Robert “Bob” Miller says he couldn’t find a better place to live or work than coastal Georgia, where he feels blessed to toil as president and chief executive officer of Brunswick-based International Auto Processing Inc. and has been known to whack a golf ball or two.
In an interview with the American Journal of Transportation, the auto industry veteran and native Detroiter unassumingly discusses the unmatched merits of the Port of Brunswick, his company’s decades of success, its partnership with the Georgia Ports Authority and the value of empathy to customer service.
How important is being located at the Port of Brunswick to International Auto Processing Inc.?
Being at the Port of Brunswick has made all of the difference.
It’s in the right place. The port is located in the perfect place to serve one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States – the Southeast. We estimate that over 20 percent of the U.S. population is within a one-day truck drive from here in Brunswick.
Second, there’s lots of land. IAP leases and owns 256 acres of paved, fenced, lighted, island-secured property, and we’re talking to the GPA [Georgia Ports Authority] about obtaining additional property.
The Port of Brunswick has three car berths and a fourth planned. It’s being designed right now.
The Colonel’s Island Terminal, where IAP is located, 40 years ago was just an island of woods. Then they developed a small part of it for a grain terminal and, in 1986, IAP came to GPA and said, ‘Let’s put a car terminal on here.’ So we’re in our 30th year of operations.
We’ve got two Class I railroads – CSX and the Norfolk Southern – that serve the island via the [Genesee & Wyoming] short-line Golden Isles Terminal Railroad.
The longshore [International Longshoremen’s Association] workers are among if not the best in the country. They are regularly complimented for their quality handling of customer vehicles. In fact, there are times when a customer is here that the longshore workers have been known to pull off to the side of the road, get out of the car, shake their hand and thank them for their business. It’s just incredible.
And our IAP employees – we’ve just got a great, great team of employees. We’ve got upwards of 250 full-time employees, and there are 50 to 100 whom we employ on a daily basis. Some of our full-time employees have been here from Day One, almost 30 years ago.
And it’s a great community. The residents, the businesses, the chamber of commerce, the development authority, all of the organizations in Glynn County seem to be proud of the port and what it means – the jobs and dollars it brings.
This is a tourist destination for visitors from all around the world, and the community has a warm welcome for everybody, including us and our customers.
Last but not least, we like to think of our relationship with Georgia Ports Authority as a partnership. We understand that they’re the landlord and we’re the tenant, but we think it’s more of a partnership. We’re in it together, and we succeed or fail together.
I don’t think you could ask for a better place to live and work, and a car manufacturer probably could not find a better place to import and export vehicles.
What significance is there to IAP’s reaching the milestone last year of moving its 5 millionth vehicle over Colonel’s Island Terminal – and the fact that a Hyundai happened to be that vehicle?
Well, actually, IAP reached a couple milestones in 2015.
On Jan. 29, the 5 millionth vehicle arrived on a vessel, and it was a Hyundai Genesis. We thought it was really fitting that the vehicle was from our longest-term customer, Hyundai, which has been with IAP for 28 years, having come a year after we started operations here.
And it was fitting that the car was a Genesis, which is emblematic of the car company that Hyundai has become. It’s a great vehicle. In fact, Hyundai has just started a new division of upscale luxury cars, the Genesis Division.
On Sept. 17, IAP had another milestone, as we handled our 1 millionth Mercedes-Benz export vehicle. That’s really cool, too. Mercedes-Benz has been using IAP at Brunswick for exports ever since it opened its plant in Vance, Ala., in 1997. The exports originally went mainly to Europe and now mainly Europe and China from here.
Can you fill us in on IAP’s latest expansions, including handling high-and-heavy cargos and serving the U.S. military?
The expansion into Georgia Atlantic Terminal Services LLC – GATS – was a natural progression for us. GATS has been in operation for almost two years and handles import and export of high-and-heavy cargo, as well as used POVs [privately owned vehicles] and, surprisingly, we’re getting some brand-new POVs from manufacturers going through that operation also.
And we’re well into our second year of operations of the contract with the military, managing logistics operations for the movement of service members and some other government personnel when they move from one duty station to another.
How has your own experience as national import manager for Hyundai from 1985 to 1992 and national vehicle logistics manager for Toyota for 10 years prior to that helped you become a leader in the processing business?
I appreciate you calling me a leader. I don’t feel that way. I feel like I’m just a guy doing a job and very fortunate to be surrounded by some great people
I actually started my career in vehicle logistics in my hometown of Detroit with GM [General Motors], specifically the Chevrolet division. In fact, they didn’t call it logistics back then; it was called Chevrolet traffic. There were probably 100 to 125 people in the department. We were in the Argonaut Building, behind the GM Building on West Grand [Avenue].
I’d been there a couple of years, and one of my co-workers had gone to California, and he called me up and asked me if I wanted to interview for a job with Toyota, which at that time was just coming into its own as a major import company and which had its headquarters in sunny Southern California. As it turned out, I was offered the job and had a great, rewarding time at Toyota.
After about 10 years at Toyota, another start-up company in the U.S., Hyundai, decided it was going to sell cars here, and I had the opportunity to join the launch team at Hyundai.
For me, I was really blessed. These were all terrific experiences, and I was so fortunate to have had so much of my career with the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], and to have spent it all in vehicle logistics. They were, of course, all great places to work.
I was surrounded by some of the brightest and most innovative people in the industry. It turns out that they are among the warmest, nicest people. It’s just been a pleasure coming to work every day and being with them either in person or on the telephone.
Every company has a different personality, a unique culture, and think I took away different learning and growing experiences from each. At one, I may have learned how to work hard, at another how to work smart and how important quality is, how to work efficiently. It was great preparation, and I was so fortunate to have that for the job I have now, which is the other side of it, serving those customers.
Having empathy for some of the challenges and frustrations that the OEM customers have has allowed us to better understand their motivations and to better answer their needs.
What is the single most important tenet of vehicle logistics?
In this business, and I know this is going sound really trite, but our job every day is to try to give the customer what they want. We can’t always do that. Sometimes it’s just physically impossible or mentally impossible, and sometimes they don’t know exactly what they want or how to accomplish that. And sometimes what they want goes beyond what our obligations are to them.
But we want them to be with us forever. We want them to be our customers three decades from now. They’re paying us to do a job for them, and our every effort needs to be to deliver that job with the highest quality, on time, at a fair price, and with a cooperative and collaborative outlook.
Being a native Detroiter and a graduate of Detroit’s Wayne State University, with a bachelor’s in economics, did you feel destined to pursue an auto industry career?
The simple answer is ‘no.’
When I was growing up, Detroit was the car center of the universe, so, of course, I was caught up in all things car. But my parents were not employed in the auto industry, and I didn’t have buddies who were employed there.
It was just good luck that I happened into it. When I was going to school at Wayne State, I needed a full-time job so I could go to school at night. I started knocking on doors and filling out applications and was unbelievably fortunate to be hired by Chevy, and then they placed me in the logistics – er, traffic – department. I liked it, I seemed to have some small aptitude for it, and that’s kind of what determined my career.
Who’ve been the greatest influencers in your life, both personally and professionally?
There’ve been, and are, so many great people in this industry. I’m really proud and honored to have worked with so many of them during the many, many years I’ve been doing this.
But probably the person who had the greatest influence professionally was Richard Gallio. I worked with and for him at Toyota [where Gallio was a longtime group vice president]. He taught me so much, including how to develop a methodical way of approaching problems and issues, and seeking innovative solutions. Even though it’s been a couple of decades since we worked closely together, I still remember and apply things he taught and showed me.
Personally, the greatest influence has been my wife [of 44 years], Suzanne. She always knows what is right and what is wrong and what is just.
What might we find you doing when you’re not on the job?
Georgia’s Golden Isles is one of the golf centers of the nation, so there are a lot of great golfing venues here. I’m not a very good golfer, but I really enjoy getting out and golfing.
Also, since we moved here to coastal Georgia five years ago, I’ve taken up shotgun shooting, shooting sporting clays.
And Sue and I enjoy reading, going to the movies, traveling and spending time with our family. One son, Drew, moved out here a couple years after we did, and we have two sons and a granddaughter still in the Los Angeles area.