Author’s note: Henry C. Gardiner passed away in January 2015, leaving behind years devoted to improving the beef industry and a well-respected Angus operation he built with his family. Because of proper generational-transition planning, his legacy lives on.
It started with grit. A caravan of five families in covered wagons making their way from northeast Kansas to the southwest part of the state in 1885, fighting for dreams to start a new life with the Homestead Act of 1862.
In that caravan was Henry Clay Gardiner, a man determined to build a better life for his family. In those days, if you could hack it for five years on 160 acres of untouched prairie and show improvements had been made, you could file a claim for the land. Establish tree growth and you were rewarded an additional 160 acres through the Timber Culture Act of 1873.
The dry, harsh western Kansas environment proved to be challenging for the settlers who were used to the higher rainfall in the east. Most eventually lost their original homestead. But they were resilient people and pushed on, regrouping and building up another place.
In 1889, in a dugout on the western Kansas prairie, Henry had a son born: Ralph.
Ralph went on to follow in his father’s footsteps, working to farm the Kansas soil, and in the 1920s, started to piece together what is today Gardiner Angus Ranch in Ashland, Kan. Ralph eventually married Muriel, and the couple had a son in 1931, naming him Henry.
“When dad (Henry) was just 7 years old, his family had built their operation up to 2,000 acres,” says Mark Gardiner of Gardiner Angus Ranch. “They were one wheat crop away from making payment, and a hail storm came through. Once again, they had to regroup, losing most of their operation.”
But this wasn’t the first time the Gardiners had been knocked backward and quickly pushed back to rebuild for a third time.
By the late ‘40s, the original Gardiner operation had developed into a wheat and cattle operation, with the cattle business being Henry’s main passion. About to graduate from high school in 1949, Henry raised a 4-H steer, winning the county fair and the Kansas State Fair. This earned the aspiring cattleman $100 in credit from the Kansas Angus Association to be put toward a bred heifer. Henry bought two Angus heifers, forming the first beef genetics of Gardiner Angus Ranch.
The young cattleman went on to graduate from Kansas State University in 1953 after soaking up as much information about the beef business as possible, such as the new artificial insemination technology and breeding selection, before returning home to build his dream. By 1957 he married Nan Arnold, and the couple had three sons: Greg, Mark and Garth.
Jumping forward through history, we’ll pick up in the 1970s. Henry had built a tremendous reputation for himself, along with his diversified Angus seedstock operation, and Henry’s sons were getting to an age where they wanted to be more active in the operation.
“Greg and I started buying land in the mid-‘70s to rent to the ranch, working through a loose family partnership,” Mark explains. “The philosophy was whoever made more, paid more.”
In the 1970s, Henry and his mother, Muriel, began putting together a succession plan for the operation, allowing his sons to see every detail of the process. By this point in time, Garth had also started collaborating on land purchases for the operation.
Eventually, one by one, each of the Gardiner sons would leave the operation to attend college at K-State, bringing home knowledge and life experiences to try and help build a stronger operation.
“I remember one late summer day when I was packing my stuff up to head back to college for the start of classes and driving down to the alfalfa field to say goodbye to dad,” Mark recalls. “Looking around at everything I loved that I was leaving behind, I started wondering if it was necessary to go to school. But dad told me I needed to go learn and build new connections.”
And eventually, one by one, each of the Gardiner sons would return home to the family operation, forming a more formal family partnership in 1995, liquidating everyone’s cattle into the ranch herd, with a philosophy of living off land rent and continually investing back into the operation.
Finding a place
When it came to finding a place to excel within the operation, Mark laughs, “Henry would give us just enough rope to hang ourselves but not enough to choke.
“When I was a hotshot right out of college, one of the hardest things for me to understand was that there was typically a reason why the operation was already doing something a certain way,” he says. “I think that’s one thing a lot of us struggle with as youngsters — not giving enough credit to the experience and knowledge of those before us.”
Mark recalls any time one of the sons had an idea he’d like to implement, Henry would make him map it out with a solid plan to present to him. If he approved, they’d give it shot.
“I remember the first time I pitched implementing embryo transfers to dad,” Mark says. “I laid everything out and explained how we could utilize our commercial cows to carry calves from our purebred cows.
“Well, it ended up turning into a disaster, due to human error. But Henry saw the potential benefits, so we switched gears to new technicians and have had great success with it. Sometimes you have to walk before you can run.”
Work right, not a birth right
As time has gone on, the Gardiner sons have raised their own families. Mark and his wife, Eva, have three sons: Ransom and Cole, twins who are in college; and Quanah, who is in high school. Greg and his wife, Debbie, have one son, Grant, who has graduated from K-State. Garth and his wife, Amanda, have two sons, Greyson and Gage, and a daughter, Grace, who are in high school, junior high and grade school.
“We have worked very hard to pass the same lessons Henry taught us down to our sons,” Mark says. “The family concept has been the operation is a work right, not a birth right. We want it to be fair, but fair isn’t always equal.
“We’ve watched other operations tear themselves apart through fighting when it comes to business, and we don’t want that to happen to us,” he explains. “Life is not fair. Life is not equal. We don’t always get along, but we talk about Henry’s rules — one of which was not to break apart.”
One of the biggest factors why the Gardiners’ operation has been able to survive for multiple generations is the emphasis put on open succession planning — starting formally with Henry and his parents decades ago.
“Henry taught us so many things that stemmed from when he started 65 years ago,” Mark says. “Family meetings that included everyone on all aspects of the business were very important to the process.”
Understanding as more generations and more people become involved the business becomes more at risk, Mark and Greg have formed their own limited liability corporation with their assets, to eventually transition to their sons as time goes on. They’ve also worked with advisors to set up family-owned land in blood trusts to be protected from any potential outside risk factors.
Already, Grant, Ransom, Cole and Quanah have formed their own partnership, investing into land together and becoming more involved in the operation.
“They have skin in the game, but they’ve done very well at getting a start,” Mark says. “We’ve also started shifting responsibilities over to them, such as letting them handle spring breeding, but being around when they need to ask questions.”
As for the future of Gardiner Angus Ranch, Mark foresees a long and bright road ahead. And while he recognizes it isn’t always going to be easy, it will be very rewarding to ensure the legacy is continued.
“We’re not always going to get along, but if we focus our energy away from disagreements and instead to growing and maturing, we’re going to accomplish a lot. As for our sons, we’re going to keep them from any unnecessary failing that we did,” Mark says. “But when you saddle a bronc, you have to ride it; we all get bucked off — so it’s up to us to give them the tools and knowhow to get back on to ride out the storm.”