Putting Their Heart Into It: Executives who go above and beyond in their philanthropy efforts
Just as Bryson Garbett was helping launch the Pioneer Park Coalition, a grassroots consortium dedicated to “healing the Pioneer Park and Rio Grande communities,” he realized he needed a better understanding of homelessness. So he left his license, credit cards and phone at home and showed up on the doorsteps of The Road Home shelter, asking if he could stay the night. The staffer pointed to a long line where disheveled hopefuls were waiting for space to open up. He joined them, standing three-and-a-half hours before he received a mat, pillow, blanket and a spot on the floor. For three days and four nights he lived as if he were homeless, emerging from the experience with a first-hand perspective that has shaped his efforts with the Coalition.
What makes the CEO of Garbett Homes, one of Utah’s premier homebuilders, devote this much energy to a local cause? What about Robert Garff, chairman of Garff Enterprises, Inc., and his company’s educational outreach programs, or Hanko Kiessner, CEO of Packsize International, and his clean air initiative?
For these executives, it’s not just about donating money to a cause—it’s about personally investing time and effort in issues they care about. And as these executives lend their personal passion, they’re helping effect critical social and environmental change for the state.
For Garbett, his personal stake in mitigating the crime surrounding Salt Lake’s escalating homeless crisis began when Garbett Homes started construction on apartments across from Pioneer Park. “We started to see that in the park, a lot of criminal activity was happening,” he says. “We went to Mayor Becker, but he didn’t seem to feel like he could do anything—he’d tried before. The Pioneer Park Coalition came out of that meeting. We decided to get together, to at least bring attention to what was happening.”
It was then that Garbett committed to his stint in the shelter. He slept, showered, ate and loitered alongside others from the shelter for a few days, witnessing heroin and cocaine deals just 20 feet from the park’s playground, and prostitution and abuse just outside the doors of the shelter.
“It shocked me—driving by you don’t really get a sense of what is going on there. The real victims are the homeless who need a place to stay, particularly the children,” Garbett says.
The Coalition has grown from a few downtown businesses and residents in 2015 to more than 600 members today. Garbett is currently serving as chairman, and he’s grateful for progress the group has already made. “We wanted the homeless [and crime] issues to be front and center in the last election, and we were surprised when it became the No. 1 topic,” he says.
The first of the Coalition’s two primary goals is well on its way to fruition. “For one, we want to make the Rio Grande area safe 24/7. The legislature just set a date for The Road Home to close, June 30, 2019, and that will make a big difference,” says Garbett.
As for its other major goal, turning Pioneer Park into a world-class park, Garbett says the Coalition is garnering support for a public-private partnership aimed at creating a transformation similar to other urban parks, like Bryant Park in New York City.
Garbett is thrilled to help improve the state’s capital. “With the Coalition, we’re just average people,” he says, “but we’ve been able to band together, to get the city, county and state to listen to us, and to show them our support. We’ve made a difference.”
A self-described “slow bloomer,” Robert Garff was the smallest in his elementary class and an average student with little motivation for school work. One day the principal summoned Garff and his mother to the office. Garff recalls, “The principal challenged me. She said, ‘You’re a C-student, but you can accomplish a lot more.’ I went home fearful of what my mother would say to me, but she didn’t say one thing. The only thing she did was take me to the library every week. That started my quest for learning.”
The jaunts to the library opened up a whole new world for Garff. He eventually went on to graduate from the University of Utah with bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Today he’s chairman of Garff Enterprises, Inc., the Utah auto sales company that had its beginnings in 1932, when his father sold his first car. The company now employs more than 5,000 people in several states across the country. Looking back, Garff says, “Reading helped me blossom. It gave me confidence to move forward.”
His own journey, combined with perspective gleaned from his wife’s mother, who spent her career as a public school teacher, prompted Garff to focus on education. The Garff family founded two programs, the Keys to Success and Road to Success programs, which now operate as a public charity called Success in Education.
For the past 12 years, the Keys to Success program has partnered with local high schools to reward students for academic progress (such as enrolling in math and AP classes and taking the ACT). The year-long program offers incentive prizes and scholarship opportunities, awarding well over 350 scholarships that have totaled more than half a million dollars since its inception. Oh, and there’s also that new car thing. At the end of each school year, five qualifying high school students are awarded brand new cars, as well.
With an eye toward helping Utah’s young students, the Road to Success is a literacy initiative targeting elementary schools. Its mission is “to bring together students, families, schools, and communities to see 90 percent of children reading at or above grade level.”
Reaching 223 participating elementary schools, with approximately 165,000 students and 11,000 faculty and staff, the program runs an aggressive campaign determined to build daily reading habits—reinforcing foundational literacy that has been attributed to improving overall performance in school and in life.
As if that weren’t enough, Success in Education recently launched a free summer camp to teach high school students IT skills in high-tech coding. “Since Utah is kind of a second Silicon Valley, we have a lot of new tech companies that are providing employment. But there’s a tremendous dearth of applicants for programming skills, so we teach the students, and we involve the local colleges and industry to provide mentors,” says Garff. In just its second year, the program anticipates training more than 500 students this summer.
For Robert Garff, the goal is simple, “We want to change the world one student at a time.” For the hundreds of thousands of students impacted by his company’s initiatives over the past several years, it looks like he’s on track.
Hanko Kiessner wants Utahns living along the Wasatch Front to breathe easier. It’s a cause he became passionate about when he moved to the Beehive State, saying, “When I came to Utah, I noticed the governance of the common area—particularly the air—was not being taken care of by the government. The airshed has a particular challenge because of the geography we have, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to just sit and not do anything. I realized that the easiest way to lead something is by being a good example yourself. I started with a personal journey toward zero emission.”
He started by taking a closer look at the causes. “It’s important to be data-driven, so we asked, ‘Where does all this pollution come from? We found out that 50 percent of the particle pollution in the airshed is from cars and trucks; 40 percent comes from area sources—buildings, facilities. Only 10 percent comes from industry, which was surprising,” says Kiessner.
Prompted by that data, Kiessner traded out his fossil fuel car for an electric vehicle. He also converted his home to solar energy and transitioned to a heat-pump system for heating and cooling. With those changes, he’s proud to have been personally emission-free for more than five years.
From there, he set his sights on his business, Packsize International, an on-demand packaging company dedicated to, you guessed it, reducing environmental impact with smaller, sustainable packaging and shipping. Determined to make a bigger dent in the air pollution conundrum, Kiessner switched Packsize’s entire local fleet to electric cars, installed free charging stations (for employees’ electric cars, as well as the fleet) and switched his facilities to solar energy.
With Packsize emissions reduced, Kiessner was ready to take on more. “When that leap needed to be made to go from business behavior to the behavior of society, we realized there still wasn’t the political will to make the decisions that will fix it. That’s when we decided to create this nonprofit to spread our successes,” he explains.
With that, Kiessner helped found Leaders for Clean Air, a coalition of business and community leaders devoted to supporting clean air practices and increasing emission-free commutes by installing electric vehicle charging stations at participating businesses’ locations.
He summarizes his dedication to the cause by saying, “Air affects you with every breath you breathe day and night. We don’t have any natural defenses against these manmade particles. Everyone who drives a [gas-fueled] car is actually hurting someone. Once you realize that, you realize you don’t have a choice anymore—you have to act.”