Allan Sloan FORTUNE
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February 18 2008: 10:04 AM EST
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Surprising confessions of a turnaround guy

Steve Miller's autobiography is a must-read if you want to understand business - and businesspeople.

By Allan Sloan, senior editor at large

Steve Miller put auto parts maker Delphi into bankruptcy three months after taking over as chief executive.

(Fortune Magazine) -- You expect corporate crisis mavens like Steve Miller, veteran of a dozen turnarounds, to focus on only one thing at a time. But now, as his career winds down, Miller, 66, is doing two things simultaneously: talking about what he's learned in 30 years of troubleshooting while also trying to show he's a human being, not a calculator with legs. This narrative tension, as we English majors call it, is why I'm writing about Miller's autobiography, "The Turnaround Kid: What I Learned Rescuing America's Most Troubled Companies" (Collins, $25.95, 272 pages), due out in April.

I figured I'd pick up the book, be bored by the usual braggadocious PowerPoint prose ("Eight Reasons I'm a Genius," "Six Ways to Do Turnarounds"), and toss it within ten minutes. Instead, I got hooked on the personal stuff (which I'll discuss later) that opens the book, and ended up reading it all.

Some people argue that Miller, executive chairman of auto-parts maker Delphi Corp., is a symbol of excess - in January a judge cut by 80% the package he and other Delphi executives were to get when the company finally completed its much-delayed exit from bankruptcy.

But I think Miller, who's hated in many quarters of Detroit, may have saved what's left of the Detroit Three automakers by putting Delphi into bankruptcy three months after he parachuted in as chief executive.

How does that work? Like this. The bankruptcy of Delphi, formerly General Motors' parts division, scared the hell out of GM (GM, Fortune 500), Ford (F, Fortune 500), Chrysler, and the United Auto Workers and forced a historic compromise over retiree health care. The firms agreed to set up huge trust funds that are smaller than their retiree obligations but far more than retirees would probably get in bankruptcy proceedings. Absent that deal, I think all three would ultimately have had to go into Chapter 11. Now at least there's hope for them.

Miller, who talked ceaselessly about the cost of UAW labor (which he put at $65 an hour) shortly after coming to Delphi, has kept a low profile lately as part of Delphi's Project Nerka, named for the submarine in Run Silent, Run Deep. Delphi didn't want Miller to so enrage GM (which got stuck with most of Delphi's tab) and the UAW that they wouldn't compromise. Alas, I got Nerka-d, and the UAW, as usual, declined to speak with Fortune.

Miller's book, though, speaks for itself. What I like about the business parts is that Miller, who became a turnaround junkie after joining Chrysler in 1979, doesn't pretend to be perfect. He discusses mistakes made on his watch at Waste Management (WFI) and Federal-Mogul, and also discusses deals where he couldn't get much done (Olympia & York, Reliance Group). He dishes on people who've annoyed him, most prominently Lee Iacocca, with whom Miller had a 1992 run-in that cost him a chance to become Chrysler's CEO. He gave Iacocca a famous (in Detroit) letter detailing what he considered Iacocca's flaws and mistakes. How could he risk his job that way? His answer: Being a wealthy heir (Oregon timber) was a big help. How many people would admit that?

Now to the personal. The book's prologue, about the 2006 death of Miller's wife of 39 years, Maggie, is so emotional that it's almost painful to read. Then, in chapter one, he says that Maggie initiated him into sex "on a mat on the floor of her living room" when he was a 24-year-old law student and she lived in an apartment across the hall. Later, he explains, "I decided to let a pregnancy happen and used it to justify a courthouse marriage." Otherwise, he writes, he felt his family and friends would never have accepted her as his wife because she was a single mother and was older than he was. However, he writes, "I had underestimated everyone, including myself, and chose a path I would regret ever after."

Hello? When's the last time you read something like that in a business book? Miller told Maggie he'd leave her out of the book - but she died before Miller and his collaborator, Michael D'Antonio, produced their manuscript. So, with Miller's wound still raw, they wrote her in.

Miller has told friends he'd probably write the book differently today. I'm glad he didn't, because this way, we get to see something that's oh so rare: a businessman in full.  To top of page

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