2010 Hall of Fame: Gary Garner - More Work, Less TalkSeptember 2010 By Erik Cagle
While the printing industry may not boast a bevy of P.T. Barnum types, there are those chief executives who don't have any trouble talking about themselves and their accomplishments. Not to say these execs are braggarts; they're just comfortable with promoting their abilities.
Gary Garner is not altogether at ease on the subject of Gary Garner. It is not a criticism; perhaps it is really just a product of Midwestern modesty. But, Garner would have plenty of accomplishments to talk about—the man started his own company, GLS Companies (along with two partners) in 1984, and it has grown to a mid-$50 million performer with two Minnesota locations and more than 300 workers.
Garner, the president and CEO of GLS Companies, came from modest means and toiled his way to the top, making his success tale even more dramatic, and his selection into the 2010 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame a fait accompli.
Modesty isn't Garner's only admirable trait, but don't mistake it for shyness and timidity. Just ask David Radziej (rod-gee), president of the Printing Industry of Minnesota, who describes Garner as an individual that sets high standards for himself and demands the same of others.
"Gary is 100-percent loyal to those who give it their best...there's no second place for Gary," Radziej says. "He inspires those around him to become better and to grow professionally. I can also always count on Gary to help out, whether it's opening doors or sponsoring and promoting a new service or item that we're offering. He is passionate about our industry, and is concerned with the direction it's headed."
As for Garner himself, he often wonders where that direction will lead GLS Companies. One thing's for sure, however...GLS will definitely follow its customers' lead.
"I believe we will continue to provide products and services to help our customers grow their businesses," he says. "We just have to figure out what those products are. My philosophy is to take our business to wherever our customers want to go."
Garner grew up in northeast Minneapolis, the youngest of four children. For all intents, though, he was an only child, with a significant age gap between Garner and his siblings, who were out of the house and married during his formative years. One of his most liberating experiences was the day Garner received his driver's license, but "going places" was still a few years off.
His first encounter with printing came at the conclusion of his sophomore year at Columbia Heights High School, when it was time to register for the following school year's classes. Two courses really caught his eye: auto mechanics and printing. The printing instructor, Paul Terry, went on to mold Garner's destiny.
"I wandered a bit in high school...didn't really know what I wanted to do," he recalls. "But, when I took the printing class, I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are a number of us who went to Columbia Heights High School that have ended up with careers in the printing industry, thanks to Paul Terry."
Terry helped kick-start Garner's career, turning him on to a building supply company in need of a point person to produce its wholesale looseleaf lumber catalog. That began a career that led him to working for several other printers in Minnesota before deciding, at the age of 31, that he wanted to take a shot at running his own printing company.
The thought of becoming his own boss came to Garner much earlier, of course, but it wasn't until he leveraged funds from property rentals, wrote out a business plan and secured an SBA start-up loan that General Litho Services became a reality in 1984. Garner handled sales, one partner was a stripper and the other a pressman.
"When I signed (the purchase order) for two presses in September of '83, I did not sleep well that night because I knew then that there was no turning back," he recalls. "We didn't even know at that point where we were going to install the presses, but the orders came in and we had to find a location."
Growth and Challenges
GLS generated $748,000 in sales for 1984 and began to embark on a campaign of steady growth, fueled both organically and through acquisitions. The first color press landed at GLS in 1986; four years later, the company added mailing services to its arsenal. Data processing followed in 1993 and, two years after that, fulfillment and distribution. As the new capabilities flourished, operating space became an issue, so three plants were consolidated into one in 1996, and that facility has been expanded three times. Another company, Litho Inc., was acquired in 2006, giving GLS plants in both Brooklyn Park and St. Paul.
Garner has endured his share of economic slowdowns, but none can compare to the screeching halt experienced by many printers in the fall of 2008. GLS was forced to reconcile the lost work with its employee ranks, and about 25 percent was eliminated in three rounds of head count reductions. As much as it pained Garner to implement the cutbacks, he knew it was necessary to keep the company financially viable. "We were proactive in adjusting our business model, but it hurts that we had to let a lot of great people go," he notes.
GLS' sales, which had ballooned to $65 million in 2007, dwindled to $50 million in 2009, but Garner says the firm is on track to post about $55 million in revenues for 2010. "We must continue to engage our customers. We also know that there is a balanced approach to marketing, and it's not just one item or another, but a combination of things. We're seeing a definite uptick in our business."
Perhaps the two men who have left a lasting impression on Garner are Japs-Olson's Bob Murphy (a 1993 Hall of Fame inductee) and Jerome Carlson, who is retired from then-Instant Web Companies. Both are printing legends in Minnesota, yet have different but successful styles, according to Garner, who worked with them on the trade association board for many years.
In the final analysis, Garner wants to be known as a printing executive who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, and who truly cares about the people in his employ. "I want to be remembered as a guy who would never tell someone else to do something I have not done or wouldn't do myself," Garner says. "I try to make a positive difference in people's lives and provide an environment where they can flourish, both personally and professionally."
To that list one can add empowerment, says Rick Reisgraf of Carlson Advisors, who has worked with GLS for many years, and also lists passion and vision among Garner's other top attributes. "Gary has built a strong management team over the years, and gives a great level of responsibility to his staff and managers," Reisgraf says.
Marsha and Gary Garner have been married for 32 years and have two children: Amy, 27, and Adam, 26. They like to travel and recently enjoyed a "fabulous experience" in Italy. Europe, in general, fascinates Garner.
He also enjoys playing golf with son-in-law Jason, but perhaps his top non-family, non-printing passion is restoring street rods and older cars. One of his more recent automotive rehabs is a 1940 Ford panel truck, which bears the GLS logo, boasting air ride suspension and a big block engine with blower. Did Garner do most of the work himself?
"Does writing checks count?" he jokes. PI