Will Miller's burden at Irwin Financial

September 16, 2009
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This can’t be an easy time to be Will Miller, the chairman of Irwin Financial Corp. in Columbus.

Miller is a son of legendary Cummins chief J. Irwin Miller and the fifth generation to run Irwin Financial, also headquartered in Columbus.

But Irwin Financial is in bad shape, and he’s in danger of being the scion at the helm as the family business hits the wall.

Soured investments in housing have caught the attention of regulators for a year now, and the bank revealed this week the Securities and Exchange Commission wants Irwin Financial to boost its capital.

Irwin says it has “no realistic prospect” of meeting the heightened requirements, which raises the prospect of the bank’s becoming the first in the state to be seized since the financial sector went south last year.

No one wants to be at the controls when the ship goes down. But Miller, by all accounts a genuinely nice person, has to be feeling more pressure than peers who are merely hired guns at their institutions.

Irwin Financial traces its roots the Civil War era, and was the money behind the launch of Cummins and the auto parts company that became Arvin Industries. Arvin was acquired by a Michigan competitor in 2000, but not before growing to become a Columbus powerhouse in its own right.

There’s also the inevitable comparisons to his father, who died in 2004 after also making a name for himself as a philanthropist. J. Irwin led both the bank and Cummins for years—successfully.

Miller couldn’t be reached for comment. But Bud Stickle empathizes.

Stickle is the fourth generation to run Stickle Steam Specialties, an Indianapolis company that turned 100 years old two years ago, and he says the emotional stakes in keeping a family business running are high.

Stickle, 61, says he’s long felt an obligation to keep the company, which helps steam boilers operate more efficiently, thriving. But when the company turned 90, the last thing he wanted was to let it fall apart on his watch before hitting the century mark.

“I so wanted to get to that milestone,” he recalls. “That’s a huge milestone for a family business.”

The stakes are higher when the family name is on the door, Stickle says. Irwin Financial is named after Miller’s great, great grandfather, Joseph Ireland Irwin.

Stickle doesn’t know Miller, and he doesn’t know banking, but says it’s easy to get caught in a situation with no way out.

“I feel terrible for him. He’s probably in a position of something he can’t control.”

What do you think? Do family members bear a greater burden to succeed?

  • The irony is that Will Miller says of himself that he originally wanted to be an architect or actor, but chose a business career because he thought it would be easier to be GREAT in business than doing what he really wanted to do. He didn't think he had what it took to make it in architecture or the theatre.
  • As you said, no one wants to be at the healm when the ship goes down. However, having worked at Irwin, the executives and decision-makers took a risk when they entered unchartered territory and expanded into new markets and new businesses. Unfortunately, the quest for more profit is a direct result of their demise. In 1999, things were great for Irwin Financial and the Bank. Than greed took over.

    Here's the thing. Miller has investments and ownership in various other organizations, businesses, and other holdings around Columbus and Indiana. He's going to be just fine.

    What about the city of Columbus? And the lost tax revenue? What about the 300 jobs in Columbus? The people who have dedicated the better parts of their career to a community company are now out on their own - all because a handful of people wanted to make more money.
  • Will is a nice man but way over his head. He ran this company into the ground, and kept people at the top who were inept. They dragged big money, stock options, for years, and simply rode the wave. Once they started making decisions in early 2000 that killed this company. The Board of Directors should be ashamed, and whipped...they allowed it to happen. Too bad, Mr. Irwin Miller would never believe it, he was an honorable, astute businessman with integrity....not sure why it didn't rub off.
  • It's sad. IUB and J Irwin Miller have been a corner stone of Columbus' financial world a long time. When J Irwin Miller passed away so did the Guiding Phylosophy of the company. It was only a matter of time before greed took it down.
  • Interesting!
  • Honestly now, would you want to live in a building he designed?
  • They should have never gone into the "home equity business" out in California where people who run that sham had no clue what the Guiding Philosophy was. Those crooks stole what the family built for generations.
  • Forgotten [Guiding] Philosophy
    Iwrwin left its core values far behind - years ago. In many ways, Irwin was the first casualty of the financial meltdown, which was driven by greed. RIP Will MIller!
  • The Writing Was On the Wall
    It was relatively easy to see where Irwin Financial was headed for a number of years. The CFO Ehlinger knew too, he was excellent at cashing in options and selling those shares at high prices (last big sale in upper $20s and $30s). Miller saw this too and dumped half his direct holdings with the prices above $25 per share. Feel no remorse for these 'thieves in the law'. In their greed they brought down what once was a stable and healthy organization that supported the community and had a moral compass. They left waste in their path, in more than one way. Miller was attracted to those who kissed his $#@, not those who performed. Standing up and stating the truth was anyone's ticket out ... being a yes man and dropping to your knees kept you in. Ehlinger obviously fit right into that. Lots of Miller's holdings tanked, but he'll never have to work make an honest living.

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