Miller Builds On Successes

February 6, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Ronald Miller’s career has evolved over time.

Today, he still considers his career “a work in progress.”

The founder and managing director of BlueWater Partners, a private investment banking firm, has more than 35 years of experience in owning and managing manufacturing and distribution businesses.

He has been CEO and shareholder of several middle market companies in industries such as lumber and wood products, furniture and fixtures, printing and publishing, pharmaceuticals, and rubber and plastic.

Miller originally started out in sales and marketing. But his career path took a different direction in 1969 when he acquired majority interest in a pharmaceutical distribution company that was performing poorly.

He turned the company around, eventually sold it and bought an interest in a manufacturing company in the pharmaceutical industry.

That more or less became his modus operandi.

“My path has been through buying either a majority interest, a partnership or full ownership of manufacturing and distribution companies that were typically underperforming.

“I learned finance the hard way — making payroll every week.”

Miller established BlueWater Partners in January 2002. He and partners Matthew J. Miller and Michael L. Presant work with privately held middle-market businesses, the majority of which happen to be Midwest manufacturers.

“Because of my manufacturing background, we are able to identify the value drivers in our clients’ businesses and help them begin to increase and enhance the value of their companies by being able to work with them strategically on many of the issues they face right now.”

That could mean helping a client buy or sell a business, or gain access to capital and equity, or merge with another company. It could involve helping a client iron out some manufacturing and process issues before searching for a strategic buyer for his business.

Miller said BlueWater’s greatest activity to date has been in helping shareholders sell their interest in a company and, secondly, in raising capital.

“We start off by listening to what their goals are, both short term and long term, and what issues and threats they are experiencing in their business,” Miller explained.

“We help them strategically look at the strengths and weaknesses of their business and their position in the marketplace, then formulate a recommendation on the best approach for them.”

Miller believes BlueWater Partners’ hands-on experience as business operators, owners and managers is what sets it apart from other private investment banking firms.

“We are able to identify the value drivers in each company and help clients fix some of the issues that need to be fixed because we have gone into companies that are under performing and fixed them in the past.

“We also have a network of consultants in manufacturing and finance.”

It’s challenging work that requires experience and creativity, he said, and his reward is seeing clients successfully achieve their goals.

Miller said there are a lot of opportunities in the current business environment, particularly for companies willing to look strategically at themselves and willing to change their business model in response to the market stresses and conditions they face.

There are companies that continue to struggle because they are more reactive and they’re not looking at the changes they need to make, he said.

“We’re finding more people reaching out for help that are looking for ways to solve their performance issues and are concerned about where they are going in the future.

“They’re looking for a different view and some advice backed by experience.”

In addition to experience in the wood products, furniture, printing, rubber and plastic, and pharmaceutical industries, BlueWater Partners also works with clients in industries such as industrial machinery, computer equipment, chemicals, electronic and electrical components, fabricated metal products and business services.

BlueWater Partners continually talks to companies in those various industries to learn, gather and share information on what’s working and what’s not working, Miller noted.

Small business owners often become very internally focused on their own business and sometimes need an outside perspective to help them see what’s going on, he noted.

“When you’re dealing with challenges every day internally, with your customers and vendors, with process issues and financial issues, you run out of time in the day.

“You need help from people that can stand back and give you some view, some alternatives, to strategically look out beyond just the challenges of the day.”

He said the companies that are doing that are performing better than those that are reactive and resistant to change.

As Miller pointed out, the business world is changing. Business is global, and companies have to compete with other companies halfway around the world. He and his partners believe business will continue to be more global and that companies need to figure out how they can survive and grow in an increasingly competitive environment.

What is BlueWater Partners’ growth strategy?

“It’s much more important for us to help our clients successfully meet their current goals than for us to be able to brag about how many clients we have. So what we are building is successful experience with our clients.

“Our intention is to grow the firm in capabilities and the number of clients that we serve. But we’ll do that on the basis of one success after another rather than just try to hit some number target.”

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