2023 Top Entrepreneur: Alex Miller, CEO of Mercedes Scientific, Lakewood Ranch
Alex Miller is the quintessential accidental entrepreneur, having fallen into it soon after college. Nearly three decades later, it remains her passion.
| 1:30 p.m. May 4, 2023
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In the summer of 1995, after graduating from college, Alex Miller joined her mother’s company for one main reason: to stay busy.
“I literally graduated college and my mother had a business that had done just under $1 million in sales when I joined her,” she says. “I was actually going to be a psychologist.”
But Miller never left. “I loved it. There was something about business that just clicked.”
The company at the time was Mercedes Medical Inc., which has since been renamed Mercedes Scientific. It’s a national laboratory equipment and supply distribution business, serving some 20 markets. May will mark year No. 28 for Miller with the company, based in Lakewood Ranch. She’s been CEO for 17 of those years.
The career she hoped to obtain after college is the same reason she chose to stay at Mercedes Scientific.
“I actually liked the psychology elements behind business and the direct influence you can have over something,” she says.
The instant gratification gained after a new product or program does well plays a role as well.
“Business to me was always really appealing from the beginning,” she says.
The company’s only distribution center is in Florida — no stranger to hurricanes. That's a chief concern.
“During hurricane season in particular there are nights when I am up,” she says, adding, “We really need a distribution center out west.”
Miller says the company is working on it. Step one is to start acquiring companies.
“We go on a lot of dates,” she says, regarding a potential acquisition. “None of them are really ready. I understand it’s a really profitable, niche market that we’re in, so I don’t think there’s a lot of motivation to sell.”
Miller has a list of about 100 companies her company is actively pursuing. Ideally, Miller says, Mercedes Scientific would acquire a company with a distribution center in the western part of the states. “We’re really relying on the idea that we can acquire a company in the next couple of years,” she says.
One challenge in finding a company to buy? Private equity firms.
“They have so much money so they elevate the price of the company we want to buy which makes it difficult for us,” she says. “It makes it better on the sell side when we go to sell the company — if we ever do. The valuations are really high, but on the buy side it makes it really challenging.”
If Mercedes Scientific hasn’t acquired a company in the next 18 months, Miller says, the company will most likely build its own distribution center. The only thing stopping it from doing that now is the money. “I think for a company our size you really have to weigh the risks and rewards,” she says.
Miller isn’t one to shy away from owning up to her mistakes. But after nearly 30 years, she’s learned to try and only have small ones.
“I think over the course of almost three decades you learn not to have big mistakes,” she says.
An example of.a small one: when the company purchased a large shipment of gloves at an elevated price at the end of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, a box of gloves cost about $2. At the height of the pandemic, that same box was costing wholesalers $20. Now the price is down to $3.
The order of gloves Miller purchased toward the end cost $12 a box and the company received about $500,000 worth of gloves in that order. But due to the pandemic ending, Miller’s now stuck with those gloves.
“So we’re sitting on a massive amount of inventory that we’re going to have to take a loss on,” she says. “It’s those mistakes. Every company this size, these mistakes happen. It’s just the nature of business.”
Like a true entrepreneur, Miller suggests it’s not so much the mistake, as it is how you learn from it. She recalls a quote from Winston Churchill, who said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."
“I think that’s a great statement," she says, "because if you’re not trying new things and you’re not failing at new things, you’re not getting better.”
Where will Mercedes Scientific be three years from now?
Expansion is on the docket at Mercedes Scientific.
The company recently purchased five acres near its distribution center in Lakewood Ranch. Expansion there, Miller says, will add about 10,000 square feet to the company’s existing 60,000.
But the big question is whether it will have acquired a company by then.
“I would say in the next three years, we will hopefully have bought at least one $10 million (or more) company out west,” she says.
Miller also plans for the company to expand into new markets and extend a focus on selling products to existing customers.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Miller is passionate about traveling.
“I’ve been everywhere,” she says. Asia, a trip to Lisbon last year, all over Europe, a time living in Australia during college, Costa Rica, Fiji. “I can’t just pick one.”
Africa is next year’s big trip, she says.
When she’s not traveling, she’s shopping, hanging out with her three dogs, gardening and spending time in North Carolina.
Both of her sons are in college, so Miller and her husband are empty-nesters. During the pandemic, the couple bought a house in North Carolina.
“We’re one of those people in half of the country that bought houses during the pandemic,” she says. “So we’ve been trying to spend part of our summer up there.”