Kem Gardner: Cementing a Legacy in Utah’s Communities
The Adobe building. Utah’s symphony. The Days of ’47 Arena. Intermountain Healthcare’s Transformation Center. University of Utah’s policy institute. University of Utah basketball. What do these things have in common?
Kem C. Gardner.
Gardner’s company built the Adobe building—as well as Overstock.com’s Peace Coliseum and the headquarters for Mountain America Credit Union, Dell EMC, 1-800 Contacts, Zagg, Vivint Smart Home, Ancestry and Solutionreach (the list goes on and on). He supports Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, helped build the new arena for the Days of ’47 Rodeo, and the policy institute—yes, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute—is partly funded through the Gardner family’s donations. And after years of chairing Intermountain Healthcare’s board, his name also graces Intermountain Gardner Transformation Center (just as his wife’s name, Carolyn Barnes Gardner, graces the women and newborn center). As for the University of Utah, Gardner helped build the new basketball practice facility.
Gardner’s work and legacy are not limited to this list; there are many other buildings that bear his name and many that he has contributed to that do not, and scholarships and board involvement and donations that he does not mention. He is quick, also, to deny any solitary involvement with any of his causes—he is a piece, a portion of the community, he says, that made these things happen.
But Gardner works, and works hard, to build communities. It’s the slogan of his company, and it’s not just words—it’s the overarching philosophy that Gardner lives his life by. Now in his 70s, Gardner is not content to rest on his laurels or to consider his work complete. If “forever is composed of nows,” as Gardner’s favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, says, Gardner is filling every now he has available with more work that will compose his legacy.
“He has, as long as I’ve known him, the rare ability—and when I say rare, I’m emphasizing rare—to get things done,” says Lane Beattie, outgoing CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber. “There’s an author who said that the only purpose of your existence is to get results. That’s the epitaph for Kem Gardner. And he has. He’s one of those individuals whose personality and life are bigger than reality at times.”
A charmed life
Gardner says he’s lived a charmed life. His friends, including Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions Bank, call Gardner “a cowboy from Star Valley.”
“This is a man who knows how to ride a horse,” laughs Beattie of Gardner’s upbringing. “He’s used to working, taking care of animals, knowing what it takes. He loves the outdoors.”
Gardner (and his love of the outdoors) was born in Afton, Wyoming, to a family that believed in hard work and charity. His father was a schoolteacher and farmer. Gardner recollects how his parents emphasized charity regardless of their means, because everyone who had anything, they would say, had help from someone else.
“We didn’t have anything in those hard Wyoming years, but my parents would always share what we had,” says Gardner. “I remember when I was in the second grade, I got a book and a little Timex watch for Christmas. Christmas morning, my dad said a family had come into town and were put into the motel and had nothing. Did we each want to take one of our presents to give to the family? I remember mother fixing a big Christmas dinner for them. I had to choose between a book and a watch, and so I gave the watch, because I love books. I learned early that it was good to give. That was a learning experience. But it was replicated throughout my life.”
The family moved into Utah to work at his uncle’s—Big Vern, Gardner calls him—service station. After serving an LDS mission in West Germany, Gardner attended the University of Utah, where he met his wife, Carolyn. He then went on to law school.
Instead of going into a firm after graduation, Gardner was invited by then-Sen. Frank E. Moss of Utah to be his chief of staff. As Carolyn’s family was based in D.C., his wife was immediately onboard, and the couple took a chance and moved to the country’s capital.
“I’ve always thought that I’ve had a charmed life that Senator Moss would take a 28-year-old kid out of law school, especially because Senator Moss was No. 3 in Senate leadership and had prominent committee assignments,” says Gardner. “I met all of the movers and shakers out of Washington, D.C. and Utah and got very close to many of them.”
When time came that the Gardners wanted to move on from D.C., fortune intervened once more. Instead of taking a post with one of the California firms that had offered Gardner a position out of law school, Gardner’s friend Roger Boyer—with whom he’d served in an LDS student ward bishopric—called him with a proposition. Why not go into the real estate business together?
“I knew nothing about real estate. Roger was a superb mentor and a dear friend. I thought I would try it,” says Gardner. “We had no money getting started, but we were able to get some projects and so, for over 30 years, we worked together as partners in The Boyer Company.”
At The Boyer Company, Gardner and Boyer worked together on such projects as The Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City, One Utah Center and the Tesla offices.
Their success enabled Gardner to focus on projects he’d long since desired to work on—projects that would allow him to help give back to communities in Utah. He chaired the Utah State Board of Regents, the symphony and the airport authority. He became involved with United Way. But Gardner wanted to find a way to become even more involved in building up Utah communities, and with his political background, thought maybe government was the way to do it.
Hoping to bring more resources to education, Gardner ran for governor as a Democrat in 1984, but never made it out of the primaries. Fortune had a different path in mind for him:
“At that point, the LDS Church felt if I had four years to be governor, I had three years to serve a mission and sent me to Boston as mission president,” says Gardner. “So we took our six children, Carolyn and me, and we spent three years in Boston. When I say I’ve had a charmed life, I mean it was a great experience for our family, living in Boston, and meeting so many people there. I became very close friends with Mitt Romney.”
Gardner and Romney developed an enduring friendship, and Gardner continued to cultivate relationships on both sides of the political spectrum—even with the politicians who stymied his own political ambitions, and even with those whose political leanings differed from his own. During Romney’s run for president in 2012, Gardner stood by his friend, donating to his campaign, traveling with him and taking calls for him, relates Anderson.
“His loyalty to those friends is legend: He has stood by people who were under a cloud when others did their best to stay away,” says Romney.
“He is truly non-partisan,” says Gardner’s son, Christian, who is now president and CEO of the Gardner Company. “He has friends on both sides of the aisle. He would make a great politician because he is really looking for pragmatic solutions to problems. He has never had an issue with working with one side or the other—he has friends on both sides. … Politicians come and go, but statesmen in the community, they stay. He realized, I think, a long time ago, that he could have just as big if not bigger of an impact by being a leader in the community.”
Gardner agrees his loss in the 1984 gubernatorial primaries was a blessing in disguise. It taught him a lesson: being a politician is not a requirement for community action.
“I learned you don’t have to hold political office to do good. Particularly, I have learned that the best people in the community are found serving nonprofits and on the nonprofit boards. They’re compassionate, they’re caring, they’re trying to make the community better,” he says. “I’ve had great joy in my life by joining with them in various causes. I really think that I would have not been a very good governor, but I think I’m a better community-builder, helping not just in terms of money, but in terms of time.”
It’s this thinking that also led Gardner to support the creation of what is now the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. When the LDS Church donated the Wall Mansion to the University of Utah, then-university trustees Clark Ivory and Roger Boyer traveled to Stanford to take a look at its policy institute and explore ideas that could be brought to Utah. They returned to the state and began to raise money for the venture, and Gardner jumped onboard. He says that as people become more emotional about political issues and drift to greater extremes—and far less collaboration—a policy institute keeps the focus on cold hard facts and data.
“The purpose is to shed light on important Utah issues so that people can make informed decisions. We don’t view our job as advocacy, but as providing information,” says Gardner. “We want to make sure that people aren’t acting on emotion but on facts and information. It serves a great cause.”
There are lots of ways to build a community, and Gardner seems to have tried all of them. He gives his energy and time to as many causes as he can, because, as he says, giving money only goes so far. And the causes he’s contributed to are many: He’s served on the boards for Intermountain Healthcare (since the ‘80s), United Way of Salt Lake, the Salt Lake Chamber and the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, and he was chairman of the 2002 Olympic Ambassadors. He raised money for the new Days of ’47 Arena, and is a benefactor of the Hale Centre Theatre. He helped the symphony go on its Great American Road Trip, helped the University of Utah build its new basketball practice facility, and provides scholarships for the U, Boise State and Weber State. He is currently working with Anderson on the Zion Natl Park Forever Project, raising funds and resources so the park can maintain itself.
“I don’t think you give very much when you give of your money. It’s when you give of your time and work with others to try to make things better that you really give,” says Gardner.
“Kem is a believer in mankind. He’s truly a great humanitarian,” says Anderson. “He believes that we have an obligation to give back some of what we have reaped. I think he feels that he has been blessed and that he has an obligation to help bless others.”
Anderson tells this story: In downtown Boise, between Eighth and Main Streets, there used to be a very large, very conspicuous hole.
“It was a hole that people had tried to build something on for 30 years, and nobody could do it. They’d go bankrupt; it wouldn’t work; they’d run out of money. It had depressed the whole economy of Boise and the attitude of people that they could do anything,” relates Anderson. “Part of the story, the lore, was that when the original developers were trying to put together the land, they took a piece of land from a business owner that then cursed the land and said nobody could build there. So I asked Kem if he could build a building there, he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ The community in Boise thought: ‘Here we go again. This is the 10th developer.’”
But Gardner decided not to ignore the feelings of the community. At the groundbreaking, he requested the services of an American Indian medicine man, who then walked through the plot and performed a ceremony to bless the land. And then, the Gardner Company proceeded to build a 17-story, 253,000-square-foot building on that land.
“Kem is bold: He studies a business opportunity thoroughly and if he is satisfied, he jumps in whole hog,” says Romney. “His customers and financiers have nothing but praise for their relationship with Kem Gardner.”
One of the best things about Utah, says Gardner, is how easy it is to find like-minded people who also want to give.
“One of the remarkable things about this valley is that there are families here who love this state and this community and are willing to give back in remarkable ways,” he says. “ I have felt that it’s a privilege to join with the Huntsmans, with the Eccles, with the Sorensons, with the Millers, with the Andersons, with the Tanners, with the Simmonses, with the Hansens—I hate to leave people out.” He pauses, searching his mind, unwilling to leave out families that have done, he feels, just as much or more than he has. “My family, we’re not alone.”
Gardner undertakes fundraising efforts for many of the causes he supports wholeheartedly. With a reputation for getting things done, the energy he gives his causes is infectious, says Beattie.
“He becomes involved in whatever he’s done at the top level. He has the energy, the never-quit ability that creates great successes. He’s the epitome of that,” he says.
“He raises money like crazy, but the way he does it is interesting—he says, ‘I’ll give $2 million, will you?’” says Gail Miller, chairwoman of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies. “He’s very generous, and he’ll move people along. That’s the neat thing about this community: Everyone wants to be involved. He’s a mover and a shaker.”
A renaissance man
It’s hard to imagine that the cowboy from Star Valley who spends most of his time out giving to or fundraising for charitable initiatives would be anything less than serious—perhaps the stoic, silent, get-it-done-and-go type. But Gardner is full of self-depreciating humor and knows over 2,000 poems by heart. He has a photographic memory: “Watch what you write about him,” says Romney. “He won’t forget it!”
His office is full of Red Sox merchandise, paintings of cowboys and Chief Joseph, political cartoons—and, most importantly, pictures of family. He and Carolyn celebrated their 50th anniversary over the summer with their entire family, all their children and grandchildren, in Hawaii. Miller describes him as “a kind-hearted gentleman.”
Gardner laughs easily at himself and shrugs at his accolades: He’s just doing what he thinks is right; does that mean he needs a trophy for it? A man’s family—not the buildings he builds or the causes he supports—are his true legacy, after all. The only accolade that really thrilled him, says Anderson, was when Larry Krystkowiak, head coach of the Utah Utes basketball team, pleased at their new practice facility, called Kem and “elevated [him] to the captain of the U Stud Team,” laughs Anderson. “That was a fun acknowledgement.”
“I don’t think he takes those accolades seriously. He wouldn’t receive those awards for any personal gratification. He does it because usually they’re associated with a cause,” says Christian. “We kind of grow up knowing that we’re here to help in the community and you don’t do it for personal ambition or gratification. I think people would be surprised to know how grounded he is. He doesn’t take those things too seriously. It’s not about money. He doesn’t have a materialistic ambition, or trying to grow a huge business for any other reason other than to have a way to give back to the community. He’s very humble, he’s very grounded and he’s deeply spiritual. He’s very passionate about his faith, but he’s passionate about taking care of those that are less fortunate than he.”
Gardner’s friends agree that what’s important to Gardner is first his family, then his charitable initiatives and then his business—which is, they say, exactly what makes him so successful with all of them.
“He is a giant for our communities. He’s also a giant in his family. His legacy will be as a father and as a husband and as a son and as a brother, as a choice best friend,” says Beattie. “Those are the legacies that will forever be there. He really cares. His friends are his friends today and they’ll be his friends in the future. He laughs easy, he works hard and he loves much.”