A Fulfilling Life

A husband-and-wife team earn their living delivering for others

by Tom Gresham

Sixteen years ago, Peter Miller bought a nascent packing and shipping company and hired his wife, Marilyn McConnell, as operations chief. American International Distribution Corp. in Williston now has clients all over the world.

Peter Miller, a well-known impressionist painter and the longtime president of the American International Distribution Corp., says he rarely visits the office anymore, instead handling his work from home and spending more and more time pursuing his passion for painting. Miller claims he's now merely a figurehead at AIDC, "like the Queen of England."

The one who runs the company and who always has, he says is Marilyn McConnell, the operations chief at AIDC for 16 years and Miller's wife for 17.

"She does an amazing job," Miller says. "The employees respect her, and she's just incredible at keeping this place running right."

AIDC is a distribution house, expert at handling the "back end" of operations for its clients, who come from a variety of fields. The company, which today has clients spread throughout the world, acts as a link between its clients and their customers, managing distribution, processing and collections.

Miller and McConnell have teamed to run AIDC since it was an infant.

Although Miller takes every opportunity to downplay his role in the company's prosperity. He uses self-deprecating wit to portray himself as a bumbling goofball who has been fortunate enough to ride the coattails of brighter people to success, but McConnell quickly dispels that image. Miller remains the company's leader in sales and marketing, she says, and his efforts are essential. (He demurs: "I'm just the song and dance guy.")

"Peter is our sort of outside man and he's very important to what we do," McConnell says. "As glib as he is, he's excellent with the external relationships, with reaching clients. We're not in a business where you're continuously adding accounts. You really go in spurts. He does all the interaction with the clients and brings them in. I take it from there. We form a sort of continuum."

McConnell says they maintain clear divisions at work.

Of AIDC's 98 employees, about 35 work in the call center, taking orders from clients' customers for goods to be shipped. They can speak four foreign languages among them and can write or read four others.

"Each one of us tries not to interfere or meddle with what the other is doing in their own separate areas," she says. "We have pretty much handled our own thing and kept from letting them mix as much as possible. I know what he's happy doing, and I'm happy doing the rest."

McConnell acknowledges, however, that they have had to contend with the difficulties of keeping their personal and business lives separate a common concern among married couples who work side-by-side. AIDC often spilled over into their married life in the company's incipient stages, she says, but the couple learned to manage the dangers.

"There were definitely some challenging times, but then we finally set some limits. We agreed to set up times when we were not allowed to talk about business; so, before 6 a.m. and after 8 p.m., we said we couldn't discuss business. Either person could pull that rule out when it became necessary. It's worked."

Miller and McConnell were married in 1986 and share three daughters from previous marriages.

On Aug. 9, Miller presided over the wedding of one daughter at the family's summer camp on Lake Champlain. Miller earned a ministry on the Internet from the Universal Life Church, which will ordain anyone for life without question of faith. During the hectic week leading up to the wedding, McConnell said, with a laugh, "It should be an interesting ceremony."

Miller and McConnell are Vermont transplants, though both are adamant that the Green Mountain State holds their hearts.

"My soul is connected to Vermont," Miller says. "Whenever I drive back into Vermont, I lay on the horn because I'm home. I feel safe when I'm back here."

Miller grew up on Long Island and moved to Vermont in the mid-1960s to attend the University of Vermont. He remained in the state after college. Miller's interest and talent in painting began to flourish in the late 1970s, and he spent three years making a living exclusively as a painter. However, he found the resulting income was too sparse to support a family.

Miller eventually took a position with Hearth Stone, a Morrisville oven manufacturer. He rose to the level of vice president of sales and marketing for the company before falling victim to a round of layoffs.

Unsure of what to do next, Miller began to talk to Paul Sprayregen, a close friend from their years at UVM, about possible business investments.

The two saw potential in AIDC, which at the time was a nascent packing and shipping company with a bare-bones operation in Essex Junction. Miller and Sprayregen purchased AIDC in May 1986 and hired McConnell as operations chief. Sprayregen, a well-known commercial developer and the owner/president of the Investors Corp. of Vermont, remains on the AIDC board of directors.

McConnell, who grew up in Princeton, N.J., had moved to Vermont in the early 1970s, though she had been a part-time resident her whole life. Her family has owned a summer camp on Lake Champlain since the 1920s, and McConnell spent most of her summers growing up there.

When she took the reins at AIDC, McConnell had the benefit of a diverse work background. She had been a teacher, run a school and group home for troubled children, headed a computer department at a business (though, she says, "I didn't know anything about computers"), been a computer trainer on a consulting basis and worked in the operations department at Merchants Bank.

While Miller claims AIDC was "just following our nose" in the early days, McConnell says there has always been an idea of where the company could go.

"The big picture was pretty clearly defined from the beginning by Peter and Paul," McConnell says. "I think their vision has pretty much panned out. They always saw a little bit of what this could be."

Miller says the dynamic among AIDC's three leaders has always worked.

AIDC aims to incorporate diversity in the product lines it handles, which, with a few exceptions, focused largely on the publishing industry until now. A newly launched wine distributorship is part of the push. Mike Pelland (left) is operations manager; Daniel Terracciano is CFO.

"The three of us seem to work really well together," Miller says. "Paul has this excellent feel for the big picture, a sixth sense for business. Marilyn is a master at handling the hands-on, day-to-day operations of the business. And I, well, I just do whatever they tell me to do."

Miller remembers AIDC's first space as a small facility with low ceilings. The business has grown gradually in the ensuing years, moving first to a 5,000-square-foot space on Acorn Street in Colchester, then to a 60,000-square-foot space on Depot Road in Colchester and ultimately to the business's current 70,000-square-foot warehouse and 18,000-square-foot office space and day-care facility on Wintersport Lane in Williston.

Miller says AIDC has enjoyed steady growth over the years, but, like any business, it has also endured lean periods of doubt and worry.

"Business is business," Miller says. "Sometimes you find yourself walking to the edge of the precipice and then if you're lucky for whatever reason you get to back off from it."

While walking through the vast AIDC warehouse, Miller stops to explain the company's vanguard technology, which was implemented to aspire to a "zero-error" policy. In the complex business of distribution houses, with a sea of minutia and little room for mistakes, AIDC's diligent attention to detail is a requirement for success.

AIDC does not offer sales and marketing services to its clients and therefore attracts businesses inclined to handle that side themselves. It keeps AIDC's role well-defined and allows them to form a focus to their service.

Publishers make up a large portion of AIDC's clientele, but the industries represented are diverse. Cabot Cheese is one of the few Vermont clients.

"It doesn't matter for us whether we're dealing with books or trinkets or cheese or whatever," McConnell says. "We can do just about anything, so we're always looking to diversify."

Among AIDC's newest projects is a wine distributorship. Miller, who is managing much of the project, says it has really started to take off. Wines from South Africa have proved particularly popular.

Miller and McConnell give the bulk of the credit for AIDC's resilience to its employees.

Recently, as Miller and McConnell conducted a tour of the AIDC facility, several employees praised McConnell's management skills and her eagerness to communicate with them. Miller, meanwhile, appeared to thoroughly enjoy whipping through the hallways of the AIDC offices, reveling in jokes and stories with the employees, many who have been around for several years.

The atmosphere at AIDC is both casual and assiduous. A spacious break room with deep, soft sofas includes a ping-pong table, an air hockey table and a pool table for employee use. A bulletin board advertises the draw for an upcoming ping-pong tournament.

"We've got all this stuff, but it doesn't take away from the fact that this is a very professional, disciplined organization," Miller says, walking through the room. "All I need to do to sell a client is to get him through the front door to see this place. The people who work here are amazing."

The AIDC Daycare Center demonstrates the company's commitment to attracting and maintaining a strong employee base. Now approaching its two-year anniversary, the day care offers employees a reliable and easily accessible place to store their children during the workday. Last year, the state gave AIDC a Family Friendly Business award for the program.

The day care is not expected to ever turn much of a profit.

"We'd just like for it to break even and be a great place for the employees to bring their kids," Miller says.

Sondra Alvarez, the day-care coordinator, proudly points out that her facility has zero state violations. The company's early investment in the program is evident: a playground beyond the facility boasts up-scale equipment.

Employees pay half the regular price to use the day care, which affords them the opportunity to occasionally visit their children during the day an exceptional luxury for working parents. Employees who use the facility commit to volunteering reading stories, helping serve snacks, etc. each week.

The program, McConnell explains, resulted from a suggestion by employees.

"We have an employee group that gets together and does things like plan different social events at work and discuss how to deal with certain issues," McConnell says. "Some people in that group were very interested in us having a day care and it just grew out of that."

The child-care initiative helps illustrate why AIDC has enjoyed a fairly stable employee base. Several employees have been at AIDC for at least five years and many of the company's top brass joined at an entry-level position and worked their way up.

For instance, Alvarez began with AIDC as a customer service representative. Mike Pelland, now McConnell's "number 2 man," started as a temp.

"We are always promoting from within here," McConnell says. "We often have people who have been at the company for several years and then end up doing something completely different from when they started."

Miller points to the maturation of the AIDC work staff as a key reason he has been able to reduce his activity with the business and fling himself into his painting. For the last four years, Miller has been a painter first and a businessman second.

Miller paints en plein air, in all kinds of weather, exclusively from life. He uses oils now, although he has also worked with pastel and charcoil. His portraits, still lifes and landscapes have been shown in several galleries over the years. His work can be found in four Vermont galleries and a gallery in Newport, R.I. His portrait of Al Kaline has hung in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Some of Miller's work, including portraits of his daughters, are displayed on the walls of the AIDC offices.

AIDC's 70,000-square-foot warehouse holds clients' goods waiting to be shipped upon request. The company also has an 18,000-square-foot office space and day-care facility on the property.

Miller's paintings typically sell for between $500 and $6,000. One work drew a $15,000 sale price.

Miller, who studied initially at the Art Students League in New York City, often travels in search of subjects for his work and he has painted on the West Coast and in Mexico and Europe. He particularly appreciates the Maine coastline "for its rugged environment and hard-working marine community," according to his biography on the website for the Brookside Fine Arts Gallery in Westford.

"It's something I just felt like I needed to be doing," Miller says. "I don't want to sound stupid about this, but it really does feel like my calling."

McConnell says watching her husband fulfill a dream has been rewarding, particularly because she knows AIDC and her hard work have helped make it possible. She says he might not spend as much time haunting the office hallways, but she can handle it.

"It's one of the things that I tell my daughters: Know your passion," McConnell says. "Peter knows his. Now and then I feel a little jealous of what Peter is doing, because I don't really have anything like that. I haven't figured it out yet, but for now, what I'm doing works for me."

Originally published in September 2003 Business People-Vermont