President, The Gerken Companies
After struggling to choose which career path to take, Brent Gerken elected to follow his heart. Four decades later, he shares some hindsight about deferring decisions.
In his final semester at Ohio State University, Brent Gerken found himself at a career-choosing crossroads. It was the late 1970s, and the soon-to-be-graduated business and finance major had received job offers from several banks. But there were other options to consider.
Since he was a young boy, Brent had worked evenings and weekends at his stepfather’s grocery store. After high school, he spent summers toiling on paving crews for his father, Julian Gerken. Now, he needed to choose between working in banking or one of the family businesses he loved.
Instead, he applied for law school.
“I entered law school simply to stall a life decision,” quips Brent.
He enrolled at the University of Toledo College of Law, knowing the time would eventually come for him to pick a career.
Brent’s parents split when he was six years old, and he went to live with his mother. She remarried, and her husband owned a local grocery store. Brent began working weekends and evenings in the store at age ten and quickly fell in love with the grocery business. He easily imagined himself enjoying a career in retail.
But Julian was in the construction business, and Brent thought the summer before college was a good time to learn what his father’s company was all about. On May 29, 1973, the day after his high school graduation, Brent went to work on a Gerken paving crew.
His first day began awkwardly when a job site foreman told Brent to move a pickup truck. Jumping into the cab, Brent realized that the skills he gained working in the grocery store did not include operating a manual transmission.
Despite such an embarrassing start, Brent enjoyed that initial season on the work crew so much that he returned the next seven summers. He worked five seasons as a laborer and three as a foreman.
“Learning the basics of the paving business from the ground up gave me a deep understanding of what our crews go through,” says Brent. “I still draw on that experience today.”
By the time Brent passed the bar in 1981, he had finally decided that his true passion was working at Gerken. His first full-time “office role” with the company involved estimating and scheduling jobs.
Around the period Brent and his brother Mike joined their father’s company, Julian was taking well-thought-out actions to expand the family business. Several strategic acquisitions allowed Gerken to grow beyond the asphalt industry into aggregate production and supply. And Brent had a front-row seat from which to watch.
“The greatest lesson my father taught me was to ask, ‘What if,’” says Brent, recalling how Julian always allowed him to learn at his own pace. “He would let me come to my own conclusions, and in doing so, often led me to what he had concluded.”
Where did Julian get such business savvy? Brent attributes it to his father’s military service. Julian entered basic training in the early 1950s, but the army lost his paperwork when it came time to deploy him. While sorting out the mess, officials assigned him to some high-ranking military strategists in New York City. That twist of fate, says Brent, permitted Julian to cultivate the critical thinking skills he later shared with his sons.
For his part, Brent offers a business lesson he learned by experience: Don’t defer making decisions.
“I’ve learned that, in all probability, doing nothing is never a good solution,” he says. “Nine out of ten times, you’ll do the right thing by following your heart.”
Brent, who did three years in law school to postpone a career decision, doesn’t dispute there’s some irony in his advice. But now he has the benefit of hindsight.
“It’s a lesson it took me decades to learn,” he readily admits. “But whenever I put off making a decision, I have always regretted it.”
A Company Based on Family
Not the type to take things for granted, Brent considers himself fortunate for the opportunities his family’s businesses provided. Whether running The Gerken Companies or stocking shelves in his stepfather’s grocery store, he has seen how good things happen when you put forth your best efforts.
Proud that so many generations of Gerkens have chosen to be part of the business, he’s just as pleased by the countless families having multiple generations employed at the company at various points.
“I think it speaks volumes about us as a company. It tells me we’re on the right path.”
Brent imagines people might be surprised that, even today, he still reviews every bid Gerken submits. Or that, at 93 years old, Julian continues telling him what to do.
“When it comes down to it, I’m just a caretaker of what my grandfather and father created,” he says.
Perhaps, from a modest perspective, there’s some truth to that. But the hundreds of Gerken team members, who see Brent as their work-family patriarch, might disagree.
Brent’s fondest Christmas memories occurred in Fort Myers Beach, Florida. For many years, Brent, Mike, and a close friend would pack up their families and meet there for the holidays. Their friend passed away some years ago, but Brent’s recollections of those great times remain.
Brent’s plans for this holiday include spending time with his wife of 43 years, Suzette, along with their two daughters, Amber and Laura, and the five grandchildren they gave them.
His Christmas wish for everyone in the Gerken family of businesses is health, prosperity, and, most importantly, time with their loved ones.
“Nothing Gerken has accomplished could have happened without those who have worked here—some for 30 or 40 years,” says Brent. “Their loyalty and hard work have made our success. I really can’t thank them enough.”
“I’ve learned that, in all probability, doing nothing is never a good solution.”