Challenge Hunter

by Steve Charles

June 25, 2013

 

Twelve days before Christmas 2012 Mark Miles’ office on the 18th floor of the Chase Tower in Indianapolis is in boxes. Longtime executive assistant Linda Whitaker packs up awards and artwork while her boss stands in front of a colorful if quirky contemporary painting.

“My wife’s mother says she raised her to know better than to buy art like this,” Miles jokes with our photographer, who presses the shutter and asks him to move behind what remains of his desk. A large sign reading PARKING FOR SB 2012—a souvenir from the 2012 Super Bowl Miles led to the city—leans against the glass and his view of Lucas Oil Stadium. 

At 59 Miles is on the brink of perhaps the most challenging work he’s faced, leaving his post as CEO of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership [CICP] to lead the Hulman Corporation. In two days he moves from a visionary group of Indiana leaders getting things done and work he’s called “the most rewarding of my life” to 16th Street and Georgetown and a company whose recent history is more about being torn apart.

But the day before taking the career equivalent of a jump out this 18th floor window to see if he can fly, Miles is welcoming and impeccably groomed, a professorial brown tweed sport jacket over his white shirt and print tie. He radiates calm, seeming to listen carefully, as if the interview is a project we’re working on together. 

“I try to deal with people straight, and candid, and relaxed,” he says.

“But doesn’t the pressure ever get to you?” I ask the man who worked on Richard Lugar’s campaign as a Wabash sophomore, ran Dan Quayle’s legendary defeat of Democrat Birch Bayh for the Senate, helped transform Indianapolis into the “amateur sports capital of the world” when he organized the Pan Am Games for the city in 1987, corralled the hot tempers and big egos of professional tennis as CEO of the Association of Tennis Professionals, and now steps into the hornet’s nest that is the Hulman Corporation and the Indy Racing League.

He smiles.

“If you can’t handle lots of balls in the air at the same time and pressure and crisis, you ought not to do this. It’s not like I go home and I’m a mess because of a problem. I work a lot—I’ll probably go home today and do email until 11 at night. But I sleep like a baby.”

 

Stripping Off the Insulation
“It was great. There was a new crisis all the time. Man, it was a lot of fun.”

Miles is talking about his stint as Eli Lilly and Company’s executive director of corporate relations, but the words fit almost every job he’s taken.

“For me, adrenaline is getting things done,” he says.

The Wabash classroom wasn’t exactly his cup of Red Bull.

“I was a relatively unmotivated college student at Wabash,” Miles told the Indianapolis Business Journal in 2011.

His Wabash years were formative, but much of that formation occurred way off campus. He had planned to become a lawyer—an aspiration he’s sidetracked for 40 years. 

“I had thought it would be the best path to the civic engagement I was interested in.”

That interest had surfaced when Miles was in grade school.

“I was mesmerized by President Kennedy. A friend of mine and I took a bus from School 70 downtown to stuff envelopes for Birch Bayh. Even at an early age, I thought things like that were cool.”

But at Wabash, the College’s “raucous community spirit” took center stage. 

“Some of us at Wabash, including me, overdid it on the social side, but that’s not all bad. Stripping off the insulation—living life to the fullest. In a way, that’s the Wabash message.

“The pitch that I remember when I was a student was, ‘Work hard, play hard.’ I was, ‘Play hard, then catch up fast.’”

The exception: Professor Ed McLean’s Constitutional Law class.

“I actually did fairly well there. I remember him saying, ‘God, I wish I could make you work harder.’ And he did make me work harder.”

So did the summer of 1973. Miles’ father worked at Eli Lilly and helped him score a summer job cleaning floors, vats, and equipment in the liquid and ointment manufacturing plant. Good money to help pay for his Wabash education. 

“I didn’t mind the work; it was just mind-numbingly boring.”

When he complained to his older sister, she mentioned him to her friend, Deborah Daniels, who told Miles, “Go see my brother. He’ll give you something to do.”

So he approached former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, then a recent Princeton grad and working on Richard Lugar’s first campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1974.

“Give me something interesting to do and don’t worry about paying me,” Miles told him. “I can live at home.”

Miles was named director of the Youth for Lugar Campaign for central Indiana, but he had some explaining to do to his father. 

“I was going to quit this plum job that he had gotten me, and he wasn’t very happy about that. He asked me, ‘How are you going to pay for school?’ It was one of the very few things I ever quit.

“But that summer was fun. A blank slate. You’d find college kids, figure out if they liked Lugar or if they could be persuaded, get them registered, then get them to register others. Just start the snowballs rolling. The work was seven days a week from the time you could get yourself up until 10 or 11 at night.”

Miles and Daniels finished the day talking over beers and playing pool at Indianapolis hangouts like The Mousetrap, Sam’s Subway, and The Speakeasy.

“I’d get in at 1 or 2 in the morning, then get up about 5:30. I was 20 years old and surrounded by really bright, high-energy driven people in a time-and labor-intensive effort that was just very invigorating.”

So invigorating that Miles missed a semester at Wabash. When he did return to the College, the varsity tennis player lived at the home of his coach, Professor Bernie Manker, to helpout with Manker’s campaign for mayor.

He graduated without a plan. When state Republicans asked him to be second-in-command for congressional candidate Larry Buell, Miles jumped at it. And lost.

“Some unfortunate moments from that campaign are still part of the lore in Republican operative circles,” say Miles. “But campaigns teach you how to solve complicated problems, how to bring people together around issues, coordinate various functions integral to the campaign. It was great training.”

It also introduced Miles to the Republican hierarchy throughout the state, which led his being hired as chief of staff for Dr. Ned Lamkin, majority leader of the Indiana House of Representatives. And it was the last campaign that Miles would lose.

He ran Bill Hudnut’s first mayoral reelection campaign in Indianapolis, (“The most charismatic man I’ve worked for, with an unbelievable ability to lead a charge.”) In 1980 he led Dan Quayle’s bid to take Birch Bayh’s seat in the U.S. Senate. When 
the TV networks announced Quayle’s victory, the senator-elect asked Miles to be his chief of staff. 

“I said, ‘I don’t want to do that,’” Miles recalls. 

“Think about it and tell me tomorrow,” Quayle pleaded. Miles took the job the next day, renting Daniels’ house in DC.

“Reagan had just been elected and it was a time of real energy for us. On behalf of the senators, Mitch and I were basically running the process to appoint U.S. attorneys, marshals, and district judges.”

But after the new wore off, the job didn’t fit.

“I’d always rather do local or state than national, because of one’s ability to get stuff done. And governance of any sort is so slow.”

So he returned to Indianapolis, helped found Compucom, a direct marketing agency, then took on the leadership of the city’s professional tennis tournament, at the same time working full time to bring in the most successful Pan Am Games ever. (“We had 36,000 volunteers—that’s mind-boggling.”)

“Mine’s not really been what you would call a career. You take lefts and rights, see where the journey takes you. It’s the journey, not the destination.”Then Hamilton Jordan called.

President Jimmy Carter’s former chief of staff, Jordan had just pulled off “a revolution to wrest control of the men’s professional tennis circuit to the governance of the players.” Thanks to Miles’ successful transformation of the Indy Hardcourt Championships, tournament directors trusted him to represent them, and he helped negotiate a partnership between the tournaments and the players.

“Then Hamilton tells me, ‘I hate tennis, and the sooner I get out of here, the better. You should do this.’”

But Miles was happy in Indy, not interested in moving to the Association of Tennis Professionals Florida headquarters. He and his wife, Helen, had been married during the Quayle campaign and had started a family.

“For over a year I told Hamilton, ‘I love it here. I’m not going to move.’ Then one day Helen and I were shopping for a book for our oldest son and we picked up Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go.

Among its memorable lines: “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!”

“I’m trying to buy a kids’ book, and I read this, and realize, sh*t, I’m going to have to take this tennis job.”

 

Never Just One Solution
Miles’ decision process is rarely so whimsical.

“Mark does a masterful job inviting, encouraging, developing, testing, and improving input from others and integrating all of that into an improved approach,” Chris Cotterill ’99, former chief of staff for Indiana-polis Mayor Greg Ballard, recalls from working closely with Miles during the lead-up to the Super Bowl.

“You try to never let yourself fall into any one pattern of thinking or acting,” Miles explains. “You break problems down to their elements, figure out what to do first and compartmentalize the things you’re working on. There’s never just one set of 
solutions for a problem.”

His ability to read a room is legendary. 

“I’ve always been open, interested, and tried to have an awareness beyond myself about people and conditions. I could go into any bar or any part of town and have friends from any background. I knew more about what other people’s lives were like.

“Sometimes I’ll be in a room with people who are clearly much brighter and I’ll be amazed at how they don’t connect dots and see where that’s going to go. It’s like chess.”

Is that something one can teach?

“It can be learned. I don’t know if you can teach it. You can absorb it.”

Miles absorbed a lot from current Indiana Pacers President Jim Morris.

“He was president of the Lilly Endowment when I started to work on the Pan Am Games, and Ted Boehm told me to go see him. I think we’re going to talk about the Games, but he starts telling me about the canal that we’re going to try to get developed, and what we’re going to do in terms of housing at Locke-field Gardens. Twenty things. My head was swimming!

“He has this ability to think about all the irons in the fire and how we could connect them and how they might have a greater relevance in a bigger context. He has extraordinary vision.”

Miles hopes to provide similar mentoring for the next generation of Indiana leaders, and Cotterill believes he is succeeding.

“I learned a lot just from working with him,” Cotterill says. “He took time to help me see things differently and to improve.”

“I hope I’ve gotten better over the years at being a coach,” Miles says. “During my tennis days I was too demanding, probably too critical. There’s a better way.”

At Hulman, mentoring the next generation will also be a focus. 

“One of the first things I did on the day of the announcement of me taking the position was to meet with the next generation,” Miles told the Indianapolis Star. “And I’m going to meet with them regularly for two reasons: to see how I can help them and aid in their development.”

He sees the move to Hulman as a great opportunity.

“I want to get it to the level of its former glory and beyond—the 500-mile race, the Speedway, the series, Clabber Girl, and the production company. They’re all just things to sink your teeth into, and it’s worth trying to make them all work.”
 

Challenge Hunter
The hour allotted for our interview comes and goes without Miles rushing us out the door, despite the work he has left to do at CICP. He’ll continue to be involved with the group’s signature effort, the passage of a mass transit bill for central Indiana.

“These seven years at CICP have been so satisfying because it was a license to work on things that we thought others weren’t doing and that needed to be done, things that made a difference to the community.”

He talks about the Monon Bell Game party he threw in downtown Indy for 400 people last year. He has two sons at DePauw and is a member of the university’s board of visitors, but he smiles as he recalls, “My boys didn’t know what a Danny was; it was great fun telling them.” 

For student or alumni readers who were, like Miles, “unmotivated college students,” he suggests a headline for this article: ‘There’s Hope!”

I mention the College’s new Callings program and ask what he thinks his vocation is. 

“I can give you the common denominators: I’ve just thrived in things that are intense—opportunities to make change and to do something that you thought had impact.”

But a calling?

“I don’t know: Challenge hunter? Afraid of boredom? I think boredom would be a destructive place for me.”

When former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut returned to Indianapolis in January 2012 for the Super Bowl, he dropped by to see Miles, who many credit for expanding Hudnut’s work and legacy.

“Mark decided not to run for office, though I think he would be terrific,” Hudnut says. “But he feels he can be more effective behind the scenes, in a more private manner, which I think is true. 

“Mark is modest. He doesn’t emphasize the I words —individual, isolation, independence. He’s not the great ‘I am.’ He emphasizes the C words—collaborate, consensus, cooperation, collegiality.”

Hudnut quotes a favorite Bible verse from Genesis: “Come let us build ourselves a city.”

“Whether he acknowledges religious motivation 
or not, what drives Mark is what motivates us both: the desire to build a better community.”

Hudnut says Miles’ greatest achievement is not the Super Bowl or any other event he led or campaign 
he organized, but “the highly regarded person he’s become,” a man “who can not only solve problems, but who can create a vision and attain it.”

Or, as Miles’ muse Dr. Seuss once put it: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go...”

 


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