Wildwood/Mahonia has developed approximately 10 acres of multi-family, 40 acres of single-family and 25 acres of industrial-commercial property throughout the Willamette Valley, including:
Miller relies on a lean team to help manage his varied interests, including (from left) Travis Henry, Sarah Schra and Suzette LeBlanc.
//Photo by Lynn Howlett
Miller graduated from Stanford University in 1971 with a master’s degree in environmental design and came back to Oregon determined to build what would later be called “green” homes. He encountered roadblock after roadblock in his quest. Finding the right materials for his homes proved frustrating, and he encountered opposition from local building department officials who failed to understand his revolutionary construction methods.
In a response that would become his signature modus operandi, Miller explored new building products and methods that made his homes more energy efficient and less destructive to the environment. And he took the opposition of building officials as an opportunity to educate them on sustainable building practices. The homes he built in south Salem in the 1970s remain in high demand today and continue to outperform “green” homes built decades later in terms of energy efficiency and impact on the environment.
As Miller expanded his sustainable business interests into new areas, he began to be noticed by other Oregonians concerned about the degradation of the state’s forests and waterways. In 1996, first-term Gov. John Kitzhaber asked him to chair the Willamette Basin Task Force, which evolved into the Willamette Partnership. “The partnership put Oregon on the map in terms of environmental services,” Miller says.
Miller and Jack McGowan, another Oregon sustainability icon, served on the task force and became great friends and sustainability allies. McGowan remembers having long discussions about the environment with Miller, often over a bottle of wine made from Miller’s Mahonia Vineyard pinot noir grapes. McGowan, then executive director of SOLV, asked Miller to join SOLV’s board, which he has since left.
“He is truly a Renaissance man,” says McGowan, who retired from SOLV in 2008. “John’s an amalgam of passion, extremely high intelligence and remarkable creativity. He thinks so far ahead of the curve the rest of us are always trying to catch up.”
Miller’s innovative triple-bottom-line thinking has led to requests from officials in Washington, D.C., and as far away as China, for his input on creating sustainable business practices. Bill Gaffi, a colleague from the Willamette Partnership, says Chinese officials “treat John like a god.”
But his heart will always remain close to home, he says, where he can indulge his passion for encouraging young Oregon entrepreneurs.
When he heard about two young men in Eugene who were selling biodiesel fuel produced from used cooking oil, he contacted them. Miller was already a customer for the biodiesel, but he was curious about its potential. Keever remembers getting a call from Miller, who began to pepper the founders of Sequential Biodiesel with questions about the product.
Convinced they were on to something, he became both a customer of and an adviser to the company. He served as an adviser as the two men founded Sequential Pacific, a biodiesel production and research firm now located in a Wildwood industrial/commercial development in Salem. Keever and Miller say both companies are expanding their customer bases and biodiesel production is ahead of projections.
“He’s been very paternal to us,” Keever says. “I consider him a partner in the businesses. He’s been truly an ally in defining the biodiesel industry in Oregon. He really has more than just making money as a goal — it’s all about community to John. Oregon is a better place because of him.”
At his East Pringle Innovation Center just off I-5 in Salem, he signed on two food-processing tenants as his first “industrial incubator” clients. He’s drawn to the young entrepreneurs who run Organic Fresh Fingers and Wandering Aengus Ciderworks, his East Pringle tenants.
“I like to find young people with talent and energy and help them take the ball and run with it,” he says.
Partly that’s because, when Miller came back to Oregon fresh from Stanford with his environmental design degree, there weren’t many John Millers around to mentor him. But Miller also knows from his own experience that young people with a vision can deliver that triple bottom line that has served his business interests so well.