his father, a forester. “On one side, I saw trees he had planted 30 years ago, a healthy forest. On the other side of the road was a stump patch, still there years after the major timber company that owned it had cut the trees and run. That sort of set the tone for me.”

Today, Miller presides over a family of companies under the Wildwood/Mahonia name. From offices in a renovated schoolhouse just off I-5 in south Salem, Miller and five employees, including vice president Travis Henry, manage a vineyard; a blueberry processing facility; a native plant nursery; residential, commercial and industrial developments; and an investment portfolio. All are driven by the triple bottom line philosophy — people, planet, profit — that he espouses.

“When we talk about the triple bottom line, we’re talking about the overall sustainability of a business. It means a business must be economically sustainable as well as socially and environmentally sustainable,” he says.

Indeed, Miller, president and owner of Wildwood/Mahonia, says the diverse nature of his holdings allowed Wildwood/Mahonia to continue to show a profit even during the worst days of the recent recession. “Over the past five years, Wildwood/Mahonia has increased its holdings by approximately 10%, remarkable in these challenging times,” he says.

Although environmental impact might be considered by most a poor driver of business decisions, Miller says in the long run those decisions lead to a profitable outcome.

“For instance, I tend to fit buildings to the landscape rather than clearing the land — which is easier of course,” Miller says. “But intuitively you know it will be a better project if you look at the environmental piece. You make more money doing it right and there’s some neat social aspects to it, too.”

Miller, 64, is acknowledged to be among Oregon’s foremost environmental advocates. Since launching his first sustainable project in the 1970s — a residential development in south Salem — the “social aspects” have become an ever greater focus of his work. In addition to his for-profit ventures, he is deeply involved in nonprofit work throughout the state.

He’s on the board of EcoTrust in Portland, works with the Clean River Institute in Tualatin, supports a children’s relief nursery in Salem founded by his wife, Sue, and plays an active role in SOLV, a statewide volunteer organization that focuses on environmental stewardship projects. He recently helped SOLV complete a $500,000 fundraising campaign to secure a matching grant from another noted Oregon philanthropist, John Gray. Children’s issues are another high priority for Miller; he and his wife have four children in their blended family.

To draw wider attention to the health of Oregon’s rivers, Miller helped found and fund the Honoring Our Rivers anthology, which publishes writing and artwork by Oregon students about the state’s waterways. Honoring Our Rivers is now a project of the Willamette Partnership and sponsors public readings from the books to cement the bond between literature, art and the environment.

Even his nonprofit work is driven by the triple bottom line, for he expects his nonprofit and for-profit partners alike to use their resources wisely and effectively.

“He likes to see these things make money,” says Tyson Keever, general manager of Sequential Pacific Biodiesel and co-founder and president of Sequential Biofuels. (Miller has a stake in the former.) “It’s very important to John that we be accountable.”

That sort of collaboration extends to government agencies as well. Working with the city of Salem last year, Miller was able to help secure a loan from the city to refurbish a warehouse for two emerging food processing companies, Wandering Aengus Ciderworks and Organic Fresh Fingers.

“The City of Salem’s innovative loan program helped two growing businesses create jobs, expand and stay in Salem,” Miller says. “The businesses have new equipment, are in larger, more energy- efficient spaces and partnered well with Wildwood because of their sustainable values and ties to Oregon agriculture.”