September 20, 2020

The Boss: Stockroom to Boardroom

My father had lost his parents early, and later in life he lost his sight due to macular degeneration, but that never diminished his spirit. After getting his engineering degree, he and my mother moved to Texas, where he worked for a chemical company. They moved back to Atlanta, and he started a laundromat business. He later moved into commercial construction.

I like to say I grew up with Ozzie and Harriet. My mother stayed at home taking care of me and my two older brothers. One became a builder; the other a professor.

At the University of Georgia, my dream was to write for a newspaper and to live in New York City. I majored in public relations, but my senior year a professor told me that though I was an A student, I did not have the talent to succeed in the field.

After graduating, I married my college sweetheart, Mark Miller. Returning from our honeymoon, we realized we had great crystal and china, but no furniture and only $5 to our names. I landed an interview for a job at Jordan Marsh department stores in Florida.

My father-in-law picked me up for the interview from the Miami airport and drove me to the hotel. But when we found that it was an hourly rental, he refused to leave me there. I later found there were two hotels with the same name, and we’d gone to the wrong one.

I was hired and sent to set up trim-a-tree shops at store locations, where I made my share of mistakes. I began to realize that spending my days in stockrooms wasn’t for me. So, 11 months later, we moved to Atlanta, where I found a job at the Atlanta Merchandise Mart as a secretary for a firm representing major household brands.

At 26, I teamed up with another female representative, and we combined our last names to form Judd Miller Company, to represent manufacturers. When we started in 1982, there were almost no women in this business. No bank would lend us money to get started, so we borrowed $15,000 from my father.

We were successful, but I wanted a new challenge. So in 1988, I started a business with a small pottery-making shop. I named it “Mud Pie” because the pottery was painted brown to resemble terra cotta.

Mud Pie soon became a top-selling giftware line for Macy’s. We started with a dozen items, including ducks, rabbits and chicks. In 1991, I acquired my business partner’s share, and five years later was introduced to manufacturing in China, where the factories could make whatever I could dream up. We now design and make more than 4,000 baby, tabletop and fashion gifts.

With my husband as C.F.O., we have grown to 85 employees in the United States and 100 in our overseas office. Last year, we partnered with Lineage Capital, which took a minority stake in Mud Pie, and have begun selling directly to customers through a new Web site.

I suffered a major setback in a 2007 accident, when a dump truck backed up and struck me while I was crossing the street near the Atlanta Merchandise Mart. For a year, my caregiver drove me to work and my husband took me home. Some five surgeries later — including a partial elbow replacement — and with a spinal cord stimulator to ease the pain, I am doing well.

Work was a great impetus to get better, but the accident made me realize that life is short and I needed to accelerate my interest in giving back to the community. So, my husband and I set up a family foundation to help meet urgent needs, like housing and food, of families here and abroad. 

As told to Elizabeth Olson.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=47c593d084fd1846689d02cdb5bd4aed

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