On an evening in 1995, Paul Gardner and his wife were cresting the top of the Navarre Beach bridge when they spotted a breathtaking view, thousands of lights along the coastal community known as Navarre.
The couple were headed home from a celebratory dinner. Gardner had just secured a promotion to Operations Manager at Holley Navarre Water System (HNWS) after nine years with the company.
But looking out over those thousands of lights, each marking a home or business, Gardner said he suddenly felt the weight of the job.
“It kind of hit me. I kind of had a mini panic attack that I am responsible for the water and sewer to every one of those lights,” he recalled.
After nearly 33 years with the company, retiring General Manager Gardner said he still feels that weight of responsibility.
“My job is important, and I had to do the best I could for it,” he said.
Gardner started with HNWS back in 1986 reading water meters. Back then he had been working a job at a linen company working 80 hours a week for minimum wage. He was not happy with the work, and at the advisement of a friend, he applied at HNWS.
The position paid $4 an hour and had guaranteed weekends off.
“I thought I was in heaven,” Gardner said.
The work itself was a bit confusing though he said. In the time before GPS, Gardner was handed a read sheet and maybe a hand drawn map and told to go find the meters. He said at the time he barely knew Navarre’s layout, but he figured it out with help from residents.
Over time, he worked his way up through the company slowly picking up new responsibilities and new training.
“Holley Navarre Water System has been good to me,” Gardner said.
He said it has been a challenging ride. In his time with HNWS, the system began offering sewer, secured its first major commercial customer (Winn Dixie), lead the system through the largest expansion in its history and even watched technology render his old meter reading job obsolete.
When much of Florida was seeing a housing boom in the early 2000s, Navarre’s boom was explosive.
Gardner said they were selling 400-500 taps a month leading up to 2006 when the market crashed.
From the time he started at HNWS, the number of customers has increased tenfold to more than 16,000 with 9,000 of those also receiving sewer service.
With that growth came higher demand on the infrastructure in place and requirements to build new expansions of infrastructure. Gardner navigated through it all first as operational manager, then as assistant general manager in 2012 and general manager starting in 2014.
To keep up, Gardner said he took every chance he could to learn. He took continuing education classes on management at Pensacola State College. He said he listened to the staff to learn more.
“We have a real good team here. This team knows how to run a water system,” he said. “The most rewarding thing is the relationship I have with most of the employees here. I tell these guys we spend more time with each other than we do with our own families.”
He said appreciating the work of the guys literally in the ditches was what helped him succeed.
“I’m more of an operations guy. That is where I started, and my hearts always been out there with the guys in the ditches,” he said. “When I decided to apply for the general manager job what put me over the top was I was afraid of who they would hire and put over the top of us. If I can get it I thought it would be good for the employees that have been here.”
But he said the biggest challenge has been politics and the board of directors.
“The last two years have been challenging for me because of the politics with the last two boards,” he said.
He said that politics at times held up work from being completed.
He said too often the work of the water system’s employees was lumped into the criticism around those politics.
“With the mess of politics with the board, people unfortunately tend to lump in the employees, but I would put our employees up against any water system’s employees,” he said. “This community can be proud of them.”
Gardner said it is important to remember where HNWS came from. Back in the 1960s, the residents of Holley and Navarre had to pump their water from wells or drink straight from the creek.
But as the story goes, Edwin Wells, James Tolbert, Audrey Wall and W.J. Wall rode in an old car to Tallahassee to get the water system started, signing the current agreement with Santa Rosa County in 1970.
“I am proud to be part of the that legacy, and I feel like its my job to protect that legacy,” he said.
As Gardner steps out of the general manager role, ex-county commissioner Rob Williamson has stepped into an adjusted version of it as HNWS’s new CEO.
In parting advice, Gardner said trusting the team is vital.
“The most important thing new leadership can do is listen and take advantage of the expertise that you have,” he said. “Let the people that have the experience do their job and not be micromanaged and you will be fine.”
He said show the numbers for the water system, and they will speak for themselves.
And to the members, he called on them to be more involved and engaged.
“Water is probably the last thing on your mind, but it is the only thing you can’t live without,” he said.
Now that Gardner will have more free time on his hands, he said he will be spending the next year reconnecting with family scattered across the U.S. including his children.
But he said he does not plan to stay retired long. He has already received offers from consulting companies that have done work with the water system in the past.
“After 33 years, I feel like maybe I should start a new chapter,” Gardner said. His official last day is Dec. 31.
As seen in the Dec. 20 issue of Navarre Press.
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