FARGO - Tammy Miller spends plenty of time aboard commercial airlines for work. Male business-class passengers sometimes look at the petite brunette dressed in a dark suit and inquire if she's a flight attendant.
"They never ask, 'Are you the pilot?' " Miller said.
Her retort comes easily and without pretense.
"No, I run a billion-dollar wholesaler of electrical equipment."
But Miller doesn't think about her gender and its stereotypes in her role as CEO of Fargo-based Border States Electric. It's just the job that she loves.
"I'm hearing more and more that gender is not an issue anymore," Miller said. "So many young men have grown up in an environment where their mothers have worked and been very successful. I think we're getting past that gender issue. The statistics might not say that, but psychologically I think people are."
Miller grew up in the tiny north-central North Dakota town of Brocket (population 57) and earned a bachelor's and MBA from Minnesota State University Moorhead.
The 51-year-old worked her way up from a public accountant to CEO of the company she's helped transform through doubling sales and tripling its stock value.
"It's not a sexy business, but can you imagine your life without electricity?" she said.
Miller was working as an accountant at a private firm in 1990 when she called up Border States, then one of her clients, to see if they had a plan for one of their soon-to-retire finance VPs.
She was willing to put herself out there, and Border States responded the next year by bringing her on as the accounting manager.
"I'm not a bashful person, and I'm not afraid to take risk," she said. "I think unfortunately a lot of women are afraid to take risk, and that is what holds them back."
Miller moved up through the ranks at the company's Fargo headquarters, and in 2003 unabashedly accepted an executive vice president role in Phoenix.
"I didn't hesitate for a minute, and I said 'I'll do it,' " she recalls. "I got back to my hotel room and thought, what did I get myself into?"
The gamble paid off, and Miller was named CEO three years later.
In the industry, most women who are CEOs or presidents are in charge of family business, Miller said.
"Very few are hired guns like me," she said.
Today, Miller travels most days, splitting her home base between Fargo, Minneapolis and Phoenix.
Her husband, Craig Palmer, retired from his job as president of Multiband when the couple relocated to help their home life keep up with her advancing career.
Palmer said he was a little reluctant to retire before the age of 50, worried he'd get bored. But the couple's three homes, their packed schedules and busy volunteer agendas have easily filled his days.
"It was a bit difficult to tell people that I was retired when I was not even in my 50s yet," he said. "So I would say I was doing consulting and volunteering and that. But after a few years, I'm proud of what we've accomplished, so I just tell people that I'm retired."
The couple doesn't have any children but enjoy their many nieces and nephews, Miller said.
"Tammy is very close to her family," Craig said.
Balance is overrated
Miller said she has a few guiding principles she follows, but perfect balance isn't one of them.
"I always say balance is completely overrated," she said. "Some people think there is the magical mix between community and home and work. And I think it's whatever makes you happy."
For Miller, "balance" might mean working seven days a week, but it's what she chooses and what she enjoys.
Miller and Palmer try to take one long vacation a year, but even in the most remote locations in the South African bush she can't hide from her Blackberry.
"If we're traveling on vacation, for her to be totally away from work, it would just be so difficult for her to get caught back up again," Palmer said. "It's just easier for her to in spurts relax and get caught back up when she gets a chance."
While that lifestyle wouldn't work for most women, it more than works for Miller, Palmer said.
"To Tammy it's not even work; it's her life," he said.
Secrets to Tammy Miller's success
- Always give a little extra.
One of Miller's first goals at the helm of Border States was to see it grow from $480 million in sales to more than $1 billion in just five years.
Even though the company went through the worst recession since the Great Depression, her team accomplished that goal in March.
The next benchmark? Reaching $1.5 billion by 2014.
- Always groom your replacement.
- Exercise. Miller works out almost every day and manages to fit in a few half-marathon races a year.
"I firmly believe in having a healthy lifestyle," she said. "You can't have a busy, successful career if you're not healthy."
- Take a little bit of a risk. Put yourself out there and be your own advocate.
- Give back to the community.
Despite her full calendar, Miller is actively involved with the YWCA, MSUM and the United Way.
"There are hundreds, maybe thousands of organizations and activities you can take part in, so I think it's important to just find a few and really make a difference with those."
Readers can reach Forum business editor Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511