The study of those who have achieved greatness, rather than had it thrust upon them, points to one common factor: ambition. That quality takes many forms, however, and can be fired by a variety of motivations, as the case of Robert Miller, the billionaire duty-free magnate, shows. From ordinary beginnings he has risen to become a regular feature in lists of the richest in the world, spending his free time on the traditional pursuits of the old-world aristocrat, and seeing his daughters married to the grand families of the world as if by morganatic contract. In many ways it is a traditional American story, one of ascension via great wealth to grand social status. The Millers’ tale, however, is so traditional as to be emblematic of an entire stratum of recent American history, and in that it makes an intriguing case. The question that remains, as so often, is whether status was a by-product of success, or its chief motivation.
Born in 1933 in the small town of Quincy, Massachusetts, Miller was the son of a salesman for an oil company and a former governess. After an unexceptional academic career he won a place at Cornell University on a scholarship, albeit to its low-prestige school of hotel management. Among highly wealthy students, he was relatively rare in needing to work as a waiter to pay his way. Once graduated, he went in search of adventure, finding his way to Barcelona, where he worked on reception at the Ritz Hotel.
This was where fellow Cornell hotel management graduate Chuck Feeney found him. Together they turned their energies to Feeney’s project of selling alcohol to the U.S. navy, aided by their Cornell class rings, the equivalent of the British old-school tie, which ensured an audience among fellow alumni in the officers’ mess. With the help of Miller’s savings pot of $3,000, they moved into perfumes, cameras and radios and entered the nascent industry of duty-free sales. It was a niche ripe for exploitation, and in 1960 they founded Duty Free Shoppers, opening two airport concessions in Honolulu and Hong Kong. These were primed for the arrival of the Japanese market, which opened in 1964 with the lifting of the country’s post-war travel restrictions, releasing a flood of wealthy, luxury-hungry buyers. Miller and Feeney’s canniness saw them hiring tour guides who would lead these first-time travellers straight to DFS’s outlets before they had even checked into their hotels. DFS expanded throughout the Pacific, including the west coast of the U.S., remaining the leader of what would become a $25 billion market. The scale of the operation was phenomenal: in Saipan, they effectively paid for the building of the airport. Although they took on two minority partners, Miller and Feeney each held a 40 per cent stake of an annual profit of $1 billion, on top of which came further investments in Asia and Australia.