Published on April 21st, 2016 | by UC&D Magazine0
Let the Good Times Roll
Real estate developer Gardner Company has more than 3 million square feet of projects underway in some capacity; the firm has developed 33 million square feet of commercial space in the past five years
After graduating with a Juris Doctor in 1970 from the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, Kem Gardner had every intention in the world of becoming a world-class lawyer, and planned to move to Southern California to see that dream realized.
A native of rural Davis County, Gardner even served as Chief of Staff to Utah Senator Frank Moss for three years, an experience he described as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone fresh out of college to rub shoulders with political heavyweights in both Utah and Washington, D.C.
As fate would have it, Gardner ended up ditching his plans to practice law – he had agreed to take a position with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a major law firm based in Los Angeles – and instead became partners with friend and mentor H. Roger Boyer in real estate development in 1974, with the two leading the charge for The Boyer Company of Salt Lake City for more than 30 years. Gardner and Boyer had been friends for a few years prior, having met while serving on the bishopric of an LDS Church student ward at the U. Gardner moved on to a new adventure a dozen years ago, having started Salt Lake-based Gardner Company in 2004 with his son, Christian, and other children.
Gardner, 74, expressed gratitude for his career in real estate, and how everything came about.
“I really believe the important thing in my life at that time was that Senator Moss was willing to take a 28-year-old kid right out of law school and make me an administrative assistant,” said Gardner. “I cannot believe, even to this day, how he introduced me to the movers and shakers in Washington and the important people in Utah – bankers, utility heads, lawyers… politics gave me enormous exposure and contacts.”
Boyer ultimately asked Gardner if he had any interest in the world of real estate.
“I told him, ‘I don’t really know anything about it – I think I better go practice law’. Roger said, ‘if we can find tenants – and you know everybody – the credit of tenants can help us get construction loans’. He said,
‘what if we borrowed $1 billion and paid it back with tenant rents? What would we have in 20 to 30 years?’ That was a concept that was new to me.”
Gardner even sought advice from then Governor Calvin Rampton, who encouraged him to stay in Utah. Rampton even said he’d help Gardner and Boyer get started with a couple of state buildings.
“We sold the first one while it was still under construction,” Gardner recalled. “We tried to (run the company) without taking on too many partners and do the best we could to grow the business. We borrowed far in excess of a billion dollars over those years; we both did very well and part of it was because of my exposure to politics.”
Gardner stayed heavily involved in Utah’s political scene in the 80’s and even ran for Governor in 1984, losing to Wayne Owens in the race to be the Democratic nominee (Norm Bangerter ultimately defeated Owens).
Gardner took the political defeat in stride, and less than two years later was called to serve as an LDS Mission President in Boston from 1986-89. It was there he met Mitt Romney, becoming close friends to the former presidential candidate. Gardner is widely credited with helping lure Romney to Utah to run the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games after it became embroiled in controversy.
“When one door closes, another opens, and it was a lot better one than the door that closed,” said Gardner. “Going to Boston was good for me.”
Since founding Gardner Company in 2004, the senior Gardner has gradually handed the reigns to Christian, who serves as President/CEO, along with other company executives. But he still has a passion for real estate developing and has no problem making executive decisions.
“I’m the bank – you’ve got to remember where the money comes from,” he said. “I’m involved in all major decisions, but I’m very supportive of what (other executives) want to do. Somebody has to sign the guarantees and put in the equity. I have fun when I believe we can have a positive impact. We want to make sure we’re doing something that helps the community.”
Over his 40-plus-year career, Gardner has been involved in the development of more than 3,500 residential lots and
in excess of 33 million square feet of commercial retail, office, medical and industrial buildings.
“He’s very decisive and compassionate – he’s just a great leader,” said Christian, 43, who earned a Master of Real Estate Development from MIT before taking over the top spot in the family business. “He’s taught us the value of hard work and the importance of being involved in the community on a philanthropy level.”
Besides Christian, key executives include: Brad Margetts, VP of Finance; Mark Murdock, VP of Development; John Bankhead, VP of Development, Ryan Bevan, VP of Construction; Tommy Ahlquist, COO.
Making Hay in Midvale, Downtown Boise
To say business is booming for Gardner Company would be an understatement. According to VP of Construction, Ryan Bevan, a former Project Manager for Okland Construction, Gardner Company currently has more than 3 million square feet of commercial projects in the works at various stages, including 700,000 SF in Midvale, 700,000 SF in Draper (partners with Boyer Company), 300,000 SF in Lehi, nearly 400,000 SF in Boise, and 330,000 SF in Sandy. Over the past five years, said Bevan, Gardner has financed over $2 billion worth of projects.
The entire Midvale/Bingham Junction development – dubbed ‘View 72’ for its location just west of I-15 at 7200 South – is one of the more ambitious developments along the Wasatch Front in recent years. The area was formerly the site of Midvale Slag and Sharon Steel (closed in 1958) and required a 17-month, $17 million cleanup that concluded August 2006.
Gardner purchased approximately 200 acres in Fall 2007 and has ultimately turned it into a thriving hub of activity, with a combination of single- and multifamily homes, along with state-of-the-art commercial office and retail space.
Christian Gardner said even though the firm purchased the land during the beginning of the latest recession, he and other company executives felt it was a golden opportunity to develop a worldclass mixed-use area located in the heart of the valley.
“It was one of the largest pieces of undeveloped property along the I-15 corridor – we naturally thought it would be a great opportunity,” said Christian. “Where else do you have, in the middle of the Salt Lake Valley, 250 acres of undeveloped land? We thought it would be a great office park, a great mixed-used area. We worked with the EPA to get the necessary certifications to get it developed. DeLoy Hansen’s group (Wasatch Property Management) came in and bought 1,500 residential units. We were in a good position, we had good partners…our carry wasn’t too bad. Not a lot of deals were done during the early part of the recession.”
“It has made Midvale work…the Mayor won’t say enough good about it,” said Kem. “Christian was the driving force behind it. $30 million in property – we had to carry it. Christian is a remarkable talent – he negotiated with ZAGG, CHG (Healthcare), Overstock.com…in terms of contacts and relationships with tenants, he’s really good.”
The firm has been actively engaged the past decade in developing buildings in downtown Boise along with medical-office buildings/campuses in neighboring areas such as Nampa. The firm is currently developing City Center Plaza downtown, a 9-story, Class A office building. The firm also developed 8th and Main, a 17-story, 400,000 SF high-rise that was completed in early 2014 and replaced an unsightly hole that had been left vacant for years. Gardner Company also purchased the neighboring 260,000 SF U.S. Bank building. Kem Gardner is particularly proud of his firm’s activity in Boise over the past decade.
“I always ask, ‘do I want to own the building?’ We’re always looking at our portfolio, always buying and selling property. We’ve got so much going on right now…we’ve sold a couple of buildings in the past month to help fund new projects,” he said. “It’s all over the course of your business, to see how you can grow, what makes sense. We’ll keep developing and growing the business with the younger generation.”
“I think the future is bright; the market is experiencing robust growth,” said Christian about the firm’s outlook. “There is a lot of pent up demand from the great recession and companies (outside the state) are looking at coming to Utah. We have a good, educated labor pool and Utah is a great place to live. We’re looking to expand in other markets in the Intermountain West.”
Besides Christian, Gardner has five other children (plus two in-laws) who work in various capacities within the firm.
“We view it as a family business,” said Kem. “Hopefully we’re creating a foundation that can give a lot back to the community. I view myself more involved with philanthropy at this stage. I’m the old school and Christian is the guy making it happen now.”
He added, “As long as I can make a difference and have an impact on the community, as long as I can work with my children, it’s still a thrill for me. They all are committed to grow the business. I’ve been able to have the flexibility to serve on non-profit boards. I’ve spent 35 years at Intermountain Healthcare (Board of Trustees since ’82), 18 years with the United Way of Salt Lake. I’ve discovered you don’t need to hold a political office to do good things. We feel blessed at what we’ve been able to do.”