2 January 2014
Martin John Miller, entrepreneur, was born on 24 November 1946.
He died of cancer on December 24, 2013
Serial entrepreneur and bon viveur who out his name to boutique hotels and a profitable gin label
A one-man brand, Martin Miller shamelessly applied his surname to his every enterprise — hotels, antiques and gin — in the manner of a Victorian merchant.
Invariably tieless and with a shaggy mop of hair that was once described as a pekingese dropped on his head, he resembled a middle-aged hippy. However, this was a cunning disguise for his shrewd business mind.
His earliest scheme, as a teenager, was to breed and sell hamsters. In later years he and his third wife lived between one or other of his hotels, which sprung up with regularity from London to Somerset and were beloved of nomadic rock stars, while his gin label raked in a tidy fortune. A flamboyant and socially gregarious bon viveur, he grew easily bored, flitting from one idea to the next: turning his hand to organising festivals and interior design — “Maximalism" he called it.
Martin John Miller was born in Worthing, Sussex, in 1946. His father, Mark, was an old-fashioned insurance agent, who maintained his own “book" of customers and sold it on to another agent as a substitute for a pension. Martin said his mother, Phyllis, had told him “she conceived me on gin, then tried to get rid of me on gin" — though this was presumably a joke to promote his own label.
Miller was educated at a local secondary modern school and never set great store by his education, once dismissing it as “crap". Later, he would offer to pay each of his daughters a sum equivalent to two-thirds of the cost of their private education if they would instead follow his example, but they demurred. His dyslexia never held him back, and indeed may have given him a talent for juggling myriad schemes. Associates were often taken aback by his prodigious memory for minutiae.
Though fond of his father, he roundly rejected paternal advice to save. “I have absolutely no interest in looking to the future," he said. “I have always had this belief that I would never run out of money. But if you get yourself insurance policies, the last thing you can do is get your hands on the money."
His only job working for another person was as a teenage paperboy. Instead, Miller found his entrepreneurial bent at the age of 14 when he bred hamsters and wrote a dating guide for blokes called Success With the Fairer Sex, which he printed on a Roneo duplication machine and sold between 50 and 100 per week.
Marrying his first wife, Elaine, when they were both 17, he attended art school and became a part-time impresario for rock concerts on the south coast, but his first occupation was as a photographer of babies and weddings.
On a shoot involving period costumes, he got talking with someone about antiques and started publishing guides for collectors. He founded The Lyle Official Antiques Review in 1970, selling out to his partner a few years later. He met his second wife Judith, a would-be history teacher, when she came to work for his newly launched Miller’s Antiques Price Guide series, which he later sold for £2 million.
There was a low point in the early 1980s when his commercial property empire in the Home Counties went belly up during a downturn, losing him about £20 million by his own estimate. At the same time he had begun operating a couple of B&Bs in Kent before acquiring a 40-room hotel, Chilston Park in Kent, in the mid-1980s.
A few years later he turned his energy to publishing. Typically, he would rise early, think of a catchy idea, put it up to a company such as Reed Publishing by lunchtime, and conclude a deal for another £30,000 advance by the end of the day. His specialty was yearbooks (such as The Best of British Men), and Christmas stocking-fillers such as The Golden Rules Guide to Relationships.
A typical example of his whimsical creativity was Miller’s Gin, launched in 1999: “After drinking a rubbish gin and tonic in a pub in the mid-1990s, I got the germ of an idea to launch a super-premium smooth gin made with extra-pure Icelandic water — crazy, perhaps, as it was the era of vodka."
Teaming up with a brand developer and a Scandinavian investor, Miller created an early super premium gin, which gradually built consumer demand, winning awards in the US and taking off as a brand in overseas markets. It boasted an annual turnover of £14 million in 2012 and he considered it to be his most successful investment.
After he sold Chilston Park in 1998, he used the proceeds to acquire a couple of properties in Westbourne Grove, London, which he renovated, before opening Miller’s Residence, an eight-bedroom boutique hotel in the neighbourhood. Its outlandish decor, an extravaganza of Gothic bric a brac, found favour with the European art and fashion crowd, American film and music business folk, commuting French stall-holders in nearby Portobello Market and itinerant celebrities such as Marianne Faithfull. “It is a return to the idea of the Victorian rooming house," Miller said. “You know the sort of place, run by a widow, where the sons of the aristocracy would be sent, to keep them safe from the temptations of the capital."
He described his decorating style as “maximalism: it’s the opposite of minimalism" or more simply as “when did you last see the wallpaper?" Indeed, he once announced his intention to write an interior design book called “Maximalism" — one of his many ideas that never came to fruition.
Miller had to buy new hotels to house his constantly expanding antique collection. He could never resist candlelight and always favoured the ivory ecclesiastical variety of candle. When, on occasion, all the candles of his drawing room at Eldon Lodge, in Kensington — actually, a former artist’s studio — were lit, there was barely enough oxygen for guests to breathe.
His fascination for flames manifested itself on a spectacular scale in 2009, when, in order to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Miller’s gin, he inaugurated the Flaming Art Festival at one of his hotels, thus publicising two things at once. Grizzled rock stars were encouraged to donate works of art to be auctioned for charity, the rider being that any lots that went unsold would be consigned to a fiery end. Perhaps his most peculiar project was Miller's Academy of Arts and Sciences, also in Westbourne Grove, which combined a ground-floor lecture theatre and an upstairs drawing-room for salon-style gatherings. It had a good run, attracting such varied speakers as Boris Berezovsky, Simon Callow and Germaine Greer.
In 2006, he paid £2 million for Glencot House, a Grade II listed Victorian house with 13 bedrooms in the Grand Jacobean style, set in grounds of 17.5 acres, near Wookey Hole caves, in Somerset. Various gimmicks were mooted as possible lures for visitors: an erotic film festival, a charity tea party at which guests would eat off a full set of Buckingham Palace silverware that Miller had acquired at an auction, even a resident hermit (part-time, Sundays only). He also penned and self-published a raunchy mystery novel, The Wookey Hole Affair, whose anagrammatically rendered hotelier protagonist Tarmin Rimell was as successful with the ladies as Ian Fleming’s Bond.
Next, he bought Great Brampton House, at Madley in Herefordshire, re-naming it Miller’s Hideaway. This was followed by other hotels in Somerset and Devon. His friend and occasional business partner, Richard Bundy, has said that he was “a natural hotelier, because it allowed him to doss in and out of other people’s lives".
In 2002 he married his third wife a 40-year-old artist and interior designer named Ioana Beju, an American citizen of Transylvanian origin, whom he had met while on holiday in Barbados. Although a light smoker who only took up the habit in middle age, Miller was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer a year ago when he had difficulty swallowing. He is survived by his third wife, Ioana, 51; and by five daughters, all entrepreneurs, from his previous marriages: Samantha, 47; Tanya, 41; Natasha, 39; Cara, 34; and Kirsty, 32. Tanya ran the Miller hotels in Devon in partnership with her father.
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