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The Moments That Made Mark Miller

Becoming the CEO of Volaris Group was one of many moments that shaped the trajectory of Mark Miller’s working life. Today, he is widely known to many thousands of employees who form the companies owned by the vertical market software acquirer.

It’s hard not to know who Mark Miller is once you've joined the company. He wears many hats, has a presence at every level of the company, and strives to understand everything happening at the operational level of each business owned by Volaris.

Very few people have been around Constellation longer than Mark Miller.

-Scott Denneny, VP, Finance, Constellation Software

Despite the global and decentralized nature of Volaris, Miller devotes a significant amount of time and effort to getting to know people within the company. His frequent flyer status reveals a long-held habit of visiting business leaders as often as possible, wherever they are in the world. He is known for spending one-on-one time talking to senior business leaders about their challenges and sharing valuable advice.

Within the company, Miller is known for his passion for developing leaders who can build long-term careers at the company, cultivating a spirit of healthy competition, and spreading the belief that employees should be learning all the time. 

But not as many people know about the experiences that shaped him into the leader he is now, which has in turn shaped the company he leads today.

1. The early years: “I loved developing software”

Miller experienced his first major “A-ha!” moment early in his career. While studying mathematics and statistics at McMaster University in Canada, he took computer science courses along the way. That decision would spark his interest in both data and coding.

As summer time approached, he came by an opportunity to work for the Canada Centre for Inland Waters, a government research hub that studied the water quality of North America’s Great Lakes. There, he worked alongside highly trained biologists and environmental scientists. 

Then, working closely with a statistician, he was given the opportunity to code on mainframe computers using various programming languages.

At this early stage in his career, getting hands-on experience with a mainframe computer was the opportunity of a lifetime. Typically only accessible to large organizations, the high-performance machines made easy work out of processing huge amounts of data. He distinctly remembers the feeling of achievement after running a complicated job on those mainframe computers, and a colleague donning a lab jacket passing him a lengthy printout. 

That experience helped him see the power of large-scale data analysis, and how it could create insights that could vastly improve the bigger picture for an organization.

Energized by his learnings, he returned in subsequent summer breaks. By the time he graduated, his career interests had become clear.

“I realized that I loved developing software,” he recalls, “And it was during those summers that I found that out.”

2. From employee to co-founder: “Let’s code something”

During Miller’s final year of university, an acquaintance passed him a job posting that would set a chain of events in motion for him. Responding to that posting led to his first job out of university—for SAGE, a software provider for transit agencies. 

At SAGE, he deepened his enthusiasm for developing software and honed his goal of helping transit agencies solve their problems. He worked alongside a small group of product developers, where they created one of the first types of transit software for personal computers. 

However, change was about to come to the company. It was on the verge of being acquired by a larger company called Teleride, a decision made by the business owners that Miller had no control over. 

After the acquisition had been completed, Miller found he didn’t like the new arrangement set up by the new owners of the company. 

“They merged the company in and tried to place their culture into the SAGE business,” he remembers. “It didn’t work very well.”

He decided to give the new company a chance, but over time he found less and less joy in the job. The controlling environment and centralized operations of the new company proved to be an uninspiring place for a young entrepreneur. After a few years, Miller decided it was time to explore something new.

Others might have considered it a bold move to leave the company without an immediate fallback plan. But since he was only in his early 20s, he figured he had plenty of time to figure out his next move.

As it turned out, one of the co-founders of SAGE, Ian Keaveny, decided to leave the company at around the same time. After some discussion, the two of them decided to start a new company that initially provided consulting. Eventually, that company evolved into a developer of transit planning software. Miller and Keaveny continued to focus on the technical aspects of the business, while a third co-founder, Fran Fendelet, came on board to handle sales and marketing.

“We basically said, ‘Let’s code something,’” he recalls about the beginnings of the product that would later become known as Trapeze.

C was just emerging as a programming language in the late ‘80s, and Miller and Keaveny were keenly interested in using this new language. Although Miller had programmed in FORTRAN and various languages before that, C presented a new challenge for them both. The duo closely read The C Programming Language by Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie. Since the book was written by the original designers of the programming language, it had become known as the go-to reference for anyone who wanted to learn to code in C. With their entrepreneurial gusto, Miller and Keaveny devoured the text from cover to cover until they felt confident they could start coding the product they had in mind.

After a year of hard work, they pushed out the first version of the product and embarked on a mission to sell the program to transit agencies. 

It wasn’t long before they made their first sale. Their first client was in St. John’s, Newfoundland—one of the easternmost parts of Canada. He remembers coding while on site with the client, the rain pouring down outside, and the satisfaction he felt helping the client understand the product and determine how many drivers and buses the transit agency needed. After weeks of being on-site with their first client, they would hit the road again shortly afterward to meet their next client in Madison, Wisconsin.

Working like this with one client at a time, they built the business gradually from the ground up, with their focus on growing the business organically. Their experience of working on site allowed them to understand their clients’ most intimate needs, and to better understand and serve the transit market. 

Above: Mark Miller presents at ThinkTransit, the technology conference that continues to be hosted at Trapeze Group, the company he co-founded in the early 1990s. Trapeze Group continues to thrive within the Volaris and Constellation ecosystem.

A key differentiator for the product was its geographic information system (GIS) capability, which gave clients the ability to plot routes on maps and calculate distances. Nowadays, mapping software and its associated analytics are commonplace, but in the ‘90s, few personal computers had the power needed to compute such large amounts of data. The innovative feature helped the young company get an edge over more established competitors.

“It was bleeding edge for us to add GIS to our product,” Miller reflects. “It blew people’s minds when we were on the road showing people the feature. They’d get closer to the screen and their eyes would get bigger.”

With the growth and success of the company came even more opportunity–and change. In the early ‘90s, the three co-founders decided to sell their company to a civil engineering firm called UMA. Miller, Keaveny and Fendelet retained some royalties, and they continued to grow the company, which by then had been rebranded as Trapeze Group. The co-founders’ goal with Trapeze was to make transit planning easy, and a growing roster of clients was a mark of their success in being a critical tool for transportation planners. (In fact, the name Trapeze came from the tagline “Transit Planning Made Easy”.)

By the mid-‘90s, the company’s product had developed a strong reputation among transit agencies across North America. At this point, the company was generating annual revenue in the low single-digit million range and employed close to 40 people. Still, the three founders had just scratched the surface of what they might accomplish.

It was only a matter of time before the early success of their company would catch the attention of someone who would open new doors for them.

3. Trapeze Group becomes Constellation Software’s first acquisition

Trapeze Group crossed paths with many people at industry conferences. One of the influential figures Miller and his co-founders would meet in early 1995 was Mark Leonard, who was about to change their lives forever.

When they initially met Leonard, the former venture capitalist had just raised funds from OMERS to start his own new venture—Constellation Software—and was on the lookout for his first investment.

Leonard recognized an opportunity to invest in vertical market software companies, and Trapeze Group fit that profile perfectly. He also recognized the value of mission-critical enterprise software exemplified by Trapeze’s product, which ran the background processes that helped their clients run operations smoothly. He saw a lot of potential in the business, and he struck up a conversation with Trapeze’s owners. By July 1995, Trapeze became the first company ever acquired by Constellation Software.

While the decision to be acquired was made by UMA, and not Miller and his co-founders, they were nevertheless intrigued by the new possibilities and promises of the acquisition. 

4. Shaping Volaris as the CEO

After being acquired by Constellation, Trapeze Group continued to grow, and so did the opportunities for the co-founders. While Keaveny would continue in his role as Executive Vice President of Development at Trapeze Group, he would eventually take on the role of Chairman and oversee UK and European operations. He later became a member of an M&A team that identified and evaluated potential acquisitions for the company. Fran Fendelet also stayed with Trapeze Group and continued to drive sales and marketing as the Corporate Vice President of Business Development until 2014. Another figure from the early years of Trapeze Group is Dexter Salna, who Miller originally hired as his CFO. Salna is now the President of Constellation HomeBuilder Systems, a division of Constellation Software that provides construction management software and services for homebuilders, developers, and tradespeople.

As for Mark Miller, he continued as the CEO of Trapeze Group. But it wasn’t long before his ambition and curiosity led him to learn more about M&A. He assumed the role of COO of Constellation Software in 2001. In 2011, he became the CEO of Volaris Group, an operating group of Constellation Software. Under his leadership, Volaris has acquired more than 200 companies as of 2023, on almost every continent.

As an executive, Miller didn’t have an MBA as his starting point, as would many traditional CEOs. But his background gave him many distinct advantages. His experience lent him credibility within the software industry—giving him a major edge when speaking to owners of other software businesses. His problem-solving skills had been refined during his time as a developer, using the “If this, then that” logic instilled in him from years of coding. He possessed a natural inclination toward experimentation, which had helped him grow Trapeze organically. 

In addition to technical skills, he had sharpened his communication and collaboration skills as a developer—honed during many years spent working with colleagues, stakeholders, and end-users to create software solutions tailored to their needs. He had already helped build and led an established software company, which gave him a great deal of practical business knowledge. Yet as a lifelong learner, he saw more runway to grow as a leader, and as a part of Constellation Software.

Mark Leonard was just an incredible resource because he had worked in venture capital for so long, and had studied successes there. Anytime I’d meet with Mark, he'd have a hundred ideas and I would try to filter through those ideas and ask myself, ‘What could you use, what couldn't you use?’ That coaching is still what we do today with a lot of our business leaders.

-Mark Miller, CEO, Volaris Group

At the recommendation of Mark Leonard, he took an executive education course to better understand how to advance the businesses he was overseeing. The course got him thinking seriously about customer segmentation. He looked for ways to apply his learning within Trapeze and Volaris.

His reflections from the segmentation led to the belief that smaller, more focused business units were beneficial not just for their dedication to specific customer needs, but also for the development of leaders within Volaris. For example, a software business with a focus on medical transport might be split off from a larger transportation software business so that its leaders could better understand specific medical needs. A business split of such a nature can also give an emerging leader the autonomy to make independent decisions about the future of that customer segment.

Decentralization became a hallmark of Miller’s approach to leadership at Volaris. In the early years of Volaris, he led M&A along with the support of a small team. The acquisitions trickled in steadily.

Above: Mark Miller signing papers for Constellation Software’s first European acquisition in Denmark in 2000. His experience of living in Denmark helped him better understand the European market.

Once the initial M&A team had gained enough knowledge needed to acquire other vertical market software businesses, they began to share their knowledge with others within the business and include others in the M&A process.

Our M&A approach is about deploying our shareholders’ capital wisely and intelligently, and making sure we have good people out there that are making that happen.

-Mark Miller, CEO, Volaris Group

As Volaris has grown through acquisition, it created an ecosystem of businesses that aim to strengthen each other. Miller saw an opportunity for leaders to learn through a peer network. Many vertical software companies share commonalities, including sales, marketing, professional services, and human resources functions. Networking events are common across the company, allowing leaders to gain insights by speaking with colleagues at peer businesses about similar challenges they face.

I first met Mark in 2008 when AssetWorks was being acquired by Volaris (then Trapeze Group). Mark immediately began to invest heavily in our talent development. His effort and commitment to us triggered immense growth for our company, and it solidified our team's reciprocated commitment. 

We had yearned for this type of acquirer and executive leadership and we got exactly that in both him and Volaris.

 -Tony DeSilvester, Portfolio Leader, Volaris Group

Miller’s background has made its mark on key elements of culture at Volaris. Statistics about the companies within Volaris are widely shared. A practice of internal benchmarking combines with a collegial atmosphere to foster a spirit of “co-opertition”—co-operation combined with competition. Internal leaderboards show areas where each business may be lagging or leading. The environment encourages leaders to learn from inspirational colleagues and keep growing at a healthy pace. 

Above: Mark Miller talks behind the scenes of a video shoot with Jay Hoffman, founder of Gallery Systems. Hoffman sold his company to Volaris Group in 2012. Since then, he continued to grow the company both organically and through acquisition. He has progressed to become a Group Leader within Volaris and continues to be involved with the company he founded.

Volaris also formalized several talent development programs. They include peer-to-peer sessions (where leaders share how they approached similar business challenges, such as expanding to a new market) and Volaris 101 (which covers best practices for how to run a profitable vertical software market business). Since 2019, Volaris has also begun hosting Quadrants, the largest international conference for vertical market software leaders, available exclusively to its business leaders.

5. Looking ahead at the future of Volaris

It’s rare for a company to continue a growth streak for as long as Volaris and Constellation have, but Miller pushes leaders to keep thinking big. Many long-time employees credit his leadership for driving the operating group’s success.

The growth mindset is something that Miller wants to instill in every single person at Volaris.

We want people who can step out of the zone of not just measuring what happens financially from quarter to quarter, but who can think out to the future. ‘What could this business look like in five years? Could we capture 10% more of the market? Could we move into some new area to serve the customer?’

-Mark Miller, CEO, Volaris Group

Within the company, there’s a sense that the best is yet to come. Volaris never stands still, and continually fine-tunes its strategies for accelerating M&A and driving excellence at the operational level. Volaris has become better at making large acquisitions, building on the M&A expertise that it has gained a reputation for. The company continues to honor its promise never to never sell any company it acquires, offering sellers an alternative to the private equity model. 

Above: Mark Miller speaks often at company events about the importance of managing and sustaining growth.

In addition, Volaris has created sub-brands, including Modaxo, which is focused on the transit industry, Vencora, which is focused on the financial sector, and Cultura, which is focused on agri-food. Meanwhile, Lumine Group focuses on the communications and media industry, and was spun out into a publicly traded entity in 2023, with Mark Miller continuing to offer leadership as the chair of Lumine’s board. Each of these groups takes a close focus on their respective industries and customers, while pursuing M&A opportunities related to their vertical markets.

As Volaris continues to expand its ecosystem of vertical market software companies, Miller is determined to help other leaders in the business determine their own fates at the company–and help them have their own “A-ha” moments. One thing is for sure: there are still more chapters left to write, and the story Miller is writing—now with the collaboration of the company’s many leaders—is far from over.

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