2010 Hall of Fame: Gary Garner - More Work, Less TalkSeptember 2010 By Erik Cagle
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