LEADERSHIP 2006: John Gibson

Features - Business Management

John Gibson, president of the Professional Landcare Network, welcomes challenges in his professional life and in the outdoors.

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November 7, 2006
Heather Wood

The day John Gibson was offered a job at Swingle Lawn, Tree & Landscape Care, he told his employer he accepted, but he couldn’t start right away. Gibson had a two-week hunting trip planned, and he wasn’t about to miss it.
     
This was fine with his employer, Tom Tolkacz, president of the Denver, Colo. company. Fifteen years later, Tolkacz remains confident in his hiring decision. What’s more, he’s confident in Gibson because of the personality he derives from his love of the outdoors.  

LEADERSHIP 2006

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“John likes to excel in whatever he does and sets high goals for himself, be it at work or outdoors,” Tolkacz says. “He enjoys hiking, hunting and backpacking in the mountains. There’s never a mountain he doesn’t want to climb, and he demonstrates that in his personal and professional life.”
 
Gibson’s trek up the professional mountain started during his college years. Since then, he ascended at his company and in the entire landscape and lawn care industry when he was named president of the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) this year. Not yet 40, Gibson is standing on a snow-capped peak, searching for a taller mountain to climb.

THE ASCENT. Gibson’s first landscaping job came during the summer before his senior year of college. He was studying electrical engineering on a football scholarship. He took a job during the summer before his senior year doing mowing and maintenance work at Colorado Landscape Enterprises under Tom Garber, former president of the Associated Landscape Contractors of America. Because of his affinity for the outdoors, he deeply enjoyed the work. He never went back to college to finish his senior year – instead, he stayed with Colorado Landscape Enterprises for four years.
 
“Garber wasn’t in support of me dropping out of school, but he said, ‘If you want to make a career out of this, I’ll show you how,’” Gibson recalls.
 
That career path led Gibson to Swingle, where he had essentially the same duties. After his first year there, the commercial maintenance division was closed and he was given the option to choose another division. He chose the lawn care side of the business.

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John Gibson  PHOTO: Cara Eastwood

Gibson rose to manage Swingle’s tree care division in the late ‘90s and the company has risen with him. “During the period of time that John has grown throughout his career, the company has doubled in size,” Tolkacz says. “We grew in revenue and he grew in responsibility – those were parallel.”
 
Gibson felt like he needed more tools to continue the ascent in his personal life. “I studied electrical engineering when I got into the field and got a lot of certification for my job, but I was missing the business background,” he says. “So I went to school at night for a few years and finished my business management degree. My goal was to finish my degree before my two girls went to school and I just made it.” Gibson received his degree just before his oldest daughter started kindergarten.

REACHING THE TOP. While Gibson has an unwavering interest in his career, he also wanted to give back to the industry for helping him to bring out his inner leader. He first became involved in the Certified Landscape Technician program with the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado as the irrigation test chair before he changed the focus of his volunteering time to lawn care matters.
 
Gibson was elected to lead the Professional Lawn Care Association of America when the organization was in talks with the ALCA about a merger, which became a reality and the two combined to become PLANET in 2005. He was then elected by his peers to become president of the combined organization.
 
“It all came full circle,” Gibson says. “I started on the maintenance side, went over to the lawn care side and got a great opportunity to be president of what became one organization. If you would have told me that was going to happen, I would have laughed. You can’t see that stuff coming.”
 
Even though his term is nearly over, it still hasn’t set in with Gibson that he is president of a national organization.

HIGHLIGHTS

    Name: JOHN GIBSON

    Company: Swingle Lawn, Tree & Landscape Care

    Location: Denver, Colo.

    Career Highlights:

  • Became the head of Swingle’s tree care division
  • Certifications: Certified Landscape Technician – irrigation and maintenance; Green Industries of Colorado (GreenCO) Best Management Practices
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of Phoenix
  • Holds a Colorado Dept. of Agriculture license as a qualified supervisor in turf, ornamental and right of way
  • Volunteer positions: CLT irrigation test chair of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado; director of GreenCO; chair of GreenCO’s Water Efficient Leaders in Landscape; president of the Colorado Association of Lawn Care Professionals; president-elect of the Professional Lawn Care Association America; and currently president of PLANET
  • Awards: ALCC’s John Garvey Award; Rocky Mountain Regional Turfgrass Association’s Distinguished Service Award; CALCP Golden Gun Award; GreenCO Person of the Year Award

BORN TO LEAD. Tolkacz seems less surprised than Gibson at Gibson’s position of leadership in the industry. He has watched Gibson interact with his peers during the last 15 years and all the telltale signs of a leader are there, he says.
 
“Other members of the company count on John as a person who will be there in a time of crisis because he’s willing to take on any challenge,” Tolkacz says. “He’s someone who will challenge other people and organizations. He doesn’t just rest on his laurels. There’s definitely a desire to see things become new, or at least improved upon, in our work style. For some people that’s great, but for others it’s uncomfortable.”
 
Gibson has the ability to be flexible and provide whatever demeanor the situation demands, Tolkacz adds. Gibson says he knows these skills are essential for great leaders and adds that it is up to the individual to become that way.
 
“You have to have some core abilities when you’re born, but it’s what you do with it that makes the difference,” he says. “You can be a leader or you can be a great leader. It comes through practice, learning, adjusting expectations, never giving up and having a positive outlook.”
 
Gibson applies these values to both his job and his volunteer work. Being the president of a national association is like running a business, from the staff and resources to expense decisions to strategic direction, he says. “The only difference is that you’re representing an industry, not a business for profit,” he explains.
 
Gibson applies lessons learned in organizations to his job, and vice-versa. He was able to apply experience with the PLCAA/ALCA merger to Swingle’s recent acquisition of a Fort Collins, Colo. company, which he oversaw.

GETTING IN GEAR. Gibson tells aspiring leaders to have the courage to challenge themselves and try new things. Trust boosts courage, he says.
 
“When you tell your children to jump into the water, do they trust you enough to have the courage to do it?” he asks. “People who trust you are willing to try something outside of their comfort zone. I’m willing to acknowledge when I’m wrong. I’m willing to make tough decisions and stand behind them.”
 

JOHN GIBSON ON GIVING BACK

    Q. What does the term “giving back” mean to you?

    A. “Ever since I took over as PLANET president, it’s been truly humbling and an honor to be able to serve as president of a key industry association and give back everything that’s been given to me. There’s not a thing I’m involved with today that I didn’t get into by being involved in the industry. I’m proud to be part of the green industry and represent the green industry. I think giving back is something people do in different times in their careers that many expect to do later in their careers. People wait until they get to their 50s and 60s. I don’t know if I’ll die tomorrow, but I feel like giving all I can every day until then.”

    Q. Describe a situation where you feel you gave back to the industry due to a cause or effort you believed in and how this impacted you in your career.

    A. “Unifying PLCAA and ALCA with the people who helped with the merger was a rewarding experience. It is incredible to think of what the organization will be some day. When I tell people who all we represent, people say, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty impressive deal.’ It was really cool to see my name in The Wall Street Journal and to have my picture in magazines and stuff. I love the accolades and the euphoria of being recognized, but if you come to my office you won’t see a plaque on my wall. They’re all at home in a box.”

    Q. Who is one person you admire most for giving back and why?

    A. “I admire Theodore Roosevelt for his commitment to the outdoors. My business is dramatically involved with the environment. I appreciate what Roosevelt did with preserving open spaces in the U.S. that I now get to enjoy every day. When I’m 12,000 feet up in Aspen in the wilderness, I remember I get to do those things because he had a vision. I wish I could have a vision like that.”

    Q. What is one thing you do to teach your employees the value of giving back?

    A. “I encourage giving back and give the employees the opportunity if they really want it. I require it. It’s a philosophy Tom has. Usually we have two people working full time in the industry. We have a spirit of giving and being involved. It’s not what you get back; it’s what you put in.”

    Q. In your opinion, what are the top three things a lawn care operator or landscape contractor can do today to establish a trend of giving back and start experiencing the benefits?

    A. “1. Budget for it – not just in dollars and cents. Budget in time, give people time to do it and time to prepare for the commitment. 2. Remember that the investment pays way more than it’s worth. 3. It’s easy to put in time and energy and to budget for giving back, but you have to enforce it and realize the commitment it takes to do it. I feel guilty about being away from the office when I volunteer, but it’s worth it.”

Gibson says he tries to see every failure as a positive learning experience and credits Tolkacz for helping him to see things that way. “There are no negatives – the glass is always ¾-full in my world,” Gibson shares. “It’s not half one way or the other; it’s always positive.”
 
It’s easy for Gibson to have a rosy outlook because the chaotic working world he experiences daily is how he prefers to work.

“I love to have a lot of things happening, and many things going on all at the same time,” he says. “It’s like ice cream to me. I always have an idea of the core things that are going on, but I love having interruptions.”
 
Even though his desk usually isn’t a model of tidiness, Gibson is organized enough to know where to find everything he needs, and that includes pulling important industry and business numbers out of his head on command.
 
But when he’s in the presence of Swingle clients or fellow industry members, his own appearance is always neat. He usually wears a shirt with either a Swingle or PLANET logo during work and at  industry functions. When he suits up for PLANET events, a white, button-up shirt with a PLANET logo is under his sport coat.

THE NEXT ADVENTURE. Right now Gibson is enjoying the last few months he has to suit up during his PLANET presidency. “I’m like a pregnant woman; I have a glow,” he says. “How rare it is to be in the seat I’m in.”
 
One thing he’s missed during his term is his characteristic mountain-man facial hair. He promised his wife, Kristin, he’d be clean-shaven during his term. But he’s not complaining.
 
“My wife is awesome,” he says. “She’s very supportive of the 70- to 80-hour workweeks I’ve had to put in. She stayed home with the kids while I went to school and worked full time. She’s supportive of my industry volunteering efforts and she realizes it makes me happy and proud to be involved. I don’t think I could have done any of this without the support of my family.”
 
Besides growing a goatee, Gibson plans to spend time with the people and activities he enjoys most after his term ends. This includes spending time with his girls – Taylor, 11, Marissa, 9, and his wife. In addition, he’d also like to spend more time hiking, backpacking and hunting. At 38, he’s not ready to take a break.
  
“In the volunteer world, it will be interesting to see what John will do – from a green industry standpoint and in both his personal and professional endeavors,” Tolkacz points out. “I’m sure he’ll look for a little relief, but I’m sure it won’t be long before he looks for another challenge.”
 
He may not know what volunteer position he’ll hold next year, but Gibson knows what he wishes for the industry in the next 25 years. He hopes lawn care operators can one day be recognized as the true professionals they are.
 
“Everyone says they can do landscape work and take care of lawns, but they don’t realize the technical background it takes to be really good at these things,” he says. “Industry people are the greatest resource. The challenge we’ll find in the next 25 years is supplying the right people to do the job and helping them realize they can have a great career and a wonderful life.”
 
While he aims high, Gibson doesn’t feel like he has to scale every mountain. He’s learned from more than 15 years of experience which professional feats are worth attempting. “I used to be more arrogant, but I’m wiser now,” he says. “If I left tomorrow, I don’t know if I would see that I made a difference. It’s a humbling question. If I did my job right, I’m hoping that, at the very least, I helped someone else get more involved in the industry.”