Long before his illustrious career in business was so much as a glint in his eye, Ken Miller possessed a drive to succeed and a desire to serve others. When he landed in the U.S. from Jamaica at just 15 years old, he hit the ground running—literally. His exceptional talent for and strong commitment to athletics and academics took him from high school to New York’s Syracuse University, where he ran track and graduated with a degree in economics. Rather than follow the footsteps of his classmates into a lucrative career, Ken joined the Army and spent the next eight years in various combat units, including Haiti, Iraq, and Bosnia. After he returned to civilian life, he launched into his professional career, serving for 20 years as vice president of J.B. Hunt Transport’s Intermodal, overseeing all aspects of the largest region in the company. With laser-like focus, he absorbed the intricacies operations, sales, transportation, budgets, intermodal operations, contract negotiations, customer relationships, maintenance, safety, and budget preparation, and along the way, obtained his supply chain certificate from the University of Arkansas. In 2018, Ken took his broad expertise and his commitment to business—and people—and founded Saint Elizabeth Capital, a Chicago-based private equity firm that acquires, manages, and builds small- to middle-market companies. Ken recently met with The Top 100 Magazine to share more about his background, his company, and his success in building a thriving business.
Ken, after a long, successful career as a senior corporate executive, what led you to start your own private equity firm?
I enjoyed being part of a corporation, but I wanted to be in a position where I could use my expertise to help others succeed as well. I wanted to choose projects that would not only make money, but that I could also love and fix myself. My background is unique, with expertise in economics, supply chain, finance, and business expertise, and my experience across all these areas allows me to identify the aspects that are working well for a business and as well as the minute flaws that are hindering its success. As I was considering my options, I talked to a good friend of mine, David Panton, who owns Panton Equity. He said, “You understand the finance of it as well as how to fix the business, and that is an invaluable combination.” His response convinced me that I needed to do this, and I opened my firm two years later.
Tell us about Saint Elizabeth Capital.
The firm’s atmosphere is ambitious and energetic. We believe the best opportunities to create significant value are found in companies that need new capital and new ownership structures. Our goal is to provide attractive exit options for owners and operators of small- to medium-sized privately held enterprises and to offer divestiture opportunities for divisions of corporate parent companies that no longer reflect the company’s strategic focus.
How do you identify which companies are good acquisition candidates?
We look across the country for companies that provide a needed service, have good foundations, and solid structures, but might be missing some things that could make them more successful and profitable. People reach out to us all the time to ask if we can buy their business, and I’ve looked at more than 200 of those. We’re very selective in the companies we purchase, but we’re always happy to look at them upon request. If they fit our criteria, and if we can help by acquiring them, then we will.
Do you always acquire them, or do you also provide capital and partner with the owners?
I will partner with someone, as long as I have controlling interest. There are also times when an owner wants to keep the business in the family but needs a capital infusion or my operational and management expertise to help the company survive or succeed further than it has in the past. In these cases, I’m happy to partner with them to help them reach their goals.
How does Saint Elizabeth Capital differ from other private equity firms?
First, while all equity firms look for companies that are attractive to start or buy, most buy a company in trouble, bring someone in to run it, then sell it for five times more than their investment. We’re different. Every company I buy into, I personally run for about six months, and once we’ve stabilized it and built it up, I hire an operations manager, but I’m always available to help. Most other equity companies have people who are skilled in finance, but few are equipped to actually run a business.
Another difference is that I don’t necessarily sell the company. It’s more about fixing it and making it a more profitable company that’s going to be in our portfolio. I genuinely care about helping the owners, retaining the staff, improving their skills, and increasing their compensation. When employees feel valued, they’re happier, and this not only fosters loyalty, but also results in a more efficient company. Many of the family-owned businesses I acquire have been handed down over the course of multiple generations, and their legacies continue in my hands.
The underlying driver throughout your career has been your desire to serve others. Tell us about this.
It most certainly is. My father always says, “Leave the world better than you found it.” Those are the words that drive my decisions when I consider acquiring any company. I always ask myself: If I buy this business, can I leave the family, company, employees, and community better than I found them? Will the neighborhood benefit more from a vacant storefront or from the mainstay that they rely on? Although I like the comfort that money has provided, it has never been my motivator; it’s the people that I help. In this vein, I also continue to support the track and field program at Syracuse University, to give back to the program that played such a pivotal role in who am today, and I continue to serve on the board of the Illinois Trucking Association and work with the Midwest Homeless Shelter.
President and Founder
Saint Elizabeth Capital