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John Gibson

Supplement - 2012 Leadership Awards

Great hunter. Yes? Fine figure of a man. Yes? Good. That is all you need to know. For now.

Carolyn LaWell | March 23, 2012

Editor’s Note: John Gibson is the recipient of PLANET’s 2012 Lifetime Leadership Award. He won Lawn & Landscape’s Leadership Award in 2006.

Work/life balance is John Gibson’s greatest personal achievement and something he constantly fine-tunes.

This past year has been one of many great firsts. I spent four days backpacking, just me and three mules. On my honeymoon, I went hunting with my wife, Kelly, in South Africa and crossed off the first of my three A’s – Alaska, Africa and Australia – from my list of dream hunting spots. Most people know I enjoy hunting, but my goal is to do it in all three A’s.

I like to share what I’m passionate about. I take my 17-year-old daughter, Taylor, antelope hunting in Wyoming. I go backpacking with my 14-year-old, Marissa.

The greatest challenge, and perhaps my greatest personal achievement, is balancing the things that are important to me: my family, my work and my hobbies. I have wonderful responsibilities to my beautiful daughters and wife. I love being a leader. I enjoy time alone in the mountains.

I continue to fine tune that delicate balance and learn from the process. What fun is life without the journey and a little adventure?

John Gibson first learned about leadership on the football field. As a high school fullback and punter, his legs carried him to a football scholarship at the Colorado School of Mines and then to the semi-pro Colorado Wildcats. His coaches were aggressive and shouted orders. Gibson absorbed their examples and used them as he entered the green industry.

An electrical engineering student at the School of Mines, Gibson took a summer job performing mowing and maintenance work at Colorado Landscape Enterprises. And that summer with Tom Garber, Gibson’s blood turned green. The landscaping industry had him hooked.

He didn’t return to school for his senior year. Instead, he worked for Garber and learned the business and industry.

That eventually led Gibson to Swingle, Lawn, Tree & Landscape Care. Tom Tolkacz, now owner and CEO of the Denver company, hired Gibson 21 years ago. He says he remembered during the interview Gibson came off as impressive, dedicated, someone who was willing to learn. “When he starts to see something that he thinks is important, he puts energy and attention to it,” Tolkacz says. “He definitely demonstrated that he would have that passion.”

Dedication, enthusiasm and attention to detail are traits that few would argue don’t show in Gibson’s daily life. Though, over time, he learned to channel those, especially as a leader, in different ways.

A young leader, Gibson was gruff, strict and sometimes unapproachable. “He learned from experience that was not the right way to get people to do what you need them to do, or to manage or lead,” says his wife, Kelly.

Gibson was a short-term motivator. He didn’t ask for input and he didn’t offer a success plan. That model once worked on the field, but it didn’t translate into business.

“Early in John’s career, it was, ‘Tell me what I need to do, let me make the decisions, and I’ll make it happen. I’m not afraid of the consequences, I’m not necessarily afraid of the failure, and I think I know what’s right,’” Tolkacz says.

Gibson’s ultimate professional goal was to own or lead a company. He knew that to be successful he needed to be involved in the industry and help move it forward. Garber and Tolkacz set that example for him and he followed suit.

As Gibson pursued industry opportunities, they fed a desire for personal and professional development. He studied the industry and general business. He recognized different leadership techniques. He realized he needed to make changes to his own management style. And he began a concerted effort to become a leader and difference maker.
 

There’s a little joke I like to play, sort of a rite of passage for entering the woods with me.

I weigh down my friends’ backpacks with rocks.

They’ve vowed to sleep, eat and never lose sight of their packs to avoid the dreaded rock. Still, it appears. A friend once declared he successfully made it down the mountain without me sneaking in extra weight. So I showed him where I hid it in his pack’s trap door. Even my wife has fallen prey to a five-pound boulder in her pack.

Two days ago, we were sitting around the fire and my friend said it wouldn’t happen to him. Ha! Little did he know it was already hidden in his rain gear. The rain came. Perfect. He unpacked his gear and there it was, the dreaded rock.


Gibson’s industry involvement started as a test chair with the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado (ALCC). Early on he realized that leadership came to him naturally. Still, he knew he needed to work at it, he wanted to get better, so he sought out more industry responsibilities.

On the state level, Gibson was president of the Colorado Association of Lawn Care Professionals and, because of that position, director of GreenCO, Colorado’s coalition of association. He helped develop best practices and led the industry during the state’s drought in the early 2000s.

On the national level, Gibson’s leadership started when Jim Campanella of Lawn Dawg asked him to sit on Professional Lawn Care Association of America’s membership committee. Gibson later was named president-elect and worked on PLCAA’s negotiations with Associated Landscape Contractors of America to merge the organizations into PLANET. In 2006, he led PLANET as president.

Gibson was direct – always has been. His directness was one of the greatest assets he offered the associations he worked with because it came from a place of honesty.

“He’s smart, and he’s politically savvy,” says Kristen Fefes, executive director at ALCC. “Because he can see the political sides of discussions, he can help move things forward. He can say, ‘I’m worried that some people are worried about the implications of this,’ even though we haven’t talked about it yet. He can see the bigger picture.”

With Gibson, there was no dancing, no confusion – just a streamlined approach to solve the issue at hand.

“He was really good at that during the negotiations, and he was really good at that as a (PLANET) board member,” says Dan Foley, regional manager at The Brickman Group and the PLANET president prior to Gibson.

After marrying his wife, Kelly, in April 2011 (see photos above), Gibson crossed items off of his dream list like hunting in South Africa on his honeymoon and backpacking alone with mules. He also took his annual hunting and backpacking trips with his daughters.

Gibson strived to do two things during each position he held. The first was to improve the industry and help others grow. The second was to learn a lesson that would get him to his ultimate goal – lead a business.

Fefes worked closely with Gibson in the early 2000s, during the Colorado drought, and she spoke to him about the importance of forming a consensus. “One of the most challenging things to learn when you join a board of directors and committees, is that you really do have to operate with some consensus-based thinking and decision making, and that is very difficult for people who run companies,” she says. “It’s not that they can’t do it; it’s that they don’t on a daily basis.”

Consensus came into play again as Gibson prepared to lead PLANET. It was still a new association trying to meet the needs of its recently merged members. Foley says he advised Gibson to communicate to members the decisions being made and the association’s direction and vision.
 

I’m standing on the Bloukrans Bridge, peering at the gorge 708 feet below. Whatever happens next is out of my control. And I’m fine with that. I’m at peace – this is the same comfort I feel when hugging my kids, holding my wife’s hand, when the sun hits my face in the wilderness.

Just relax. And jump.

I fall until the slack rope tied around my ankles tightens and shoots me back toward where I left solid ground. I’m so afraid of heights that I cringe when my daughters rock the Ferris wheel car, but Kelly and I just jumped off the highest bridge in Africa.

The bounces stopped and I’m hanging upside down, still nothing between me and that gorge below. I start to relax and think about the ropes doing the same. I know I’m in no real danger, but the feeling of slipping through relaxed ropes is an inevitable moment of paranoia bungee jumpers feel.

The straps loosen. Ha! If I’m going to die, slipping to my death is not the way I want to go. No, I want the bungee to just break. It’s a much better ending to my life of adventure.


Gibson worked hard to transition his leadership style. He balanced his directness by softening his demeanor. He played a few jokes, showed what it meant to have fun at work.

Gibson learned from Garber, Tolkacz, Fefes, Foley, Campanella and his many other mentors. He received a degree in business management from The University of Phoenix.

Each opportunity within the industry and within Swingle was another chance for him to perfect his leadership abilities. And in 2008, he was named president of Swingle, fulfilling a nearly two-decade-long goal.

“Probably the greatest development I’ve seen in John is his ability to listen to and gather other people together and try to use a cooperative, communicative work style to achieve goals and objectives. That’s really been the core of his growth and development,” Tolkacz says. “That growth and development led to his success not only within the organization but also when he was in volunteer situations.”

Tolkacz says he named Gibson president because he demonstrated a collaborative leadership style and had an “extreme dedication” to improvement and excellence.

“He loves being a leader to the team, and he loves what he can make Swingle stand for, and how he can continue to promote what Swingle does stand for,” Kelly says.

What excited Gibson about running a company was the opportunity to set a vision and grow the people around him as the company reached its goals. Gibson set the direction and bar, and never apologized for his high standards. Not for Swingle. Not for the industry. Not for himself.

To him, there was no other way to succeed.

“Certain times, the leaders are driven by their own personal reasons,” Foley says. “(If) you talked to John about the industry, it’s always about the industry and what we can do. It’s never about his leadership. I think that’s an honorable trait. I’m not saying that he’s not personally driven to succeed. It’s just not about John Gibson.”


At the Colorado timberline, 11,500 feet high, the forest opens to vast land. It’s just the hard soil and whatever man or animal dares to venture into the beautiful solitude. It’s in this landscape that I find perfection. I find peace and freedom within myself, and nature, which is hard for anyone to search for, let alone find.

Here, for hours at a time, I’ve lain on a hill watching the world move around me. I’ve seen coyotes attack mountain lions, watched a golden eagle try to pick up a deer by its antlers. I’ve shot a deer only to be chased by a sow and her cubs while trying to claim my prize. Hard to believe, but all of that happened in 24 hours. And I can’t wait to do it again.

Here I channel Jeremiah Johnson, that rugged mountain man played by Robert Redford, and I understand the journey and adventure mean nothing without knowing I can return home to the love and support of my wife and children.

Here, in the mountains, I have no control. Nature and animals take the lead, and I just have to live among them.

 

The author is an associate editor at Lawn & Landscape. She can be reached at clawell@gie.net.

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