There Aren't Many Like Him
Remembering Gordon Miles

March 23, 2024
Last August, Gordon Miles, my partner and co-founder of Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, died at 83. For me, it was a devastating loss as it was to his family and friends.

I have met a lot of smart people in my career. Some of them are just brilliant. But Gordon was in a class by himself.

I worked directly with him for 20 years. We had an incredibly cantankerous relationship throughout that whole time. The culture at Bubba was one of teamwork and civility at all levels. Not Gordon and me though. We shared an assistant and I can't begin to count the times she would rush in to close the door because our yelling was disturbing the entire office.

Yet, during that time, I learned so much more from him than I can articulate in a single post.

The term "deal guy" has many negative connotations. In the beginning of my career, I had no use for them. Oddly, it is what I do now almost exclusively. Gordon was the best deal guy I have ever personally known- by a wide margin. He was an extraordinary negotiator. Many people (me included) viewed him as lacking in warmth. But put him at the negotiating table or on a conference call or a one on one pitch and he lit up like a Christmas tree.

He would sometimes forget the names of certain people or where something was located but bring up a point about a pro forma we were selling to a bank and he knew every detail. After a while, I realized he just didn't clutter his mind with things he deemed unimportant.

Since he was Chairman and I was President/CEO, we weren't supposed to fly on the same plane- a rule we routinely blew off. We both agreed we would be past caring if it went down. We rarely talked about business on those flights- he was so good that he could "wing it" most of the time. The thing I remember most about them was his wraparound sunglasses that made him resemble a Greek gangster and watching him fill out the NY Times crossword in about 20 minutes. I guess some of the clutter remained…

But what I learned from him about deals and negotiating was priceless. He had many things he would say about that and I thought they were somewhat corny and obvious but they kind of made up a partial list of his rules. It's amazing how many people in very high positions become "overmarried to the deal" and don't follow these.

"He who wants the deal most, gets the worst deal." Pretty clear and leads to the second…

"Let's just go dark." Sometimes the best response is no response. His style was very Chinese in that regard- infinite patience.

"In running a business, it's best to be proactive. In negotiating a deal, it's best to be reactive." This was difficult for me at first. My focus was on running the business so thinking months and years ahead was de rigueur. Business schools go into this in depth- how being reactive is actually being proactive, etc. For Gordon, who eschewed those negotiating seminars, it was much simpler. Be quick on your feet when the other side gets active.

"When in doubt, go to 30,000 feet." This could be the most important. Always look at things from the big picture framework. That's strategy- tactics are more immediate.

"A faint heart never filled a flush." We have all heard it. We have all chuckled at it. Gordon lived it.

"Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." It's by Emerson and Gordon's interpretation was don't be too predictable.

He started out as lawyer in Omaha in the 1960's. Viewed by contemporaries as "a smart young attorney going places," he somehow ended up owning a few Village Inns as part of a partnership. Ten years later, he was running the parent and took it public as Vicorp. Many deals later he and I were heading up Rusty Pelican, which we immediately put through Chapter 11 and reorganized. It was Gordon who wanted to do Bubba Gump coming out of that (a faint heart never filled a flush). The rest is history.

He maintained a core of old friends from Omaha and Denver and he was intensely loyal to his family. At his very well-attended celebration of life, I wanted to say something but I knew I would never get through it.

Despite our fierce rivalry and our porcupine behaviors, I retain a high level of respect for Gordon. His kind are rare and we made each other better. That's all you can ask for in a partner.
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