Face to Face: Michael Gardner
There’s hardly a need to introduce Michael Gardner, who as of the date of this issue, has formally exited the Gypsum Association to leave for a position with the International Code Council. For more than 15 years, Gardner bounced around North America representing the GA as well as the industry. In 2003, when his predecessor Jerry Walker left the association, Gardner filled the big, leathery boots of the executive director role.
It would be accurate to say that Gardner’s tenure was an exciting period. The 11 year span saw a massive growth for wallboard in North America, a boom that continued strong for approximately four to five years during the mid-2000s. Then a double-decker of bad luck - the Chinese Drywall epidemic followed by the Great Recession. Gardner explains this period (and much more) in this interview.
From this magazine’s editor’s point of view, Gardner handled this second and third act remarkably well. During stressful periods, Father Time has a way of accelerating looks- but not for Gardner. He’s barely aged and showed us his dedication through his constant representation of the association at trade events, liaison for the gypsum industry, revisions for ASTM standards/codes and his column All Things Gypsum for this magazine, to name only a few. His output has been as impressive as it has been abundant.
W&C thanks him for his years of penning the column and serving as a friend and advocate to the industry.
W&C: Your predecessor came from a different background, whereas you were employed by a gypsum board (and accessory) manufacturer before joining the GA - what were the differences?
Michael Gardner: I think to put it in a simple sense, Jerry Walker, my predecessor, had more of a high-level association management background when he became Executive Director than I did. Jerry had served as the number two person at a lumber dealers association before he took over at the GA in 1988. He may actually have run the other association for awhile too. While I had 10 years of association experience prior to becoming Executive Director of the GA in 2003, I didn’t take over the job with a COO or Deputy Executive background similar to Jerry’s. My background was largely from the industry side as I had worked in contracting and for National Gypsum. So he had more prior experience running an organization than I did. The other big difference is that I was on the GA staff for five years before I took over as ED. Jerry came directly from another organization.
W&C: What was the status of the association when you joined?
MG: I have always been very grateful to Jerry for the organization he left me and the help he gave me with my career. I inherited an organization with a very good set-up. From an administrative standpoint, it was more about tweaks than wholesale changes or new plans.
W&C: What were the objectives when you joined the GA?
MG: I don’t think the objectives of the organization were much different in 1998 than they are now. The proof is that the mission statement is still the same. I think what has changed is the manner in which we carry out our mission. I like to think that if I did anything in 10 years, I made the GA into more of a “strike force”that works on behalf of the industry on specific issues that benefit the collective. We replaced general interest programs with specific issue programs.
W&C: Why is it important that drywall contractors need to be strict in application of the product regarding codes?
MG: People forget that, in most locations, the building code is law. So it’s important that contractors comply with the code because of the obvious liability and related cost issues. But what is really important is that they install the material correct, so that it performs properly. For gypsum board, it’s all about compliance with the specifications that are referenced in the codes.
W&C: It would be a discredit to the GA to narrow down a single achievement it has contributed to the industry. That being said, is GA-216-13 (Levels of Finish) one of the most significant?
MG: I think GA-216 is a very important document for the industry; however, people often forget that it is not a GA document. It’s actually written by a consortium of five organizations. GA is the coordinating publisher for reasons of convenience.
What astounds me about GA-216 is the extent to which its concepts have been adopted globally. Last time I checked the Eurogypsum Web site, I think it displayed European versions in eight different languages. There is a version that is used in Australia and countless modifications used in North America. It’s everywhere.
W&C: The association has officially penned W&C's column All Things Gypsum. From the offset, was there a particular thesis or goal the association wanted to address in this column?
MG: We tried to keep it fairly technical in nature but, if you remember, we got into writing the column because we objected to some of the gypsum board articles that were being published by W&C at the time because we felt they were too frivolous. Basically, someone at W&C, and I truly don’t recall who it was, politely said “put up or shut up”to us, so we took on the task of a monthly column. Jerry Walker is a marvelous writerÑhe was an English teacher for many yearsÑand he took to the column like a duck to water. I inherited it in 2003. I occasionally made it a bit more “folksy”by addressing some non-technical issues, and my long background in building codes made writing about gypsum board and codes a natural. That’s why my versions contained a lot of code “stuff.”But the basic premise remained the same: stick to the facts and teach the technical side of the product.
W&C: Dealing with manufacturers, those who make up the members of the association, can’t be without its hardships and compromise. Does the GA board stand with you on unpopular decisions or do you bear the brunt alone?
MG: It wasn’t so much “bearing the brunt”as it was trying to figure out which issues we could actually resolve as a group and which issues we had to let the individual companies address as each deemed appropriate. That happens in a tough, competitive industry. It’s all part of the environment.
Of course there were days that made me bang my head on the desk, but the vast majority of times the members really tried to work together to accomplish goals that benefited the industry. These are pragmatic people who understand the benefit of working together in an association environment to accomplish mutual goals. They know that the brinksmanship approach generally backfires in the long run.
W&C: The Chinese Drywall epidemic caused a massive stink to those in the industry. There were a lot of misconceptions surrounding itÑespecially towards U.S.-based manufacturers. From the industry’s point of view, it was a difficult period but the fire seemed to be put out with grace. Behind the scenes, how bad was it?
MG: A “massive stink?”I like that. Did it have difficult days? You better believe it did, and they weren’t much fun. But I like to think that we did handle it with grace, as you say, simply by pounding home the point that domestic material was and is safe. It just took a long time to get the point across. While the GA’s legislative work on the issue dragged on for many years, hopefully the whole thing is now a Neitzschean experience that is largely in the past.
W&C: Do you foresee any challenges the gypsum industry is likely to face in the coming decade?
MG: I think it faces the same primary challenge that other building material industries collectively face; specifically, how to remain competitive in an era of globalization that has created materials and supply chains that were unthought-of a decade ago. But I think the industry is up to the challenge. The gypsum industry has very smart and talented people in R&D and marketing. They have always amazed me with the things they come up with.
W&C: How do you think the change from regional model codes to a more national reference based code changed the industry?
MG: Again, I think it is more of a general change for all industry as opposed to something that had a specific impact on the gypsum industry. One of the biggest changes has been the wholesale migration, particularly in the western U.S., from codes that are more prescriptive to codes that rely more on reference documents. The movement to a national code also has had a profound impact on the evaluation services. They were regional and are now national and international. That changes a lot for manufacturers.
W&C: What do you think was the biggest thing you witnessed about the industry during your tenure?
MG: I actually would give you two things. First, was the wholesale adaptation of new processing technology by the manufacturing side of the industry. Board plants are now full of robotics and sophisticated manufacturing equipment, and it is used from the beginning of the manufacturing process to the point at which the finished material is delivered to the dealer. It’s a completely different environment than it was 20 years ago when I worked for one of the manufacturers. Second, if I get to interpret my tenure as the entire time I’ve been in the industry, I think it was the invention and adoption of non-paper-faced board products. To me, they were a game changer because they enabled gypsum panels to compete with non-gypsum core products such as plywood and OSB.
W&C: What is the number one misconception about gypsum wallboard or the gypsum industry you would like to say as you leave? Maybe set the record straight?
MG: It always drives me nuts that people think the industry is somehow uncultured and uncool, and that board simply flies out the back of a plant and gets installed almost by accident. In reality, the gypsum industry is populated by smart and aggressive individuals, both on the manufacturing side and the contracting side, who work very hard to make and install a material that is not quite as simple as it appears to be.
W&C: What’s next for the GA?
MG: It’s business as usual. The board has a plan in place to move forward and I doubt the outside world or the members will see any change in the quality of service that the organization provides.
W&C: Are there any major accomplishments of which you are most proud?
MG: First, thank you for saying that I did accomplish something over the past 10 years. I guess if I had to pick one thing it would relate to the concept that I identified previous, that early on I recognized that the industry was evolving and that the focus of its association had to be more oriented toward specific issues as opposed to large, on-going projects. I like to think that I was able to take the organization away from tasks that had lost some relevance and toward issues that really needed to be addressed. And that I accomplished it all with some Žlan.
W&C: Officially, what is next for you?
MG: I’m joining the staff of the International Code Council. Officially, my title is Executive Vice President of Compliance Programs. A good portion of my specific duties will include management oversight for ICC Evaluation Services and the International Accreditation Service. It will be a significant challenge for me, but one I am ready to take on.
W&C: Any final thoughts on where the industry is headed or what you’d like to see?
MG: I truly see the manufacturing industry climbing out of the depths of the recession and getting better and better at what it does. My gut tells me that we are going to see some new and very unique products within the next three to five years and some will have very unique attributes. I also think that the industry will become more global from an ownership perspective. You may see some international entities involved in the North American market that might not be familiar. And vice versa.