Trajectory for Growth
Burke, Inc.'s Jeff Miller
By Keith Stichtenoth
Jeff Miller, CEO of Cincinnati-based Burke Inc., can vividly recall the precise time when his life’s trajectory changed. It was the fall of 1987 and he was soon to complete his MBA from the University of Cincinnati. At the suggestion of Marketing Department chair Ron Dornoff, one of his graduate school mentors, Miller reluctantly agreed to a lunch meeting with Ron Tatham, CEO of the company then known as Burke Marketing Research. For a fiercely practical young man who had already taken steps toward beginning his career at the paragon of marketing, Procter & Gamble, it seemed like little more than a favor to Dornoff.
“Ron Tatham talked about a place that does the kind of thing that made me excited then, as it still does today — doing marketing research every day, in every way, for a wide range of companies in an array of industries,” Miller recalls. “I realized that I’d lacked an appreciation for what it meant to be a supplier company like Burke versus a client-side company like P&G.”
Intrigued, Miller accepted Tatham’s invitation to visit the company. As the day of wide-ranging dialogue and interviews unfolded, he recognized he’d discovered his true calling.
“I was supposed to have dinner with P&G people that night as part of my ongoing interview process with them,” he says. “But I walked out of Burke’s offices and made a phone call to cancel. I didn’t know for sure that Burke would offer me a job, but I knew I’d found what I really wanted.”
For someone who grew up aspiring to be a polymath (a person dedicated to lifelong learning about a great variety of topics), the professional opportunity to do the breadth of marketing research that Burke offered was irresistible. Here he could deal with literally hundreds of companies and industries while harnessing the rapid digitalization that would transform the field he was entering.
Miller began as a decision sciences analyst, then oversaw Burke’s methodological conversion to online data collection and reporting in the 1990s, eventually becoming COO and then CEO in 2010. He has always been enthralled with how the business has embraced and leveraged new technologies and processes, yet he also holds tight to the company’s original core values.
Original Bedrock Values Endure
“Burke was founded by a 27-year-old female entrepreneur named Alberta Burke in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression,” says Miller. “The business principles and values that served as her company’s bedrock back then — honesty, quality, integrity — still guide us today. ‘How we do things’ is obviously a function of today’s realities — we no longer have a cadre of women conducting door-to-door interviews with the ‘lady of the house’ — yet we haven’t really deviated from the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ that drove Alberta’s work.
“In short, we provide quality information that enables people to make sounder business decisions, enhancing the probability of successful outcomes. If you’re going to invest in a new product, change the pricing model for your service, or anything in between, you must act with the clarity that comes from having reliable information and knowledge.”
In this way, ruthless objectivity has been Burke’s calling card. Yet as the marketplace and client needs have evolved, so has Burke. Miller engineered a major leap forward when Burke acquired a local company called Seed Strategy in 2014 to expand Burke’s service offerings.
“For a long time, we could test your business ideas to help you understand where they were weak or strong and how to invest accordingly. We could tell you about the people who use your product or service, how they use it, whether they like it. You name it, we could tell you. But what we didn’t do was actively help you enhance your idea, product or service.”
Seed Strategy complements Burke’s marketing research by helping clients develop new and innovative ways to improve and deploy what they offer. As of last year, Seed Strategy’s new dedicated facility also shares space on Burke’s campus on the western edge of downtown Cincinnati.
“Successful organizations adapt and grow,” Miller says. “Acquiring and integrating Seed Strategy was an intentional, customer-driven, strategic alteration of our business model.”
Like others he’s overseen in his decade leading Burke, the move reflected the human aspect of his work. There are two groups of people whose welfare is paramount in the Burke ethos — clients and employees.
“We don’t see our clients as companies, but rather the individuals at those organizations,” he says. “This viewpoint is partly what makes Burke different. We provide a level of service that a lot of our competition can’t or won’t. And for that, we hire and train good people.”
Central to Burke’s internal culture is its Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP), where employees receive shares of company stock, thereby giving them a stake in Burke’s and its clients’ success. A need to do whatever is necessary to serve their clients co-exists with a tremendous emphasis on wellness and work-life balance. Everyone agrees — and their industry-low turnover attests — that Burke is a great place to work.
The Right Reasons to Retire
Physically vigorous and intellectually vibrant, Miller could easily continue to lead Burke for years to come — and he’d love to. Yet he understands that changing times often beckon transitions for the good of the business. In April, he announced he would retire this fall. Having helped manage Burke through the rise of online data collection, social media, AI and big data, Miller senses his experience and perspectives can also tether him to the past.
“While I like to be really open-minded, sometimes I find myself feeling held back by things I learned a long time ago which may not necessarily serve us as well going forward,” he says. “I feel I was the right person for my time, but perhaps not for the next time. Too many business leaders hang on way too long and their companies can’t evolve and grow. My continuing to lead Burke for many more years wouldn’t be in Burke’s best interests.”
In pondering a remarkable career, Miller also reflects on two enormous factors that helped propel him. The first was advice from his physicist-turnedsalesman/ administrator father.
“He said to find people who are smarter than you, then ‘go to school on them.’ So I love hiring people I can learn from. For example, we just started a reverse mentoring program where our youngest employees have the chance to help the rest of us learn things we need to know.”
And speaking of “going to school,” Miller is proud of the incalculable value of his own UC experience, and amazed at the trajectories of his college and UC overall.
“My job takes me to a lot of college campuses. UC and our business college are big time now. I see it in the quality of the students coming out — very well prepared, thinkers, ready to deal with uncertainty, and willing to contribute in any way that is needed. And now with the new Lindner College of Business building, we take a backseat to no one.”
Pondering retirement, Miller relishes the pending freedom to go where he wants, try new things and, most importantly, continue his lifelong quest to be the polymath he envisioned in his youth.
“Whatever I do, I’m sure I’ll continue to find ways to keep learning. I hope that never leaves me.”