One of the first things Steve Miller and Bruce Barron did when planning their venture capital firm, Origin Ventures, was to send the business plan to Steve’s father, Harvey, for his input.
A legendary Chicago businessman and prominent philanthropist, Harvey L. Miller and his two brothers had built the Quill Corp. from a tiny company housed in their father’s live poultry shop into a national supplier of office products. In 1998, they sold the company to Staples.
“Harvey had yellow Post-it notes on just about every page of our document,” Barron recalled. “He wanted to understand every detail.”
That kind of attention was a hallmark of Miller’s business career. For more than four decades, Miller was Quill’s operations chief, helping to oversee a company that eventually grew to employ 1,200 people, shipped 72 million catalogs annually and operated distribution centers in eight locations across North America.
That attention to detail carries into Miller’s philanthropy. More than just writing checks, Miller has regularly immersed himself in the organizations he supports, serving on their boards, attending their meetings and bringing his creativity to bear in helping to advance their missions.
“You really want to to know to whom and for what you are donating,” the 86-year-old Miller said, “and what you’re expecting out of it. And what you are going to expect in the way of operations and so forth. To me, that’s philanthropy.”
In 2015, that propensity led Miller to launch a groundbreaking collaboration between the California-based cancer center City of Hope and the Israel Cancer Research Fund, or ICRF, which funds cancer research in Israel across a variety of institutions. Named for Barron and his wife, Jacki, the five-year, $5 million program aims to advance cancer research by awarding joint research grants, supporting sabbaticals for researchers and hosting an annual symposium to share research discoveries.
“This is transformational philanthropy,” said Dr. Mark Israel, ICRF’s national executive director. “It goes beyond research support to provide a vehicle and the means for Israeli cancer researchers to work collaboratively and collegially with investigators at City of Hope.”
The initiative came about through a series of fortuitous connections. Barron first became involved in the ICRF when the organization honored Dr. Steven Rosen, the oncologist who cured his wife of breast cancer. Barron in turn asked Harvey Miller, whom he became acquainted with through his partnership with Steve Miller, if he would co-chair a 2015 dinner that ICRF was holding in the Barrons’ honor.
“For more than 20 years, Harvey’s vision has helped guide City of Hope’s mission to advance new therapies for those on the cancer journey,” said Rosen, director of City of Hope’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We are blessed to have Harvey’s guidance and support of our partnership with ICRF through the Barron program, bringing an international focus on developing insights into the complexities of cancer and innovative ways to help find new cures.”
Rather than just lend his name to the event, the elder Miller started to think about how he could have a deeper impact. As it happened, Rosen in 2014 had become the provost and chief scientific officer at City of Hope, which had long been the charity of choice of the office products industry. Miller already was a longtime supporter.
“I thought that was a pretty nice connection,” Miller said. “I called Dr. Rosen and I said I’d like to do something to honor Bruce and Jacki, and it seems to me that the top researchers at the City of Hope would benefit greatly by collaborating with the great researchers in Israel, who would also benefit greatly by collaborating with you.”
Miller knows a thing or two about successful collaborations. Quill’s growth was itself the result of a remarkable partnership between Miller and his brothers. Each had his own domain: Jack did sales, Arnold handled the money and Harvey made sure the products were delivered.
It’s a partnership that almost never happened.
A native of the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago — he still lives in the city’s suburbs — Miller initially had pursued medicine, enrolling in a premed program at the University of Illinois. But within a year he had dropped out and joined the Navy. Over the next three years he circled the globe twice on a destroyer, specializing in underwater sound detection. On his return to Chicago in 1954, he found work at an electrical supply company earning $90 a week.
Jack launched Quill in 1956 and asked Harvey to join him, but Miller demurred. He had a decent job, was pursuing an electrical engineering degree at night and had a young son. But a year later he had a change of heart. Again, he dropped out of school.
“I’ve been told many times if I had finished college I could have been a success,” Miller notes dryly.
Quill did fine in its early years, and when Arnold joined in 1974, it began to really take off. The company was doing $5 million in sales at the time. By the time it sold to Staples in 1998, that number had increased more than a hundredfold.
Along the way, the company won a landmark Supreme Court case that effectively freed Quill’s customers from paying sales tax on interstate purchases, a ruling that remained in effect until last year.
After the Staples sale, the brothers began developing real estate around Chicago, but philanthropy remained a major focus. In addition to the ICRF, Miller is a major supporter of a number of causes, including the Illinois Holocaust Museum, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and the Jewish Theological Seminary, whose cantorial school is named for him.
“The example that my parents set and continue to set is that when you are blessed with wealth, you have a deep responsibility to give back,” Steve Miller said.
Miller’s gift to the ICRF is already going to support some promising research avenues. One study being funded by the program aims to understand how various bacteria in the gastrointestinal track can cause lung cancer to become resistant to chemotherapy treatments. Another project focuses on a class of drugs that can both enhance brain tumor imaging during MRIs and kill the tumors themselves.
Miller continues to stay involved in monitoring the impact of his gift. He has attended both symposia held under the auspices of the Jacki and Bruce Barron Cancer Research Scholars’ Program — in Duarte, California, and Jerusalem — where the researchers involved shared their findings.
“I didn’t understand a damn thing they were talking about,” Miller conceded. “They’re talking their language. I don’t speak that language.
“My purpose for going and my purpose for being in that room is to show support, to add a personal touch, to keep them grounded. I want to keep reminding everyone that the purpose and goal of my funding, and the result of all this research, must be cures and treatments for cancer.”