SmartBe Wealth Aspirations Issue 02. - Mark Miller

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Catching up with Mark Miller

I really appreciate you taking the time for us. It’s important, and we know how busy you are.

I don’t usually do interviews by the way, in fact, I only think I’ve only ever done one. We're pretty under the radar – purposely.

When did isolation begin for you? Who were you with and how are you holding up?

I guess it began the second week of March. I didn't store the date in my mind, it was this kind of slow, increasing amount of paranoia about it as time went by. Then interestingly enough I was down in California with Mike and Brian from the SmartBe board, on a cycling trip of all things, then isolation started. The first thing I did when I got back from California was contact my daughter in the UK. She had just had her graduation ceremony at Imperial College scheduled and had been working with some start-ups in the UK. As soon as I saw the US was thinking of shutting down International travel, I said “Oh boy, Canada will likely follow suit so let’s get her home quickly”. So, it started around there, which was probably the second week of March.

And who did you hunker down with during isolation?

Mark: My family – my wife and two daughters. Also, we decided to get my mother, a little bit later in March, out of her senior’s home which isn’t too far from where we live. We just felt that it was lower risk to have her here.

SmartBe: Oh my goodness, with all the outbreaks that have happened in the seniors homes you must have breathed a sigh of relief.

Mark: Yeah, I think it was a really good decision.

Did anything stand out for you during lockdown?

Mark: It was pretty interesting going to Terminal 1 at Pearson in June. It was like a ghost town. So interesting.

SmartBe: I can imagine. Were the protocols significantly different? Was it noticeably “socially distance”?

Mark: Yeah, all of that – people wearing masks but the most striking this was just that there weren’t that many people there. You know you’re so used to seeing the bustle of people, taxis dropping people off, being chased to move as you're dropping someone off. It was so strange, like, out of a movie. I don’t think I’ve even seen it that slow when I’ve gotten back on a delayed flight at 3 in the morning. So that’s how it’s been.

What’s your daily routine like?

Mark: I work out usually in the morning, somewhere between 7ish I try to get an hour in which is a varying bunch of things. I do running or I also do some remote training classes. It’s actually been working out well. After that I get into the phone calls and I’d say I’m on the phone most of the day - phone meaning a combination of Teams, Zoom, WebEx, whatever people want to use. We actually implemented teams for many of our businesses and it’s been really helpful just because everybody has it, but we’ve been using all sorts of methods. I was asking people yesterday on the phone what’s the longest call they’ve done. I’ve done a few 5- hour calls which are long.

SmartBe: They are. You get fatigued. We had one 8-hour call and you forget to schedule breaks and lunch like a normal conference day. It’s really weird. I also find that I get fatigued concentrating on the social cues. It’s much more difficult to cue on what others are thinking or feeling or perceiving your comments.

Mark: Well, I think you invest a bit more time when remote connecting to find out how they’re doing, what’s happening, is their family okay. I really care about that and it's the right thing to do, but if you do a lot of calls it does absorb time. Interestingly we’ve had a few retirements of people who worked for many years – in the decades in some cases – and it’s just an odd way to say thank-you for everything. We’ve done some innovative things around running videos and putting some presentations together and of course having a drink in your hand. But it’s kind of interesting to have to do that for people. You wouldn’t ever have thought that, right? But you make it work and, in some ways, they’re attended more because virtually anybody can attend, so that’s how you can rationalize it’s okay.

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At Constellation you have visibility into such a vast network that’s on the leading if not cutting edge of innovation. With this lockdown and now with things opening up are you seeing any foundational shifts and changes? Has Covid changed things permanently in your ecosystem?

Mark: That’s a really good question and I think it really varies by the business area. We’re in a lot of different sectors and I think some will go through dramatic changes and some have been really impacted by people not being there and utilizing those services. But other areas are busier than ever, and they are expected to be able to do things better for our customers. I really encourage our leaders that they should really listen to their customers. Because their customers are the ones who are out there dealing with the reality of the situation and it’s a first-hand view of what’s happening. So, I encourage you – take care of your families, take care of yourself, but also really listen to your customers. I think that’s hard to do because there’s a lot of noise out there, a lot of media coverage, a lot of updates from various leaders who are all trying to help in their own way. But I think to innovate, to run your business well, you need to take the extra time to listen to your customers and a lot of people take that for granted. A lot of successful businesspeople have built a business and they listened to their customers a lot when they started that business but as time goes by, they start taking for granted what their customer’s needs are. And as their customers change, sometimes they miss the change that has happened. This is such a disruption that it’s really critical that our good businesses are listening to their customers and seeing how they’re dealing with the situation.

Obviously, everything’s changed because of the experience but do you think that there are any radical shifts in customer behavior that will be coming out of the other end of this thing? It’s going to take a while for things to get back to the “new norm” but is the new norm significantly different than the old norm?

Mark: I don’t know. I just look at this as something that is going to be multiple years until we get back. Let’s look at 2024, let’s talk about 2025. I think it’s going to take that long to really know that for sure. I’m really not trying to guess that now. Don’t listen to the political banter or the news. Just listen to your customers and try to help them through. For example, people will say “we’re not going to be using the office anymore” and definitely some companies have moved to say “look, we don’t need as much space, we’re going to try to do things more virtually”. But I honestly don’t think that works for everybody. So, there might be some shift to more virtual but some people like that interaction. Steve Jobs used to go down at lunch and look at all of Apple’s products in one place and make sure that they all work together. Can you do that virtually? This is really just the start of adjusting to whatever those changes are. But things have changed before. We went through the internet bubble in 2000 and there was a big recession after Y2K and it took a bit to get that back to normal. In 2008 there was a large adjustment. So, I think those just take time to adjust and some things will change but I think they always have. Bottom line is, if you’ve got a business, you’re listening to your customers, you’re adjusting to what their needs are, you’re seeing what problems they have, you’ll probably be okay. There’s lots of things to do and businesses that offer solutions for their customers will always have opportunity. But as for a long-term perspective, no one should be radically saying “oh, what’s going to happen now, what does this mean?”. That’s the wrong way to think. I think we need to sit back and listen and be patient.

So our readership is interested in this concept of wealth aspirational , whether it’s people that are in the growing wealth phase, in the preserving wealth phase, or in figuring out how to pass wealth onto generations, so the next group of questions are just your perspectives about money and finance and things like that. Are you a spender or are you a saver?

Mark: I’m a programmer by background so I love technology, so if I’m spending it will be on something that’s probably technology oriented. I love to try new things, I love to see how they work. As a kid I used to like to take things apart and maybe never be able to figure out how to put them back together. Now it’s hard to do that because you can’t really take much apart because it’s so well put together. So, I think right now if I’m going to spend money on something that’s “techy” oriented. So, I like a car like Tesla not because I’m a big car fan but because I like the technology related to it. I like that you get an update when the car changes. You know, that kind of stuff. I think it’s just cool, the technology. So, I’d say more or less, if there wasn’t anything neat to spend on like technology-wise, I probably wouldn’t spend that much money on stuff. Like I just won’t do it for the sake of it. Shopping for me is get in, get out, get what you need and move on.

What about your investing thesis right now? How are you thinking about investing, how does quantitative investing fit into your overall philosophy, what are you thinking about the markets?

Mark: That’s interesting because I’m maybe not an outlier in the sense that all of my net worth has pretty much been tied up in my business since I’ve started – which in a way was back in the late 80’s in a company that Constellation bought back in 1995. So despite all of what my advisors have said, I’ve been Mr. Anti-Diversification. As a programmer I developed software, when Constellation acquired us I started to learn how to acquire businesses and invest in our product lines. So, I just stuck with it and feel very fortunate to continue be passionate about what I do. As the organization grew over time I’ve been able to invest my money internally so my net worth is highly concentrated. If I had a dime for every time someone said “Mark, you know your holdings are concentrated, you’ve got to do something about this”. What we do is we buy and hold forever, so we look at investments as not having an exit. And since we think about it that way, we basically look at the long-term so I struggle with being involved with investments that involve exits. I’ve been on boards that have had some very good exits, but I find it troubling to me that I’ve been involved with businesses that are trying to get out and their goal is to exit because in the end you create less jobs. The people who exited and make the money are the people who put the money in, and they do well, but there are a whole bunch of employees left behind where that whole exit wasn’t good. So, I really have struggled with investing, for example, in equities because I don’t like the short-term-ness of it, I don’t like the constant buying and selling, and I’ve always struggled with investing in equities. Now I do some, but very, very little. I pretty much have stayed focused on making sure that I spend all of my time on what I do, which is work for Constellation and do the best I can with a lot of really great people. So, I’m not ideal for this conversation because of that.

SmartBe: No, it’s an interesting perspective because at Constellation and in particular with your early stage companies what you’re asking them to do is take on a ton of risk and stay super focused. But it’s the opposite of the investment thesis from a market perspective where diversification is the only free lunch. Despite the one ticker concentration within your ecosystem you’re highly diversified, multi-national, multi industry, multi-stages of companies so it’s almost like a natural diversification machine.

Mark: It is and so when I invest outside of Constellation, I generally will do it with people that I trust, or I want to spend time with. If I join a board it will be because the CEO is someone who wants to learn. I really believe in learning and I’m always learning, the people I’m working with are always learning. You’re really going to get as much out a situation as you’re willing to learn. What you give is really important, but you can get a lot back and that’s really my own investment. So, it’s really interesting to see what you’re up to and what SmartBe has been doing. I love the whole analytical approach to it, I love that there’s a lot of data behind it, you’ve done your research, your work, you’ve gone back in time as far as possible to sort of look at what’s happened and if that happened again how algorithms would deal with it. I find that all very interesting, but I just have a natural aversion to investing in the market just because to me it’s a form of gambling. I think you guys can do it much smarter. You can make gambling less risky, so you’re better gamblers.

So, where are you on your retirement trajectory, or how’s your stage and age in life impacting your wealth and your legacy? Are you thinking about it at all?

Mark: No, I’m enjoying myself. I’m having a really great time, I’m enjoying thinking through learning and I really love the people I work with. I love my friends, business friends and personal friends and I just really enjoy myself. Super energized, feeling really like there’s lots to do there. And because I have the ability to decide where to dive in, like I work with tremendous people and working through this whole situation with Covid and the challenges that it’s brought and the opportunities as well, the team has been amazing that I work with and so I have to say when you’ve got that situation where you’re not like “this is a big weight and anchor I’m pulling around, this is going to be really hard and it just got harder, I have to pull harder now”. When you’ve got great people to work with who are also learning and thinking about how to manage through these situations it’s hard to not do that. I wish I had more time out there to do this and I’m really not limited by the opportunities, I’m more limited by what I can do as far as time allows me.

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So how did you engage with your kids in their financial education as they were growing up?

Mark: That’s a really great question. By background they’re scientists, they’re engineers. They both did Materials Engineering at University of Toronto. They’re twins, so they both did the exact same program with some twists. It’s been really interesting to work with them when they’re looking at starting a business up. One of my daughters is starting a gym up in Toronto that does altitude fitness and my other daughter is engaged in some start-ups in the UK. It was really neat to be able to sit down and listen to what they were trying to do and try to coach them on some of the things she might think about. That engineering background really helps to just really get it and I was amazed to see that. I’m at a stage where it’s really all about coaching. It’s not about being that person whose making these top down decisions it’s about coaching people. I spent a lot of time on that in our businesses, making sure that people are learning and creating a culture of learning. And seriously creating it, not just saying we do it. So, with my daughters it was really an opportunity to sit back and not go “do this, don’t do that”, it was more of “have you considered this, have you considered that”. And that engineering mindset. It’s just a good age for them to learn some of those things. I wish I knew some of the things that they know today when I was their age, to be honest. But that’s just how it goes. It’s going to be interesting for them. They don’t have a natural affinity to enjoying finance or investing or anything on that side, but I think they can see the purpose of it. Really a shame they couldn’t sit through some of the stuff you guys did because you look at it so analytically.

So, things are pretty crazy right now. Trump tweets, China, US wars, COVID, politics, a lot of noise out there. Some things though, in times like this, get very clear. Is there anything that’s getting clear for you right now?

Mark: I think it’s sort of what I said before, that patience is key. I honestly don’t believe that any one leader or any specific situation will swing the world one way or the other. I think the world has its own inertia, countries have their own inertia, they will move on regardless of all of that. Obviously if there’s a world war or a tragic large event that happens those would have a significant impact. But honestly the world just goes on and if you look at it over hundreds of years or in our case decades, not a lot changes and it just slowly moves ahead and people are looking for that. And in the tech field I always hear people saying “well look at they’ve got cloud-based things, there’s software as a service”, but you know people working at IBM mainframes sharing HR information back in the 70s, is it really that different? Maybe retail has changed because you can go to Amazon and buy things quickly, but a lot hasn’t changed, and I think patience is key and there’s some ups and downs and sometimes those downs aren’t a bad thing because they get you smarter. It’s a shame that there’s so much tragedy and suffering with this particular one, that’s awful. But I think we’ll be fine, the world will continue and the people who are patient will be fine.

If you were Prime Minister, what would you do?

Mark: I’m a big de-centralization person. You want to keep strength in local governments, allow local decision making wherever you are. I think that’s really important. I would encourage our layers of government to simplify as much as they could and empower the local communities to make their own decisions around what they need to do whether it’s healthcare or the well-being of their community. I think the closer you are to the people who really have issues and challenges and opportunities, the better you are able to help them. The further you are away whether you’re sitting in Ottawa or Washington or in Berlin or London, you’re further away from them. Not that you don’t serve a role, but I really like the concept of allowing the people to decide what they need to do as close as you possibly can to that group of people. That’s hard to do, that’s an interesting tension we have in our world because you could argue that with technology we can centralize more things and make them easier, but you lose a lot of resolution when you do things and you try to make things simple and centralized because you lose that ability to get that finer detail that differentiates some group of people from someone else and that’s hard.

That sounds very consistent with your view on Constellation in creating the conglomerate and making decisions out in the field and your opening comments around getting close to your customers. It’s a very consistent theme that’s coming through in the way you’re thinking about things. What about role models – do you have any role models, who are you looking up to?

Mark: Wouldn’t want to run a country, that’s for sure. This would be a very difficult time, so I’d be cavalier to suggest I that know how to do that or what I would do if I was in that situation. So, who am I looking up to... You know it’s interesting, there’s really no person I look up to. If you look at my career, I’ve been really fortunate I’ve met a lot of really great people, and it’s just constantly learning from everybody. Whether it’s someone who just started a business, or someone who’s been doing it for years, or someone you meet, just listening and learning from them. So, I think that’s the model. And there’s people I enjoy, like I love watching what Elon Musk can do because I love the concept of “hey, I can go to Mars” or whatever and just take it on. It isn’t me, because I can’t say that’s a model for me, I just people like that and their dreams are kind of neat. My model is more about the ability to be able to take a slice out of everybody and create a mind set. So, there’s nobody where I’d say I’d love to be them or look up to them as being the way I want to be. I just want to learn and work with people that I enjoy working with.

What about your entertainment consumption? What books are you reading, podcasts, tv shows, anything on your fun sphere?

Mark: I’m just starting a book called “AI Superpowers”. AI is an interesting "disruption" and it’s interesting to see what it means. As a technical person by background I'm fascinated by what it means and how does it impact the world and the things we do? In THE book AI is positioned as ever changing but I think it’s more of something that will enhance the way we do things. As far as what am I watching, I’m not really watching any series right now. I listen to a lot of music. I really love music. I get a lot of these surround sounds, DVD 5.1 albums. They’ve usually been around for a while, you know, they’re not exactly new age music. I love listening to those and listening to the sounds clearly. My daughters are big fans of that too. Before Jessica flew back to London, they wanted to listen to 30 minutes of Live Aid, which is a pretty old concert. There’s a section where Dire Straits comes on with Sting and then Queen comes on and does their thing. And then after Queen of course Bowie pops on the stage and does his thing. It’s a pretty amazing 30 minutes to just listen to that. So, I’d say listening to music I find very relaxing and it helps give the mind a bit of a rest.

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What’s your superpower? What were you put on Earth to do? Coach?

Mark: I think so. To help people do better and listen and help them. But I couldn’t say I started out thinking that. Now it’s trying to coach people and help them. We ran an event in London, where we had 600 people come to it, I ran 52 simultaneous conference rooms and ran 1,000 sessions in 4 days. Only 12 people per session, 45-minute sessions. It was really amazing. Just energizing to see that many different people from 27 different countries, believe it or not, came to that event and I think people just loved that. The ability to sit down in the same room with just 12 people and talk about a problem that you chose to talk about. Not, “we want you to go take these things”, it was you pick what you want, you’ve got all these to pick from, you go pick what you want. To me, thinking through an event like that is just powerful because when you get that many people to share information, right, to learn from each other that’ s really powerful. That creates a really interesting organization, where structure level doesn’t matter it’s all about the sharing of information. Part of our brand promise if we’re going to buy a company and have structure on our team is to foster a learning environment. It’s hard running a company, it’s really hard. Whatever company it is. There’s all this stuff happening now like Covid different political powers, technology changing, software as a service, malware... you’ve got so much stuff to think about. If you’re a CEO and you’re just literally trying to think about that all yourself and don’t help develop your people and let them help you think about that stuff it’s hard. So, if we can help people learn from each other, it’s really important to us and important to me and I’ve probably changed quite a bit on that over time. Because you can’t solve everything yourself, so you just got to continue to learn.

Yeah, we all get wiser over time. Restrictions are starting to come off right now. What are you looking forward the most to in a restriction free environment? Hopping on a plane again?

Mark: I’d like to get out and see some people, I really would. I was on the phone with a bunch of our marketing people from around the world yesterday and you know that water cooler talk is important. Getting into the office would be fun, even here that’s a business trip, because you lose that water cooler talk, right. Where would I hop on a plane and go to? I mean, I’m used to going to London, that’s a place I tend to go to a lot, but someplace like that. It would also be nice to go on a nice vacation, you know, down time, I think that would be really nice to do too. It won’t be to the shopping mall, that’s for sure.

SmartBe: No. I often think it would be nice to be in a crowded restaurant and have a pint. Humanity is so much about the social.

Mark: Yeah, someone from Germany, my good friend in Germany, he sends me a remote meeting every week and he sent me a video and it was this German bar that was opening up for the first time and it’s a great video it just shows the bartender comes out and people are walking by, there’s very few people, and he goes “it’s legal”. These people come in and just the emotion of having a beer that was poured for you, and they’re caressing the beer, it’s just like, this is such a revelation. I think absolutely you’re right, just being able to go hang out in a restaurant and have a nice meal.

What do you think the world needs the most right now? Like, your version of a big hug for the planet?

Mark: I think the world has gone into a bit of a mode where, if we’re talking about the leaders, I do think the leaders of the world have been more concerned about centralized power and feeling that they’re important now than they were previously. So, I feel that there needs to be this belief that we need to empower the local community and allow them to sort of make things happen. So, I think that would be good, but what would be from a world-wide basis? I think clearly seeing this whole Covid situation improve and the numbers across the world improve. I mean you look at what’s happening in South America right now and Brazil and what have you it just seems to be really bad. It’s like with Italy, it’s just horrendous. We have a lot of employees down there and businesses and you know it’s tough to see what’s happening. So yeah, I guess just to see that improve would be probably the best that you could ask for.

Any lessons learned through this time? Any new practices, any new resolve for you coming out?

Mark: I think people don’t realize, that are running businesses, how important the people they surround themselves with are. In a time of disruption, a time of crisis, or a time when there’s so much change going on, having those people there makes the world of difference. You really don’t realize that until you’re in that situation and very fortunate to be with people who are that capable. It took a long time for me to realize that as a business leader, I would just try to do more myself, and think I could do it myself and I could solve every problem. Know having the slack in your organization which is an intellectual slack, meaning you have people who have the capacity to do more than your business is doing today, is really hard. Generally, if people are doing more than they can do, you don’t have that intellectual extra capacity, you have the opposite. So, I think that’s what I’d reflect on more than ever, just putting a great group of people around you is important. Better for the business you want to be 5 years from now rather than the business you want to be next quarter. Easy said, hard to do, and I’m definitely not at all perfect at doing that, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But I think treating it like that is really key. It’s that Jim Collins thing, get the right people on the bus, right?

Thanks so much for your time Mark, we really enjoyed the conversation and I know there are many pearls of wisdom sprinkled throughout this edition of SmartBe Wealth Aspirations.

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