To understand what drives Den Gardner, you have to be transported back to 1950s Minnesota to a 50-acre hobby farm outside of a town called Delano. There, you’ll find Den and his twin brother, Dan, age 9, working diligently to spruce up the yard around their home. During the summer, the boys would use a riding mower and push mower to carefully cut the grass. They’d get down on their knees with grass trimmers to manicure around the barn and other buildings on the farm.
“It was a great, great memory to me of green,” Gardner says. “I understood, even at that tender age, how important it was to have a manicured field. My father instilled in us how important it was to have a well-maintained green space.”
Building a baseball field on a farm can be fraught with “hazards” that only made the game more interesting. The farm’s pig pen, for example, housed about 50 pigs. It happened to be near right field. “If you were a left-handed hitter and you hit a home run, the ball actually went into the pig pen,” Gardner recalls. “Then you had to climb into the pen – the hogs were harmless – to retrieve the ball and clean it off if it needed it. It certainly made things very interesting.”
Gardner describes his dad as having been “a baseball fanatic.” His father, Ken, never played the game, because he had suffered leg injuries that prevented him from playing. “But he always encouraged us in an incredible way to enjoy and play sports,” Gardner says. The baseball field not only taught Gardner the value of hard work, but it taught him teamwork as well. Teams would come from across town to play at the Gardner family field. “It was special,” he says. “But it wasn’t that I felt special; it was just a special and unique experience to have this in a small town. It’s something you never forget.”
This is the first article in a weekly series that recognizes six green industry leaders. Lawn & Landscape, along with Bayer Environmental Science, honored these professionals at a reception Oct. 26 at the Green Industry and Equipment Expo in Louisville, Ky.
Read the welcome letter from Bayer Environmental Science's U.S. Green Business Director Neil Cleveland.
“He and my mom both taught me to strive to get what you want accomplished – that there’s no dream that can be attained without working for it,” Gardner says. “Their inspiration to me is invaluable. With the limited education they had, they were able to achieve what they did. It literally inspires me every day.”
Indeed, his father went until sixth grade in school, while his mother used a high school education to eventually manage a bank.
Gardner’s father understood very well the balance of hard work and fun that was needed to give his sons a balanced upbringing. For the most part, except on weekends, he’d let Den and his brother sleep in because they’d have to go to school. “We would always have chores when we came home. One of those chores in the summer was taking care of the grass,” Gardner recalls. “Dad was so proud of the little farm he had. Even though it was this little hobby farm, he wanted that place to look great. We learned early on the importance of a well-maintained yard and what it did for you for your pride and for the enjoyment of working outside.”
GETTING TO WORK. When Gardner graduated from college, he went right to work in a place that will make you or break you – a small-town daily newspaper. These are the places where young journalists perform myriad duties, many of them behind the scenes, hurried tasks that certainly aren’t glamorous. It can be editing wire stories, taking photographs, writing news stories or going to sporting events and even writing editorials. It’s fast-paced work that rarely leaves time for reflection. And Gardner relished it. It’s where he learned and honed the most important of those modern-day workplace skills – multitasking.
“To this day, even though I’m old,” the 55-year-old says, laughing, “I tell people if they want to get a great experience that can really prepare you for the future, go to work for a daily newspaper. Those were some of the best experiences of my life. What a kick-start to my career.”
Working at a newspaper taught him at an early age how not to get flustered when he has a lot of work to do – which is often. He also learned how to do a variety of work. “I learned that even though I didn’t know squat about all the different facets of newspaper publishing, it was amazing how fast you could learn on the job.”
It was that ability to quickly grasp the problem at hand and find a solution that has aided Gardner in building things. It’s his passion. He often starts with an idea, bounces it off of people he trusts, and continues to mull it over. Oftentimes, those ideas turn into something big – really big – and are things that fill a void. “When I first started to talk about TOCA, people would say to me, ‘Huh? We’re going to get editors who are competing with each other, and PR agencies who are competing with other agencies and equipment and chemical companies to sit down in the same room and talk about their issues? And we’re going to do it to help each other?’” he recalls, discussing the green industry communications association he started in 1990. “They said, ‘We’ll never get it off of the ground.’ Of course, that’s all I needed to hear.”
His wife, Sandy, says he’s an endless source of ideas. “He’s got a lot of creative ideas. But some ideas aren’t doable sometimes. But he just keeps going,” she says. “I think if he truly believes in something, he’ll push it pretty far. It’s like Project Evergreen – I’m almost astounded he was able to get it off of the ground.”
Phil Fogarty, owner of Crowley’s/WeedMan, Euclid, Ohio, first met Gardner when he was invited to speak at a TOCA event about 10 years ago. “The first thing I was impressed by was the fact that TOCA existed,” he says. “When I found out Den was the guy who brought it all together, I was very interested in working with him.” Fogarty describes Gardner as an innovator, a humble leader, and “the Guttenberg of our industry.”
While he’s always coming up with ideas, there’s no way for one person do to it all alone. “He knows a lot of smart folks and he networks and calls upon them for their help,” Sandy says. “He talks to the people he knows and bounces ideas off of them. With TOCA, he just said, ‘This is something the industry needs and let’s see if it’ll work,’ and sought out people who could help him.”
It’s never been Gardner’s goal to get credit for the things he does. It’s just not important to him. “I think it’s because my parents were very humble people. They never stood up and raised their hand and said, ‘Look what I did,’” Gardner says. “They always taught me that what was important was the project at hand – getting it done and getting it done right.”
Gardner describes that “eureka” moment when he envisioned TOCA. “I thought, ‘We need something like this. There needs to be professional development in the industry,” he says. “My first inclination is to bounce it off of a few people – you can’t do these things by yourself. Maybe the seed came from me, but I know it doesn’t work without the tons of people who give me support.” In 2003 when he imagined Project Evergreen, a national non-profit organization representing the green industry, he took a step back and pondered: “’Who can help me get this thing off of the ground?’ I used that as a jumping off spot to build the organization,” he recalls. “Building things is a rush – it hits you, and you can’t wait to get it off of the ground.”
WORKING WITH OTHERS. When it comes to leading a team, Gardner has learned some important lessons. He knows that not everyone is going to like him. “In fact, maybe a lot of people aren’t going to like you, so don’t worry about it,” he says. He knows that micromanaging a project isn’t the way to get it done, but to instead allow the talented people he trusts to work through problems. “I am totally hung up on getting great work done and figuring out the best way to get it accomplished,” he says. “I’ve always been a person who doesn’t like to look over someone’s shoulder. I’m not hung up on laying blame, thinking I’m smarter than anyone (because anyone who knows me knows I’m not). I just want to fix things and get on with the next thing.”
More than 20 years ago, Gardner opened a fortune cookie that read: “You can undertake and complete anything.” He pasted it to his desk and reads it every day as a reminder. “It was as good back then as it is today,” he says. Great leaders aren’t only those born to lead, he believes. “That’s too simple.” He believes that while you should take your work seriously, you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously. Being strategic is a trait of a good leader as well as the ability to have a plan and adapt to change when needed.
He believes good leaders should be confident and display that confidence, but not be afraid to fail and to rely on others for help. “Don’t think you have to do it yourself,” he says. “Bounce ideas off of people who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is.” For future leaders of tomorrow, he has some simple advice. “Believe in yourself or have someone constantly yelling in your ear to do it,” he says, adding that where there’s no passion, there’s no leadership. “And never give up – sometimes give in.”
Leadership is being able to corral your passion and infuse it in others. “Leadership is knowing when to hold ‘em and knowing when to fold ‘em,” he says. “Leadership is managing from your head, but letting your heart come along for the ride for those most crucial decisions.”
Gardner marvels at the young talent he sees working in the green industry. “When I look at the skill level I had when I graduated from college, I shutter to think that I could even call myself prepared,” he says. “These young people today are so much better prepared for the business world than I was. And that’s fabulous.” But if he has one bit of advice for young people, it’s this: Slow down and be patient. “The word ‘patience’ has left their vocabulary if it was ever there,” he says. “It’s just a different society today – not necessarily better or worse – but there’s a different mentality today about how you get from step A to step B.”
HOW HE WORKS. Gardner actually starts his day in the middle of the night. Armed with a pad of paper and a pen at his bedside, he makes lists – all the time. If an idea strikes while he’s sleeping, he jots it down when he wakes up. In fact, everything is written down. “My first boss told me never to go into any meeting without paper and a pen. Today, maybe it’s a laptop,” he says. “But he taught me preparedness. If you’re prepared, you will succeed.”
It’s that type of preparedness that his friend and colleague Norm Goldenberg, who serves on the board of directors of Project EverGreen, says helps Gardner succeed and reach out to others. “He’s able to boil down all kinds of info and present it to us in a way that’s easy to read and understand,” Goldenberg says. “He’s just a great communicator. That’s what he does. He’s a very friendly, amiable guy. He meets new people very quickly and he’s just a wonderful person.”
Fogarty describes Gardner as someone who doesn’t take the status quo as the way it has to be. “He found a way to organize the hundreds of people who write about our industry, when everyone told him he couldn’t do it,” Fogarty says. “I think it was an incredible thing he did.”
Gardner’s goal every day is to return messages promptly. If he’s in the office, his goal is to return any phone call within two hours. If it’s an e-mail, he’ll reply in 24 hours or less. “With young people today, there’s not anything that even resembles that,” he says. “You can not only go days without hearing from them – you may never hear back from them. From a business courtesy standpoint, there are things I’ve learned I can share with young people. And, in turn, I can learn from their talent, so it’s a two-way street.”
Gardner says he starts off every day knowing that if he’s not around tomorrow, there will be someone to take his place. “I’m only as important as the people I work with and communicate with every day,” he says. “I’m not curing cancer. I’m not teaching 6-year-olds how to read. I’m one bead on a rosary of people trying to do the best we can to help others do their jobs better and understand the importance of what this industry is all about.”
Says Sandy, “With Den, what you see is what you get.”