JACKSON, Wyo. —Many in the community know Wes Gardner as the owner of Teton Toys, but few know the risks he’s taken or the array of skills he’s learned to get where he is today.
Gardner is now running for Teton County Commissioner and says much of what he’s learned in business will apply deeply to running Teton County in a cooperative way.
This is the first in a series examining the skills that Wes has learned in business and how they’ll apply when he’s elected Teton County Commissioner on Nov. 3.
“It turns out I’m a bit of a workaholic,” Gardner said. But it took a long journey for Gardner to figure that out.
In 1989, the Atlanta-born Gardner first came to Jackson Hole with his family. His father was writing a textbook for 8th-grade science classes at the time and used the trip to teach Gardner geology and science. Even at 11 years old, Gardner said he felt a deep connection to Jackson as soon as he arrived. “I distinctly remember asking my dad why he didn’t teach here,” Gardner said. “How could our family make such a huge life mistake of living in Atlanta instead of Wyoming?”
Gardner said he chased every outdoor pursuit he could get his hands on all through his high school experience, and as soon as he possibly could, moved to Jackson. “I didn’t hesitate,” he said. “I was out here literally 24 hours later after driving straight through the night from Chattanooga to Jackson.”
When he arrived, he went to work at Lee’s Tees for his uncle, Lee Gardner. He recognized that a lot of work needed to be done on the backend to organize the backrooms and take care of stock and inventory management.
He kept rolling improvements by Lee, who consistently okayed them with his typical laissez-faire attitude.
“Next thing I know, I was spending ridiculous amounts of time working,” Wes said, indicating one week he crested 100 hours. “I had a number of part-time jobs in high school, but this was so exciting. It was the first time I became really dedicated to my work.”
It wouldn’t be the last and it technically wasn’t the first. Wes’s father, recognizing college had the potential to cost a lot more than a vehicle, promised Wes if he’d get a full-ride scholarship, he’d buy him a car.
“I dedicated myself to academics,” Wes said. He ended up entering college as a junior on a full-ride scholarship. He also earned his own ride, of course — the car his father had promised him for earning the scholarship to the Chattanooga-based liberal arts school he was attending.
But in an era without the internet, Wes said he’d drive for 7 hours to a library in Charlottesville, Virginia, to research his papers for as many as 30 hours before boomeranging to Tennessee to write them. “I took full advantage of the opportunity to learn as an undergrad,” Gardner said. “I was as engaged as an individual can be in their own education.
All through college, Wes spent his summers in Jackson working at Lee’s Tees. After graduation, he went on to grad school at the University of Oregon, where he was trying to earn a History of Science degree with no historian of science on the staff. It was miserable, but he found ways to escape into the outdoors.
That’s when he had a life-threatening fall off Mt. Olympus in Washington in 2001. A drop into a single open crevasse stopped him from plunging off hundreds of feet of cliffs not far below. He said the event brought him back to Jackson with his tail between his legs to work with Lee again.
He spent the next 8 years working at Lee’s Tees until he arrived in 2009 not knowing what he wanted to do with life. “It wasn’t this,” he said. “I quit.”
Through a series of bizarre circumstances, Wes met someone who’d owned a third-floor Town Square retail space that hadn’t earned him $1 of rent the entire time he’d owned it.
Wes cast off his IRA to give retail a go himself. He managed to negotiate free rent for the first year of his two-year lease in the neglected space. Wes rallied friends to help him transform the space and went as deep in credit card debt as he could afford to go. No bank would agree to finance him. He spent 20-hour days working from scratch through a series of failures with a few minor successes sprinkled in.
Over the first two days of being open, Wes said he had $2,500 in sales — about half of the IRA he had dumped to go into business. His first Thanksgiving gave him plenty to be grateful for. With about $20,000 in need-to-pay credit card bills stacked up, it was go big or go home. He put out his first sale, sick to his stomach that he was about to lose everything.
“This community stepped up and supported me,” Wes said, saying he scraped by but just barely. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the brink of not being able to pay a bill.”
But both Wes and Lee Gardner grew their businesses, and soon Lee Gardner moved his T-shirt shop to the former Coldwater Creek store on the southwest corner of the Town Square. He offered a sublease of the basement — which Coldwater had used for liquidating merchandise — to Wes as a bigger, easier-to-access location for his growing toy store.
“I built this business literally out of nothing,” Wes said. Teton Toys has now become a regional toy store with a second location in Utah and $1 million in inventory crammed floor to ceiling in his current space back where he began — at Lee’s Tees. “I’m very proud of the success we’ve experienced. I had to work hard or fail.”
And that will carry forward to his work as a County Commissioner. Despite his many all-nighters as a college student preparing for big exams or papers, Wes said his business and community life has pushed him toward many more all-nighters.
Most recently, he spent all-nighters on town transportation problems, literally dedicating about 100 hours of his own time on the START Board working toward a better transportation plan that better accounts for commuters and increases route frequency and density. All on top of running multiple businesses.
“I have the capacity, dedication and doggedness to work through the night,” Wes said. “To work until 3 in the morning. I did it two nights this week in the toy store after days spent on the campaign trail.”
And that’s the kind of dedication he’ll bring to his role on the Teton County Commission when voted in November 3.
“I am 100 percent dedicated to making Teton County better,” Wes said. “Whatever it takes as a County Commissioner, I intend to give it.”
If hard work is important to you in a Teton County Commissioner, vote for Wes Gardner for Teton County Commissioner on or before Nov. 3.
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