Sue Miller had a schedule conflict for her youngest daughter Ali's third birthday, but since there was a good reason for mom to be elsewhere, Ali allowed it was okay - just this once.

You see, Miller, the fleet manager for McDonald's Corp. Oak Brook, IL, had a command performance to give Sunday, May 3, in Seattle, where she would be named Automotive Fleet's 1998 Professional Fleet Manager of the Year.

The occasion was the annual meeting of the Automotive Fleet and Leasing Association (AFLA), which joined with Automotive Fleet magazine to award Miller a $5,000 scholarship that will be donated to a university or business school of her choice. Miller's name will be inscribed on the perpetual trophy displayed at Automotive Fleet's headquarters in Torrance, CA.

To no one's surprise, Miller characteristically expressed her feelings during the presentation. And, perhaps because Ali's birthday was on her mind, Miller said with heartfelt emotion that the award was a milestone, nearly as important as the birth of her children.

Thus, as the best of 17 nominees on a very fast track for the 1998 award, it is highly appropriate to say that Miller is a woman who wears many hats - all of them competently. The wonder of it is how she finds time to squeeze in everything.

As manager of McDonald's-owned U.S. domestic fleet of 3,160, she has enlisted broad support among senior management and vendors, making them partners in modernizing her department.

She spends the occasional weekend with husband, Jeff, joining him for motorcycle rides on their Honda Gold Wing.

She plays mother to daughters Rachel and Alexandra (Ali), helping with ABCs and those everyday, " world-coming-to-an-end" crises.

Between other duties, she prepares dinner, washes clothes, and cleans house.

And yet, Miller still finds time to participate in associations such as AFLA and the National Association of Fleet Administrators (NAFA).

Miller Gained Level of Excellence

If anyone is grateful about Miller sticking with her career, it is her boss, Terry Simmons, assistant vice president of facilities and systems. When a request for an interview was left on his voicemail, Simmons returned the call in five minutes - which is unusually prompt for executives, who shun interviews like the plague. Why so fast?

"Because I'm high on her," Simmons replied. "People like Sue, because she's straightforward, has integrity, and shows good, old-fashioned work ethic. But she also has a keen sense of humor with all levels of people - from top executives right on down. She does a terrific job in mingling with people. She is also focused, doesn't exaggerate, and she has accepted the challenge of saying, 'I'm going to look at things differently, think out of the box.' And having done that, she looks at how an idea might impact the whole picture, not just her department."

Many of Simmons' direct-reports share such qualities and surpass his expectations. He continued. "All of their successes have paid off for me, because I just became an officer in the company. And the only reason something like that happens for a guy like me is people like Sue Miller doing their job and doing it real well. So, yeah, I'm high on her. Quite honestly, I admire her."

She's Come a Long Way

Phil Brennan, vice president of Consolidated Service Corp. (CSC), Elk Grove Village, IL, watched Sue Miller at the podium in a recent associate seminar at CSC while she finished her talk and began fielding questions. He thought, She really has stage presence.

And then, for a moment he remembered the fresh-faced, eager teenager he had met quite by accident in 1978 when he arrived at ServiceMaster, Downers Grove, IL, to take her boss to lunch. The man was buried in work, introduced Brennan to Miller, and suggested Miller go instead.

Miller, who was an administrative assistant straight out of accounting, had the sometime responsibility of dealing with car-related expenses, but learned from that meeting with Brennan - and many others - that there was so much more to fleet. Shortly after having her eyes opened, Miller submitted a proposal to the vice president of purchasing and was successful in creating the job (which remains there today) of fleet coordinator/fleet administrator.

Brennan said, "I can never forget how I met Sue - when she was new in fleet - so I am always impressed by where she is today. There's not a meeting with her that goes by and I don't take a split second to recall how far she has come."

Brennan went on. "And, no, I never would have pictured her addressing a group of my employees way back then. But still, I knew she was going places, although I thought fleet was probably a steppingstone to other things."

Rick Nicoletti, manager fleet sales at Napleton Fleet Group, Oak Brook, IL, had the same impression when he met Miller in 1980. She had transitioned into her second job at the AB Dick Co. - advancing from the ServiceMaster fleet of 350 vehicles to 1,400 at AB Dick. And it was a big leap. Miller needed to arrange all the files, establish administration processes and tracking systems, and write driver policies.

Miller chuckled. "There weren't PCs back then. We had the new, infant word processors, and I was able to use some of the memory functions. But I mostly used accounting paper and pencils and erasers - and lots of them."

In those days, Nicoletti was working in fleet sales at Long Chevrolet when he crossed paths with Miller. He said, "My impression was, this is a person who's going places. And at that time there were few women in the business, but Sue had her act together, even then."

Going places - that was the same phrasing also used by Pete Zwolinski, president of CARS, Denver, speaking of the Sue Miller he met in 1978.

Zwolinski observed, "Sue was among the first group to show women could handle the position of fleet manager. Twenty years ago, if you went to a NAFA meeting there may have been 20 percent women; now, there are more than 50 percent.

"So it was clear to me Sue was going places. She was going to make a mark. And it wasn't going to be a clerical mark: It was going to be management."

Even more intriguing than those early prognostications is, how did Miller get there, transform herself from beginner to professional?

Miller Creates Partnerships

Miller is one of those people who has presence, always smiling and possessed of such warmth that when she enters a room, heads turn.

"She is someone who just jumps out of a crowd and commands attention," said Jerry Zielke, director of transportation for Siebe Environmental Controls, Loves Park, IL.

Zielke added, "Physical beauty doesn't last. Real beauty comes from inside - which it does with Sue. Besides, you have to be able to produce. And Sue can produce."

Whatever else, though, Miller said she has achieved most objectives in concert with others.

"Early on," Miller said, "I learned a lot about customer service. For example, if you don't have it, you can have the best program in the world and it won't matter. The important thing is how you treat people. That makes all the difference."

Knowing that and doing it are different things, and she views her people skills as an on-going learning process. Remarkably direct, she wants to cut to the chase, remove redundancy, and identify core issues that have the biggest impact.

Over the years, Miller has polished her style, working at the best ways to forge relationships, reminding herself to adjust to other sensitivities - especially when trying to create a support base. It's best, she said, to be objective and appeal to common interests - say, the company's well-being or health of the profit sharing plan.

"Usually, that works," she said.

Creating partnerships is another approach to dealing with people, and Miller has acquired a particular knack for doing that. To this point, Simmons, her boss, relates an anecdote from two years ago.

Simmons said, "A supplier had made a mistake. So Sue called and said, 'We have a problem,' meaning it's something we have to work out together. She could've said, 'Hey, you have a problem and you had better go fix it and if you don't, then we'll get another supplier. But, she took the role of we - and that has always impressed me about her."

How Miller Builds Relationships

Now, while Miller didn't invent partnering with vendors, she definitely has endorsed the concept and seen her vendors buy into the idea of reciprocity. Miller said:

"I want to help them do their business more efficiently so they can help me become more efficient."

At McDonald's, everything is cued on a calendar basis, and runs parallel to the model-year cycle. McDonald's calls it a "3-1-Q," meaning that managers create a three-year plan, review it quarterly to assess progress, and review it annually to ensure progress.

Part and parcel of that approach is, the fleet inventory management system - and an internal system that lets the company share data electronically with its vendors, provide driver updates, and regular informational updates on maintenance, accident data, and fuel purchasing. But the sharing goes much deeper than mere electronics.

At CARS, Zwolinski said, "An example of her partnering was teaming with vendors to create an employee sales program. She took input from me and others as to what some fleets are doing that works. She actually made the vendors a part of the process in setting the policy."

Zwolinski carried on. "Similarly, on a safety program, she appointed a committee that included three vendors to establish safety standards. So she values and respects the vendor - as well as in-house feedback. She made vendors part of the process.

"By doing that, she inspires, and gives the vendors the feeling that they're a part of the whole process. The vendors feel like they're responsible for making their service work for the customer. As a result, I was anxious to help."

And in Nicoletti's case, Miller has often called on him as a resource to float an idea, ask if there might be a better way, or whether he had encountered similar situations before.

Nicoletti said, "She does that, with people, because she genuinely respects your opinion and wants your knowledge about the business, wants to know if you can guide her, shed some more light on a situation, find out if an idea makes any sense."

Siebe Environmental's Zielke agreed, saying "We've exchanged ideas, too. But when Sue picks your brain, it's not really picking your brain: It's an exchange of ideas, because Sue always contributes."

And once having settled on a way to deal with an issue, Miller doesn't operate in a vacuum, but builds support. Having laid the foundation, she then advises senior management on timing policy changes.

Miller said, "You start at the top and work down. Let the people in charge know. Don't let the memos hit everyone's desk at the same time. The last thing you want is an employee going in and asking the boss what the heck this memo is? And the boss hasn't even gotten it yet."

Miller Has a Willingness to Risk

Unfortunately, one of the realities of life is when people are firmly ensconced in a job, they become concerned that any change is a threat.

With Miller, the opposite is true. When a remark from Bob Brown, fleet manager at Xerox, was related to her, Miller listened intently. This is what Brown said:

"Your greatest security comes not from being static, but from constantly changing."

After ward, Miller said, "He's right, but I'll add to that. We tend to define security as our jobs, but if you don't life every day, then you have no security - period. I have this inner security and confidence, no matter where I work and what I do. You can get enjoyment from your job, but your happiness and security cannot depend on it. It has to come from within."

Because of that inner grounding, Miller has a reputation for being open to new ideas and unafraid to self-assess her performance - or take feedback from others.

Nicoletti likes that quality. "In this industry we've all dealt with customers who lack good skills, who can't tell you what they want, who don't want to hear about a new idea. Their attitude is, 'My way is the best there is. I don't need your ideas.' But Sue is just the opposite and excels in her openness."

Miller's boss agrees with that assessment. Simmons said, "You run a risk advancing new ideas - sure. But you've got to be the one who steps up with a new idea. If you don't, someone else will. And so be the first to try to fly that new idea. They don't all have to work, but if you're creative the company will appreciate that and give you more responsibility, more latitude. Sue has accepted that, which means she can control her own destiny."

With Miller, it's not always obvious what she's thinking, because she may be mulling over an idea. Typically, she will ask herself, What am I missing? What have I left off? What should I really he looking at?

And usually, the answers revert to communication - not enough or doing it better. That's when she visualizes her mind as a chalkboard, erases everything, and starts over.

Miller said, "You have to stay in touch with people in your organization. I am not the subject expert, in tax or finance or accounting. They are the subject experts and bring ideas to the table. So I don't get defensive when someone asks, 'Why are you selling cars for this, or using this accounting method?' My response is, 'Why do you ask?' And then I try to get more information."

This approach is why Miller's fleet department achieved a 24-percent reduction in genera] and administrative expenses without affecting customer service.

Typically for Miller, she views that achievement as one with broadly shared credit. And it's a lifelong theme that goes back to her childhood. As a little girl, she used to walk down the street to the church and spend quiet time in the grotto, then walk through the cemetery and look at the tombstones.

"It always produced a feeling for me that there was something greater than myself," Miller said. "And I learned that even though we are all insignificant, we can have a tremendous impact on the world by sharing love and goodness and lifting up other people."