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Destined to Keep it in the Family

Natalie Miller knew deep down she was not going into the family business, Miller’s Auto Recycling in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. As she said, “I was never going to be an auto recycler, not even a consideration. Cars were nothing of interest to me ever, only that they got me to where I needed to go,” she told the Ladies of Auto Recyclers Association (LARA) at their annual breakfast during the 73rd Annual ARA Convention and Exposition.

However, little did she know that her future had already been decided. As she noted, at one point in her early 20s while visiting a friend in Dayton, Ohio, she went to see a psychic. “While she was reading my cards, she told me there were a lot of cars in my future!” At that point Miller was imagining some grandiose vehicles, not the yard full of 1,700 car hulks where she spends her time today.

After high school, she thought about going into the medical field, thought about business school, and then was accepted at D’Youville College, in Buffalo, NY and graduated as a Physician Assistant. After six years of working with two different hand surgeons, her U.S. Visa was about to expire and the company was unsuccessful in obtaining her Green Card. She thought it was time for a change. “Family business here I come,” she laughed.

Miller’s Auto Recycling was founded by her grandfather Gordon Miller in 1952, and Miller notes that she always includes her grandmother Gertrude “because a she was major force in the business.” In the mid-1970s her father and uncle took over the business, her uncle’s two sons joined the company then she joined in 2009. Miller’s sits on 40 acres and processes 4,000 vehicles per year.

Shortly before she joined the business, her uncle had decided to retire rather abruptly and “to the fault of all parties involved there were no well-thought-out succession plans in place, just assumptions and expectations,” Miller told the audience of her peers during the LARA breakfast. “As I have learned in the past seven years, this is a fault of many family run businesses, and considering the majority of auto recyclers are family run, an issue that is certainly prudent to our industry.”

As Miller tried to cope with a struggling business during the 2008-2009 economic downturn and family business growing pains, she tried to keep all of her concerns under wraps, thinking it was only her family and her business experiencing these types of challenges. Then she attended the Ontario Automotive Recyclers Association (OARA)

Convention and after networking with some colleagues, her story came out. “I was so open and honest, as I usually wear my heart on my sleeve, and the stories that were shared with me at that time provided me an entirely new perspective on the entire situation. It’s nice to know you are not alone in these struggles.”

At this point, Miller’s Auto Recycling had 60 employees and a team of nine managers, as well as five family members, of which three were shareholders. “And none of us were moving in the same direction.”
After many continuing struggles, Miller went to her father and said, “We basically have two choices. Things have to change. I love the business. I want to be here, but I cannot stay the way it is.” They had a long, difficult discussion ahead. The end result was that after three and a half years, buy outs were accepted by family members and the company resorted back to its core business.

Today, Miller’s Auto Recycling has 50 employees and only five managers including Natalie, her father Jim, and her cousin Chris. They have closed their collision center, which had been declining in revenue, and closed their self-serve yard, to focus their energy on the late model parts and end-of-life vehicle processing aspects of their business.

Miller’s story is a clear example of why LARA hosts the annual breakfast so that women in a heavily male-dominated industry have the opportunity to network and share their stories to build each other up.
This year, in addition to the 25 women recyclers attending, the message was shared with the 15-member group of Polish recyclers who asked to attend the breakfast so they could bring the lessons home to their fellow recyclers.