Managing by listening

In 2005, after working 30 years at Helvoet Pharma Inc., formerly Owens-Illinois Inc., Richard Gardner was honored by his company for his longtime service as plant manager at its facilities in Pennsauken and Burlington.  After teasing him gently about his tendency to talk very fast, a top company executive went on to describe him as a jack-of-all trades, reading from a written proclamation that was presented to Gardner.

      “You have a person who can do any job, as he has proven,” the proclamation read. “And therefore, we all hope that Rich can keep working at Helvoet for many, many years.”

Richard Gardner

 That was Gardner’s hope as well, because he loved the work, but in May 2009, he was laid off. “I’d go back there in a minute,” he said.

Soon after that, Gardner, who lives in Marlton, picked up a contract job for about a year as a plant manager in Vineland, but that ended in May 2010. “It ripped me emotionally,” he said. Now he counts on unemployment benefits and his wife’s part time job.

Since then, Gardner has been looking for work, volunteering, and keeping his spirits up by running. He’s participated in almost every marathon, ticking off ones in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. “I’ve kept myself in shape,” he said. “I’d like to work another 10 years.”

With 100 people to supervise, Gardner definitely subscribed to the philosophy of managing by listening. “I’d walk around and talk to people. I knew everyone’s name,” he said. The biggest failing he’s seen in other managers is that “sometimes they think they are smarter than the people on the line. These people spend all their time running the machines. They know the bad things and the good things about them.”

Tapping into that knowledge, he said, is the path toward continuous improvement – the gold standard in manufacturing.

As a manager, Gardner worked with all kinds of people. Some of his employees were immigrants. He had a unionized workforce. “You get to know the people inside and out,” he said. His method was to try to understand their personal circumstances and to help them cope without turning into a “Father Confessor,” he said.

In eight years, he received safety awards with no recordable injuries or lost time. He reduced inventories by 15 percent, while increasing lead times by 35 percent by improving production scheduling and capacity planning. He negotiated three union contracts, building up a good relationship with the local union president and plant shop representatives. He consolidated assets of a former competitor and customer, moving them from Ashland, Ohio to Burlington. Prior to being plant manager, he was purchasing and logistic manager, raising customer service ratings to 96 percent and slashing raw material costs by 25 percent.

The key, he said, making sure “everybody understands what they are doing and why they are part of a team.”

Update: As of December 2011, Gardner is still looking, but hopeful that a recent interview will turn into a fulltime job.


  • Richard W. Gardner
  • Hometown: Marlton
  • Profession: Plant manager
  • Experience: 30 years in manufacturing as a plant, logistics and purchasing manager. Accomplished several consolidations of product lines, materials and equipment from acquisitions  to local facilities. Obtained ISO 9001 certification and developed cross-functional improvement teams.  Handled union negotiations.
  • Education: Rutgers University-Camden, course work in accounting. Clemson University, bachelor of science.
  • E-mail address:
  • Richard Gardner's LinkedIn profile.
  • Richard Gardner's resume


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Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or