About Freedom Warranty's Leadership
Christopher D. Miller believes entrepreneurs are made, not born. The 40-year-old father of two boys built his company with faith in a certain way of doing business—treating people fairly and honestly while providing a product with value.
Miller is the chief executive officer of Freedom Warranty, the fastest-growing independent administrator of vehicle service contracts, usually called extended car warranties. It’s a contract between Freedom Warranty and the vehicle owner to cover certain mechanical repairs based on a choice of plans.
Freedom Warranty is based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where back-office operations support a team of authorized sales agents nationwide. It is a multi-million-dollar business that sells contracts primarily through automotive dealerships that offer coverage as an option at the time of sale.
Understanding How Things Flow
By all accounts, Miller should have had a career as a plumber spending most of his life in the town where he grew up. Out of high school, he apprenticed with a family friend who hired him and put him to work. He remembers the experience was transformative. "The work was hard and the hours long, in all kinds of weather," Miller remembers. "I was fortunate to have a mentor who took time to give clear instructions and strong corrections."
While on a job site, Chris worked hard to learn the business, but he spent a lot of time looking for ways to get things done better and faster. He was creating his entrepreneurial self.
The Value of Setbacks and Failure
Nearly every successful entrepreneur has a backstory that includes hard lessons learned. The number of top executives with a list of setbacks is long. Failure is an education.
Growing up in rural Connecticut, Chris learned about competition and teamwork. With two older and a younger brother in a single-parent household, struggling financially, he found his path as a young teen.
Turning a Loss Into a Win
At age 12, he invented a new kind of dog collar—the Wonder Collar. It would store the lead inside the collar and extend it as needed. Nobody wanted it. “Some of my classmates went on to college, but that wasn’t an option for my family. I got my advanced education in the classroom of real life.”
Six years later, he licked his wounds and put the project back on the shelf, but he learned a lot about organizing a project, finding money, a little about patent law, and a lot about perseverance.
“I spend a great deal of time researching what qualities foster success. At the end of the day, failure seems to be a prerequisite to winning. Many of the most important lessons I have learned in business were costly and painful,” said Miller. “Consider it an alternative college education. And I’m not sure it’s a less expensive one.”
Finding an Unexpected Career Path
A longtime friend invited Miller to leave his plumbing career to put on a coat and tie. It’s not the life he envisioned. In elementary school, he dreamed of becoming a forest ranger, an environment well suited to his love of the outdoors. But the opportunity to try something new put him on the next path.
“I really had no idea what I was getting into or that it would be a major influence on how I thought about business and why customer service is both a brand-builder and critical to growing a profitable and sustainable enterprise in a competitive market,” Miller recalls.
His new job would be in Florida, working at a call center that sold car warranties. It was going to be an intense course in salesmanship and ethics.
When he arrived that first day at his new job, the vehicle service contract industry was young and a little like the wild west, but from day one Chris saw potential. “I spent very long days and nights in a cramped, dark, noisy call center in a suburban strip mall, pitching products I knew little about.” Chris didn’t take long to see an opportunity in the business.
“The products we were selling—extended mechanical protection for older cars- were a real value for customers needing reliable transportation to make a living. I could have used one for the beater I was driving to work.” But he didn’t like the way the products were sold.
“Some of the sales pitches just didn’t feel right to me. They were too high pressure and not real clear on details.” He decided to go “off-script” and develop his own selling style— helping prospects understand both the value and the limitations of the coverage. “Talking about limitations and conditions wasn’t something my boss encouraged.”
What he did like was the energy in the room and being a “trusted advisor” to people he didn’t know but who needed what was being offered. “We just needed to match the quality of our selling style to the value of the protection we were offering. The product was good, just not how it was being offered and delivered.”
The Entrepreneurial Moment
An entrepreneur by nature, is a risk-taker. It’s not that you can’t see the pitfalls ahead; it’s just that you are willing to take the risk for an envisioned reward.
“You see an opportunity to do it a different way. And if you can improve how a product is sold and delivered, you have a competitive product,” said Miller.
“What I lack in formal education is made up by my thirst for knowledge. I want to know more, find a better way to do things, and then keep improving the product— the way it is sold and how well it is supported.”
Chris approached his supervisor and pitched his idea of a new, improved way to sell and service a better product line in the growing car warranty business. “I told him, ‘What if we set up our own shop and get out of this high-pressure, limited-service situation’, I was convinced we could make just as much money doing it the right way instead of going home every night questioning how we were doing it.”
They agreed it was an idea worth trying. “We raised money from friends and family, then spent the next six months eating Ramen, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, researching the industry, and planning our new company.”
A Software Solution
As an apprentice plumber back in the day, Chris Miller could visualize the flow of a system. “Everything has to be connected properly to provide a consistent flow,” said Miller.
“Early in our venture, I envisioned how proprietary software could manage everything from CRM, to contract administration and faster claims approvals using artificial intelligence.” Miller knew little to nothing about computers or software, so he embarked on a journey to immerse himself in the technology and planning of systems software.
“It was a steep learning curve, but working with a seasoned developer and having a clear vision of what I needed helped move the project from phase to phase.”
A Vision of the Future
Freedom Warranty’s revenues have continued to grow as new products and improved systems have been developed and implemented. This year, the company will expand its reach nationwide, doubling the size of its team of authorized agents and administrative staff.
“There are lots of entrepreneurs without formal education or special skills. I’m one of them,” said Miller, “we are visionaries—we have a clear—perhaps obsessive picture—of what we want at the end of the path.
“That focus sometimes makes your management team crazy, but it is also the engine that drives innovation, growth, and revenue. Someone needs to see the destination of all this organization and effort. That’s my most important role as the Chief Executive Officer.”