SHERIDAN — Roy Garber has important shoes to fill. Following the death of Tom Kinnison in July, Garber took over as president of the Whitney Benefits Board of Directors on Sept. 18.
Garber was elected by the 13-member board of directors. He has been on the Whitney board since 1992 and served as vice president before being elected president. Before that, Garber was on the Sheridan County School District 1 Board of Trustees for 13 years. In his day job, he serves as the treasurer of Garber Agri-Business Incorporated in Big Horn.
Despite the change at the top, Garber is trying to keep things as similar as possible.
The foundation has already been part of a significant deal under his new leadership. Last month, Sheridan College announced it will soon begin construction on a new residence hall, due in large part to $7.1 million from Whitney Benefits.
Garber sat down with The Sheridan Press Wednesday afternoon to discuss his new role, leadership style and future challenges.
The Sheridan Press: How have the first few months in your new role gone so far?
Garber: Fine. I think people expect a big change, (but) there really hasn’t been a change. We certainly miss Tom’s dynamic and his energy and his constant drive to keep enhancing things.
We really miss that, but Whitney hasn’t really changed.
Press: Do you feel any responsibility to live up to what Tom Kinnison accomplished?
Garber: Not really, because Tom was one of those individuals that you really can’t copy or don’t want to. He had his own unique style. Tom and I worked together long enough, and he knew and I knew that I’m not Tom and I’m not going to pretend to be Tom.
Whitney moves on, as it always has, with different people in the presidential role, and you bring your strengths to it. Tom certainly brought his, and I hope mine come forward. The main thing is to keep the foundation in good financial shape and moving forward.
Press: What’s been the toughest part of the new role for you?
Garber: There’s a lot of moving parts. We had honestly kind of slowed down a little over the summer with Tom’s illness and things, so we’re kind of playing catch up. There are a lot of things going on, and until you become the spokesman for the organization, the one who’s involved — you always knew Tom was busy and there was a lot going on — but you kind of failed to realize just how much is going on.
Press: What do you think is key to being an effective leader?
Garber: My approach, especially with a board like this, is to utilize all of the expertise and resources of your board members. With a large board it’s difficult, but the upside is that when you have that many people who make a decision — it doesn’t have to be unanimous but usually it’s a majority decision — if you put that many people together and they have to make a decision, you feel pretty comfortable that you made a good decision.
Press: Who did you look to as leaders to try to emulate?
Garber: I really have been fortunate to have a lot of mentors to kind of help build that leadership style. I really do believe in a team approach. There’s always a leader, but you really benefit from those around you, and taking their expertise and ability makes you look good in the end. I’m not the smartest guy on the block, but I think I have the ability to bring a lot of people together with a lot of good ideas and I think we’ve been able to do that.
Press: What most excites you about the future?
Garber: I don’t know if excites is the right word, maybe it’s what challenges do we see. Obviously the big one coming down the pike is the state of Wyoming’s revenues are not going to be what they once were, so as the state of Wyoming transitions out of an economy (largely based on) the extracting mineral industry, where are we going to go? How are we going to do that, and what part can Whitney play as an education organization to provide education opportunities for the young people, for the industries that we will shift to?
The financial part isn’t exciting to look forward to, but that’s the reality of it … It’s going to be a challenge to continue to provide a viable and economic education program to hopefully keep young people in Wyoming and get some growth in the state.
Press: What do you think the state needs to do to reach those lofty attainment goals (of 67 percent of adults with some type of college degree or certificate by 2025)?
Garber: As we all know, the state’s gotta get the budget back. We can’t run with a half-billion dollar deficit … As far as community colleges, the state has a formula for the primary and secondary schools that’s quite good, and it seems that the University of Wyoming, from our opinion, doesn’t have a lot of trouble getting pretty adequate funding.
To us, the one stepchild in the education system is the community colleges … There’s a formula there, but for instance, Sheridan College being the fastest-growing community college in the state really can’t receive more money for the increased student body. There’s legislation in place that does not incentivize the ones that are doing well. It seems like if they have a community college that isn’t doing well, they throw money at it, but the ones that are trying to succeed aren’t compensated for their effort, so I think that’s going to be a challenge … I don’t know how they do that exactly, but they certainly came up with a formula for primary and secondary education that works fairly well. There’s no perfect solution, but they need a more structured way going forward to fund the community college system.
Press: Ten years from now, do you think education will look much different than it does today?
Garber: I think education is going to have to change more rapidly … I understand that [education] is not a profit-loss thing, but on the other hand, you have to have incentives and you have to move like a business. If you start something that doesn’t work, you don’t keep tweaking it for 10 years and it never works. You’ve either gotta make it viable or move on, and I think we’re going to see more and more of that.
Press: What keeps you up at night?
Garber: The one that worries you as you look down the road — you don’t want to be known as the group that messed it up. Certainly that comes back to the finance part. I think the most difficult part of a foundation like [Whitney Benefits] is keeping it very healthy financially … As we look down the road, I think we have a good challenge in another way. Fifteen, 20 years ago, Whitney Benefits could pretty much take care of all the needs [Sheridan] College had. The nice part is the college has grown and is growing very well. I think they could outgrow Whitney’s ability to do that, even though we’re growing. What a wonderful thing for the community to have an educational institution that’s moving forward. So the challenge is going to be to keep that up.
This interview was edited and condensed for space.