Miller, Aranson praise each other and the continuity in agency efforts
By Mindy Rubenstein
Gary Miller never imagined he would remain in the same role for nearly a quarter-century.Gary Miller (left) says part of his job has been to mentor Rick Aranson to step into the CEO’s role.
“Very few today can say they’ve been in the same job for that long,” Miller said. “I’m a dinosaur in that way.”
During his 24-year tenure as CEO of Jewish Family & Career Services, Miller saw the agency expand to more than 40 programs, serving 30,000 individuals in the Jewish and general communities.
“I was recruited from Montreal to lead a very small Jewish nonprofit, and it has been an extraordinary experience,” he said.
Rick Aranson, the agency’s chief operating officer, takes over as CEO July 15, while Miller fills an advisory role for two years.
Miller’s son is getting married, so he will soon travel to the Bahamas for the wedding. He also will visit his native Montreal and eventually will do some volunteer work back home. “I also want to learn Spanish and sing in a choir. I like to sing,” he said. “And maybe even play some ball. I have lots of things to look forward to.”
Looking back, Miller said it was a challenge to maintain relationships with Jewish organizations.
“It’s difficult to feel we have a cohesive Jewish community,” he said. “It has been frustrating trying to feel like we are part of something bigger, planning in a big way with large scope for the future of the Jewish community.”
He said it’s important for “leaders to look beyond their own organizations.”
Caring for the elderly in the community is another difficult conversation, he said, particularly when resources are lacking. “These are tough issues we face, and we need to approach them in a new way.”
Miller thought he would have another career after 10 or 12 years in Atlanta, but his current role kept him interested twice that long.
“I was re-energized along the way,” he said. Things like buying property in Dunwoody and expanding, restructuring the organization, and being more involved in community development kept him inspired and excited.
“I was able to spice it up over time with new challenges. … The passion never went away,” he said. “In this position you want to constantly have challenges.”
A motto hanging in his office, painted in Mandarin by his wife, reads, “Never satisfied.”
“I’ve always pushed to be ahead of the curve,” he said.
He pushed JF&CS from a $1 million agency with 27 employees and an annual fundraising goal of $8,000 in 1991 to a $14 million agency with 269 employees and more than $3.2 million in fundraising in 2014.
“The numbers only tell a small part of the story,” JF&CS board President Lynn Redd said. “Throughout Gary’s tenure his vision, passion and insistence on excellence have guided the agency in its meteoric growth and countless accomplishments.”
John Perlman will succeed Redd as president in March.
Miller recalls many proud moments. One highlight was redeveloping the Ben Massell Dental Clinic, which began as a general health clinic 100 years ago.
Now with 7,900 square feet, the clinic offers dental and general health care and a vision center. It features 16 patient stations, a large laboratory, an X-ray room, CT machines and a separate treatment room for children.
More than 200,000 people in the 12-county Atlanta area qualify for the clinic’s services. It is one of the few charity dental providers in Atlanta to offer comprehensive dental services to HIV-positive people who are poor.
“It was a Jewish facility, so there was discrimination in the beginning,” Miller said. Now the state-of-the-art center serves everyone below the poverty level, 98 percent of whom are not Jewish. “It’s a one-stop, comprehensive portal, a healthy home atmosphere. There are no barriers to accessing health.”
He oversaw the merger between Jewish Family Services and Jewish Vocational Services in 1997 that created the unified JF&CS.
The agency received the Managing for Excellence Award in 2012, presented by the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, beating out more than 7,000 other nonprofits in Georgia.
“It’s an honor to get it,” Miller said. “It speaks to the management of the entire organization.”
After 24 years in a role, it can be a challenge to know when and how to leave.
“I’m not going to be here forever,” he said. “Too often CEOs don’t like to talk about these things. It can be a huge process when executives transition. I didn’t want a hard stop. Especially in a fundraising environment, it’s difficult to have a speed bump.”
His conversation with the board about installing a successor began in early 2014. “It has been a diligent and thorough process.”
Miller will remain involved with JF&CS fundraising, leading a $4.9 million capital campaign to provide comprehensive client services in confidential and secure space on the agency’s Dunwoody campus, and will be ready to answer questions as needed. “It really worked out well for everybody.”
The transition to Aranson seems natural, Miller said. He said it was his job to mentor Aranson and help him develop leadership and gain hands-on experience.
“The board and community has recognized his talent,” Miller said. The recruiting committee found him to be an excellent candidate to move the agency forward, and “with his talents and abilities and his 11-year investment in the organization, we are really lucky to have him.”
Aranson Ready to Listen
As chief operating officer of JF&CS since January 2004, Aranson has worked to increase efficiency and maximize effectiveness. As CEO, he said he plans to be hands-on and available.
“My first job is to listen,” he said, “not from a big chair in my office.”
Rather, he said, “leading the organization requires a lot of listening, collaborative discussions and analysis, relying on the community and stakeholders to formalize the organization’s vision.”
He said Miller was “the perfect leader at the perfect time.”
But Aranson said people respect the yearlong process to name him the successor and appreciate the continuity at the agency. He said the community’s support has been overwhelming and humbling.
“Transitions are always hard,” Aranson said. “I have confidence in my success and in the agency’s future success. I believe in and live and breathe the mission of the agency and feel it in my heart that will make it successful.”
A lawyer with expertise in business, Aranson said the organization’s mission will be “fine-tuned and modified based on the journey of listening. It’s a community organization.”
Because of Miller’s success in building JF&CS into a cradle-to-grave service agency, “I don’t anticipate we will have a do-over,” Aranson said. “My intent is to drill deeper and see where we can have the greatest impact.”
He said that although the broad approach was the right move in the past, it might be time to focus more on centers of excellence and to direct resources to key areas. It’s about “going wide and serving all needs vs. focusing on areas we can have the greatest impact.”
He plans to emphasize collaboration to avoid duplication of services and to have a collective impact. He said the key is not to look at what JF&CS can do for a client, but at the range of community services available to that client.
“We will build and develop deeper collaborations locally and nationally,” Aranson said, “so that collectively we can achieve the greatest impact.”
That approach means reinforcing internal collaboration and promoting cross-functional teams.
For example, a client taking advantage of the organization’s career and job placement services might benefit from mental health services. It’s important for JF&CS employees to know the right questions to ask and to have the big picture in mind when helping a client, he said.
“To focus not just on the service, but on the impact and change from the intervention, on the outcomes,” he said.
Another area of focus is ensuring that the organization develops relationships with the next generation of clients, volunteers and supporters — the young adults who are just starting in their career and young families.
Aranson wants to instill and draw on “the same passion that their parents and grandparents had,” but “what excited them is different.”
So it’s important to connect and stay relevant to all generations. “That’s part of sustainability.”
JF&CS offers 40 services, he said, but “many people just don’t get it.”
He wants to make the agency’s goals easier for the community to understand. Overall, the agency’s work falls into two areas: increasing and maintaining health and creating and keeping financial independence and self-sufficiency.
Aranson said he looks forward to enhancing stakeholder stewardship, which boils down to going out and listening. “I’m not the boss in my new role. We report to the community.”
At home, he has a 16-year-old daughter whom he is teaching to drive and a 13-year-old son who just celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah.
Eleven years ago, Aranson was one of the first people the JF&CS career services division placed into a job, making him a client and an employee. “I have never looked back, and I can’t imagine myself anyplace else.”