Communications Specialist, Iowa JPEC

At first glance, Patricia Miller’s decision to return home to a suburb in Northwest Chicago seemed like a dream destination. You can go home again, and Miller is living proof.

In the first 10 years since graduating from the University of Iowa in 2004, Miller’s career path went from New York to California, England to China with nine stops total. She brushed shoulders with United States senators and a British Prime Minister. Miller added to her flashy resume at Eli Lilly, a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company.

When she left all that seven years ago to take over MATRIX4—a business her grandfather founded nearly four decades earlier—it appeared to be a risky and bewildering move. The factory, located in economically depressed Woodstock, Illinois, was idle and about to be shuttered, a near casualty of the recession. On top of that was the stigma that MATRIX4 specializes in the P word—plastics—a valuable product that has developed a reputation for being a disposable good.

Miller, one of the few 30-something female CEOs in the industry, had a vision and wasn’t jumping blindly because of an emotional attachment to family. Instead, she took a “business is business” approach driven by a goal-oriented timeline. She built a solid strategy with key priorities that the entire organization rallied behind.

“I wanted to be clear early on that this business had to be viable, and it had to make money in order to survive,” said Miller, now in her seventh year at MATRIX4. “I was on a ticking time clock to make sure we did not continue to bleed cash. This thing had to do X by year one or Y by year two.”

As a return to her manufacturing roots neared reality, Miller became curious about how she would take the shell of a business and build with its depreciated assets. An inspired visionary, she wondered what was next for the American factory, on top of that, an American plastics factory. It was important for Miller to devise a business unlike what factories looked like in the previous 20 years. Her approach would honor a love of sustainability and concerns about climate change.

“Plastic is a beautiful material, but it also has a lot of negative connotations,” Miller said. “How do we always focus on sustainability, whether it means our operations or materials? How do we do business responsibly?”

She added an industrial design component to the factory of nearly 80,000 square feet. Energy-efficiency is the aim when it comes to anything from purchasing equipment to lighting to solar panels on the roof. Miller also trademarked the phrase “Make Meaningfully”—an ethos of reducing waste whenever possible to protect the earth.

“I didn’t want to come here to make things, I wanted to make things meaningfully and I wanted a culture and team that felt the same way,” Miller said. “There was this perception that manufacturing is a dark, dirty industry that just pumps out widgets. I was toying with the idea of, does a factory worker get as ambitious as what I came from in a white-collar Fortune 500 (company)? We are creating a culture that what is being made on that machine matters in the world and here’s why.”

MATRIX4 (and its 70 employees) focuses on producing consumer goods for a client list that includes General Electric, General Motors, Harley-Davidson, and L’Oréal.

Much of Miller’s initiative was developed during her undergraduate days in Iowa City, a place she calls a culturally wealthy gem box. She laughs when recalling out-of-classroom highlights like learning to eat sushi, acquiring a love for Indian food, and grabbing a beer at Micky’s Irish Pub.

There were academic and life lessons as well. Miller thrived with the real-world applicability she experienced while earning a BBA in marketing. She also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication with a minor in Spanish and a certificate in entrepreneurship.

“Iowa opened my eyes to what is possible,” Miller said. “There was so much opportunity and I wanted to know how to take hold of it all. Iowa exposed me to things from an academic standpoint and a life standpoint. It was a warm embrace cocoon to foster my academic pursuits and explore other things.”

After graduating from Iowa, Miller went to London and earned a master’s degree in legal and political theory while working with Prime Minister Tony Blair. She was ready to return to the United States and spent time working with a senator from Hawaii. Then Miller went through the leadership development programs at Eli Lilly and focused on launching brands. That led to more travels: Indianapolis, New York City, Connecticut, Australia, Canada, Europe and Shanghai, China, where she worked on a special project for the CEO. Before returning to her roots in the Midwest, Miller ran the commercialization arm at Halozyme, a biotech company in San Diego.

The impressive and productive ride for Miller has not been without hiccups. When challenging moments arise in the day-to-day grind of owning MATRIX4—and Miller admits “there have been a million”—she relies on advice from her grandfather. Keep your eye on the prize, he would say. Words of wisdom that motivate Miller to focus on her vision, not the circumstance of current reality.

“This continuum of the journey is what I’m most proud of,” Miller said. “What excites me is being a catalyst for change in a good direction. Driving a business ethically, responsibly, and sustainably is important to me.”

And she is doing it in what once looked like an unlikely place—her hometown.

Miller has received the 2021 Alumni Entrepreneurial Leadership Award in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Honors. The University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center will recognize her Oct. 8 at Hancher Auditorium.