Big Heart in a Hard Hat

Bob Gardner loves people. As owner of Gardner Builders, a Minneapolis-based construction company that truly cares about making clients’ experiences enjoyable, he is often found interacting with trade partners, clients, influencers in the business and his team. He says if his team doesn’t feel inspired, he’s not doing his job. So it is no surprise that the reason he gets out of bed every morning is to meet people, engage with them, learn, and have fun along the way.

His staff is very clear about the company’s “why,” and the writing is on the wall (literally). In the meeting room in the company’s 12th floor offices, the purpose statement is scrawled on the board — a reminder of why they do what they do. Here we talk with Bob about innovating in an old industry, exceeding expectations and being the standard by which others are measured.

Studio/E: How do you bring hospitality into construction? 
Bob: It’s all about building relationships and having a dialogue instead of a monologue. There’s a quote from a guy named Danny Meyer that I like: “Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.” Our first priority is our people. If your team doesn’t come to work feeling inspired, respected and cared about, then they’re not going to crush it for the client.

Studio/E: What makes a company the standard by which others are measured? 
Bob: It’s important to know why you do things. We’re a construction company that calls itself a hospitality company, and it takes some heavy lifting to explain what that means. It’s not about building restaurants and hotels; it’s about listening to and understanding what our clients’ objectives are, then creating an experience they’ve never had before. Your team is in alignment with the company’s desire.

Studio/E: How did you do that?
You can’t teach hospitality; I think it’s wired. If you’re not geared to go out of your way to help somebody and to build a genuine relationship with them, you’re not going to do well in our company. People hear hospitality and say, “this is construction, this isn’t touchy-feely stuff.” But the reality is, every single one of us wants to hear our names repeated back to us; we want to feel respected — and construction is no different. When you allow people to knock it out of the park and feel proud about the work they’ve done by engaging them in the process — that’s a win-win.

Studio/E: How do you innovate in an age-old industry?
Being able to operate digitally enabled us to be as professional as the big companies, even though we were just two employees at the time. Everything we do is in the cloud now, so whether I’m sitting in my office or on an airplane, I can access documents and work on them. Take that to the field and superintendents are taking photos daily of the progress on the jobsite, inviting the clients to experience it even if they aren’t actually there. You say that if you don’t exceed clients’ expectations, you haven’t met your goal.

Studio/E: How do you exceed them?
There are a thousand touchpoints between us and our clients, and each one is an opportunity to make a difference. We’re constantly asking ourselves how to behave differently when we interact with clients and when we buy the services of our trade partners. We don’t want to be treated like a commodity so we don’t treat others like commodities either. Gardner Builders has become the platinum standard.

Studio/E: How can others become a standard in their industry?
Build genuine two-way relationships with your team, your clients and those who help you deliver for your clients. Don’t value the people around you because they made you successful; value them for who they are. Once you stop to appreciate the value that they bring, there’s a whole new world of possibility. Unplug from technology and have face-to-face conversations with everyone you interact with. Get to know the humans.

It’s refreshing to see a leader so in-tune with his “why” and genuinely interested in the people who helped get him where he is today. Bob is a human we feel lucky to know.

LOCATION: Minneapolis
DESCRIPTION: A hospitality company in the commercial construction business.
BOB’S DESIRE: To meet people, engage with them, learn and have fun along the way.
STUDIO/E COMPETENCY: Desire — Your purpose and why you live your life the way you do, both personally and professionally.
This post originally appeared in Minnesota Business Magazine’s May 2017 issue.

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