MEDA in the News

On the go: Champaign man has world view of business

Peter MillerSource: "On the go: Champaign man has world view of business" by Don Dodson in The News-Gazette

CHAMPAIGN — Peter Miller is only 29, but already he has had business dealings in Ukraine, Romania and Ethiopia and held two jobs in Jerusalem.

Miller, who is working on a master's degree in business administration at the University of Illinois, is executive vice president of Equipment Direct West, an agricultural equipment export company based in Arcola and founded by Wilmer Otto.

But that's not his only business involvement.

In the past year, Miller and a business partner have started a small residential subdivision in Romania. Miller is also a co-owner of Agro Capital Management, a business that leases equipment such as rotary tillers and greenhouses to small farmers in Ukraine.

Plus, he will serve as chairman of the board this year for the Ten Thousand Villages shop in Champaign, which sells fair-trade items from artisans from 35 countries around the world.

In November, Miller was honored by Mennonite Economic Development Associates as one of 20 people under age 35 for making a difference in the world — and exemplifying faith, service and an entrepreneurial spirit.

As his resume suggests, he's very much on the go.

"In 2014, I visited maybe nine different countries. ... For business-related things, I probably spend a week a month traveling," Miller said.

Most of the ventures he's involved in are designed to help people in other countries better themselves.

"Something that underpins most of our business is interest in seeing sustainable economies built from the ground up," Miller said.

"With the real estate development in Romania, we're trying to get starter homes going, and we're trying to employ Roma laborers as much as we can in construction work," he said.

"In Ukraine, our target market is really small farmers," he said. "With small farmers in Ukraine, we have more flexibility than banks do in how we structure the equipment leasing. Banks and other financial institutions have to structure the leases with regular same-sized payments every month. We can tailor them to the individual."

That way, farmers can make smaller payments during the growing season and larger payments after harvest.

Miller, who lives in Champaign, grew up near Hutchinson, Kan., a member of a Mennonite family. His grandfather was a full-time farmer, and Miller's father continues to operate the farm part time, growing corn, wheat and soybeans.

After high school, Miller took a "gap year" before college, to work on a farm in Germany that grew sugar beets, potatoes and onions.

"I knew I wanted to learn another language and travel the world," he said.

Miller then returned to the U.S. to attend Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., with thoughts of becoming a lawyer.

But an opportunity in Jerusalem gave him a burgeoning interest in economic development and international business.

That opportunity was a two-year job with the Mennonite Central Committee, in which he worked with a partner organization to introduce tourists to the Palestinian Christian community in and around Jerusalem.

Miller then took a job with the Lutheran World Federation in Jerusalem, heading up the annual olive harvest on the Mount of Olives.

The 800 trees there are harvested by hand, and the olives are pressed to make oil sold around the world as a fundraiser for the federation's Augusta Victoria Hospital.

"Each year, they bring someone on to spend three months coordinating the harvest, pruning the trees and coordinating volunteer groups," he said. "Often tour groups want to take part in the olive harvest."

Prior to taking the Lutheran World Federation job, Miller met Wilmer Otto through a mutual friend who thought they would be a good fit.

As a result of that, Miller flew from Tel Aviv to Ethiopia on his first business trip for Otto. In Ethiopia, he met with cotton growers interested in improving mechanization of their farms.

"To this day, they still harvest most of their cotton by hand, so someone with a 2,000-acre cotton farm is bringing in seasonal workers, 4,000 to 5,000 at a time," he said.

But without mechanization, they weren't growing as much cotton as they would like, he said.

Later, Otto hired Miller at Equipment Direct West. That company had been actively conducting business in Ukraine and other parts of the world.

"We had been selling used Illinois farm equipment to Ukraine for the last 10 years," Miller said. "That market has dried up since 2009. We have changed the business model since that time."

In July 2014, they acquired majority ownership of an equipment leasing company in Ukraine — Agro Capital Management, which sells equipment to small-scale farmers growing fruits and vegetables for sale in Ukrainian cities and also for exporters.

"A large number of clients are women, and for most of them, it is a primary source of income," he said.

The enterprise had been located in Crimea and southern Ukraine, but with Russia's takeover of Crimea, the company moved to central Ukraine.

In Romania, Otto operates a four-star hotel in Sighisoara, a city in the Transylvanian area of Romania and also has a construction company and other real estate projects there.

Miller said he too has a real estate project there, having developed with a business partner a six-home subdivision close to the center of town.

The subdivision is composed of "small efficient homes for first-time homebuyers — two-bedroom and starter homes," he said.

Equipment Direct West also exports equipment to the east African countries of Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia.

"Most of our work we do in collaboration with local partners, so I never feel too uncomfortable," Miller said. "I can't think of any country where we work where we don't have a local partner we trust completely."

In addition to speaking English, Miller speaks "conversational German and can be polite in Arabic."

Despite recent violence in the Middle East, Miller said he would "absolutely" like to visit the region again.

"I love the Middle East and would love to find a way to somehow do business there," he said. "It's such a vibrant place. The mix of cultures is fascinating to me."

He works from Champaign one day a week, but otherwise commutes to Arcola. To communicate with business partners overseas, "we rely on Skype quite a bit," he said.

Miller entered the UI's MBA program in January 2013 on the recommendation of a friend and hopes to finish up the degree in May.

"I've developed some nice relationships with professors, and a couple have provided great advice on specific business deals I've been evaluating," Miller said.

He accompanied the class to India during spring break last year, where students got exposure to agriculture there.

Miller said his brother, John, took a financial planning job in Champaign, so they are roommates for now. Miller also gave his family a glimpse of his overseas experience.

"I hosted my siblings and their spouses and our parents for a trip to Romania in August. They traveled around, checked out Transylvania and the northern part of the country and had a great time," he said.