Louis Miller: Workaholic manager who cares about his employees

His fans in Florida, where he ran the much smaller Tampa International Airport, say he is up to the task.

But Miller will be landing in Atlanta only months after leaving his job at Tampa amid controversy and apparently strained relations with some of his bosses on the airport authority’s board.

Miller’s new boss, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, is undeterred.

“I am very confident that I made the right selection,” Reed said last week at a news conference in which he named the 62-year-old former head of airports in Tampa and Salt Lake City to start running the world’s busiest airport.

If approved by the city council, he will replace longtime Atlanta airport chief Ben DeCosta, who retired in June after the mayor didn’t renew his contract.

Miller faces the biggest challenge of his career. With nearly 90 million passengers a year, Hartsfield-Jackson is five times larger than the Tampa airport in terms of passenger traffic. It’s also a key economic engine for metro Atlanta and Georgia.

At the top of the list: completing a new $1.4 billion international terminal — plagued with cost, legal and project-management headaches — and securing bond financing for it.

Interviews with Miller’s still fiercely loyal former employees, as well as passengers and vendors at the Tampa airport, might suggest why Reed sides with Miller’s fans rather than his critics.

“You’re lucky to get him” was a phrase commonly heard. People called Miller a wise choice to run Atlanta’s much larger airport.

“I think you’ll be amazed at how well Louis does,” said John Wheat, interim executive director of the Tampa airport.

“I think you guys got an ace myself. I really do,” said David DeMersseman, a retired Whirlpool factory manager who was at the Tampa airport last week to pick up his wife. “I think he’s a top-notch manager.”

People who know Miller say he’s a workaholic manager who cares about his employees. They said Miller, during his nearly 14-year tenure at the Tampa airport, renewed or reshaped practically every aspect of the Tampa airport, making it a model of customer service and an object of local pride.

Beverly Higgins was raving about Tampa International Airport to her son even before they got off their flight from Atlanta last week.

“They actually have a cell phone parking lot (where you wait for calls from arriving passengers) so you don’t have to circle around,” Higgins told her son after cell-phoning her husband, who had been waiting in the lot to pick them up. (Her husband probably already knew they were there because a billboard-sized sign at the lot gives live updates on arriving flights.)

“Pretty brilliant,” said her son, Julian Higgins, a filmmaker who grumbled that his home airport in Los Angeles isn’t nearly as user-friendly.

It’s touches like that — along with $1.4 billion worth of new construction or facelifts over the past decade at the compact, well-designed airport — that have helped win Miller many fans in Tampa.

The airport consistently ranks near the top in passenger surveys by J.D. Power and Associates and Conde Nast Traveler magazine, and also does well in local employer surveys as a good place to work.

The Tampa airport’s managers give Miller much of the credit for such kudos, saying he was a stickler for keeping the facility clean and well-run. They say he also made sure a long string of big construction projects came in on time and under budget.

A Utah native and accountant by training, Miller went to work at the Salt Lake City airport in the 1970s. By the time Tampa hired him in 1996, Miller was the Salt Lake City airport’s chief and had overseen the airport’s rapid growth as a key airport for both Delta and Southwest airlines.

When Miller arrived in Tampa, which is also dominated by Southwest and Delta, he found a formerly ground-breaking airport that had become a bit scruffy, according to some of his former lieutenants.

The airport’s central terminal was surrounded by six concourses — they’re called “airsides” in Tampa — that were operated and maintained by the individual airlines.

“They were in pretty bad shape,” said Wheat. Two were shuttered.

To fix things, Miller persuaded the airport board to embark on a “very aggressive development schedule,” said Wheat. The airport took over responsibility for the airsides and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new ones or face-lifts, as well as new parking structures, a centralized baggage sorting and screening system and other facilities.

Miller also hired a staff of architects, engineers and project managers to do most of the design work and to keep construction projects on track, they said. They say more than 90 percent of the projects over the past decade came in under budget and on time.

In another innovation that helped keep airlines happy, they said Miller retooled the carriers’ airport agreements to tailor their fees and rent more closely to the cost of the services they use. The airport also rebates a portion of its annual surplus to the airlines based on their passenger traffic.

“Any time Delta and Southwest hold up our agreement as a model, that says something,” said Diane Pryor Vercelli, the Tampa airport’s senior director of properties and contracts.

Al Illustrato, a longtime employee at the airport, said a change was noticeable soon after Miller arrived.

“When Louis got here, he was much more detail-oriented,” said Illustrato, now the Tampa airport’s senior director of maintenance. Miller showed up early in the morning, and often on weekends, and “walked the facilities,” said Illustrato. “If he saw something [that needed fixing], he wanted to talk about that pretty quickly.”

But these days, when Miller walks around the airport he once ran, he’s just another of the roughly 17 million passengers that pass through it annually.

That’s because Miller resigned under a cloud in February after clashing with some recently named members of the airport authority’s board of directors, partly over whether airport management had worked hard enough to maintain international air service, which had withered in recent years.

Some critics characterized Miller as an autocrat who didn’t like his decisions to be questioned. Local news stories said Miller had kept some board members in the dark about plans to demolish an empty airport building despite having a potential rent-paying tenant. They also reported that Miller or his staff apparently violated state laws by granting height variances on construction cranes and other structures or reviewing some contract proposals without proper public notice.

Miller’s defenders say the variances were approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and followed long-standing practice predating Miller. Both domestic and international traffic have shrunk at non-hub airports like Tampa, they said, as airlines have concentrated more routes into fewer hub airports.

Last week, the man who became Miller’s most public critic, Tampa lawyer Steve Burton, a board member recently appointed by Florida’s Republican governor, didn’t want to offer details about the clash.

“One of my criticisms of the administration of the past is the lack of transparency,” he told reporters after concluding a round of public job interviews with four candidates vying to replace Miller. (Burton was the only board member who opened his interviews to the public.)

“I’m very happy for him and his family, and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity,” he said of Miller’s planned move to Atlanta.

But the Tampa native talked about how he had enjoyed visiting the new Tampa airport as a kid and teenager, and how he felt a deep responsibility for being well-informed and making sure it is well-run today.

“Economic development and taking [air] service to the next level is where we need to go now,” he said. “Mr. Miller took what was to begin with a fine and dynamic airport and made the asset better. During my involvement as a board member, some of his activities that were reported to me caused me concern. He chose to abruptly resign for any number of reasons that only he knows.”

During an interview in Tampa last week, Miller apologized for his “Florida attire” — shorts and polo shirt — and downplayed suggestions that his decision was sudden or caused by personal or political conflicts.

Politics played “some role, but not a major role,” he said. “My wife and I had been talking about [looking for new jobs],” he said. Miller said his wife, Cyndy Miller, had expected to lose her job as director of growth management, planning and construction under Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio when the mayor’s term ends next spring. Iorio, a Democrat, is also on the Tampa airport authority’s board.

Meanwhile, Miller said he was ready for new challenges as a decade-long burst of airport construction projects wound down.

“I thought I had accomplished a lot here in Tampa,” he said.

He hopes he can apply his skills in overseeing the construction of Atlanta’s new international terminal and perhaps do what he can to boost airline competition. He doesn’t rule out trying to recruit giant discount carrier Southwest.

“I just want to walk slowly and take my time and make sure I know all the facts,” he said.

In making the leap to Atlanta, Miller agreed to a $221,000 salary — less than DeCosta’s pay and $32,000 less than his Tampa salary.

“I understand cities are going through tough times,” he said. The salary “works for me. It’s the challenge of the job more than just the money.”`

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