In Other Words: Peter Gardner speaks global language of business

Aug. 23, 2021
His path from plastics to Silicon Valley startup and back gave him the financial and management fluency he needed.

By Karen Hanna

Peter Gardner has navigated the business world, from the dot-com boom to the plastics plant floor. From 1997 to 2001, while serving as the VP and director of sales and marketing programs of, he helped the California internet datacenter raise more than half a billion dollars in venture capital and grow to 400-plus employees. In more recent years, he’s spent a lot of time shuttling between the West Coast and Asia. Since April, he has served as the U.S.-based business director of LS Mtron, after convincing the company to buy out the plastics machinery division of Daiichi Jitsugyo Co. Ltd., where he had worked. The self-described “soccer chauffeur” shared some thoughts on business with Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing Senior Reporter Karen Hanna earlier this summer while on vacation at his Lake Tahoe home, where he enjoys family time spent skiing, hiking, paddleboarding and other outdoor activities.

You have bachelor's degrees in both business and plastics engineering. How did you come to combine the two?

Gardner: My interest in obtaining a business degree came from experiences in growing a startup business during the late 1990s and early 2000s, and a desire to more effectively communicate in the language of business operations and financing. When I became general manager for the Japanese distributor of Niigata all-electric presses in the U.S., I really needed to be able to analyze data, manage profitably and speak the language of business to my Japanese board of directors. I found that even when it can be difficult to communicate across languages and cultures, the language of business and financials is universal. The broader ability to present and analyze financials was so helpful in being able to justify and defend budget requests. I guess you could say it helped me to “sell” my business strategies to top management.

How did you get involved in plastics? How do your experiences in other industries help you now?

Gardner: I hate to say it, but I kind of just fell into the plastics engineering program in college because some of my friends were in it. In those days, the Chicago area had a robust SPE chapter with well-attended monthly meetings. The plastics students at Illinois State would caravan up to the meeting to network and get a good dinner and beer courtesy of the SPE chapter. As a result, I was offered a job in sales of injection molding equipment just prior to graduation.

I left the industry in 1997 to start a company in California building internet data centers. We grew that business from a start-up team of seven to over 400 employees. During this time is when I became more fascinated with the ins and outs of managing a business versus being a direct salesperson. When a board member of Japanese machinery distributor Daiichi Jitsugyo contacted me about joining them to run the injection molding machinery business, it seemed like a good fit.

What were the most important lessons you’ve gained?

Gardner: My most important lessons built over time are how to take care of good employees and give them the flexibility to make their own reasoned decisions. In working with upper management at the board of directors (BOD) level, I learned the skills for justification of business resources, headcount, etc., how and when to ask for them … and how to gain trust through small asks, and delivering results.  Over time, the “asks” can become bigger and bigger, based on previous results.  I think the culmination of developing these skills was realized when I convinced the BOD of Daiichi Jitsugyo to spin off my plastics machinery division and let it be acquired by LS Mtron in full, including all employees and assets.

You've been involved in the global supply chain. What have you learned? How should the industry respond to the challenges that were exposed by the pandemic over the past year?

Gardner: The global supply chain needs to be just that: global. The lack of supply chain diversification simply is not healthy for the global economy, and, when heavily weighted towards one country or region, it can be quite risky. Especially when sourcing from countries whose governments are adversarial to our own, we can see the risks of supply chain disruption through sanctions or imposition of high tariffs and duties. Fortunately, many astute manufacturers in the U.S. and elsewhere have come to realize this, and efforts to re-balance the supply chain are under way. Initiatives focused on re-shoring, near-shoring and ally-shoring to countries with less risk of geopolitical issues and whose policies and values more closely align with ours will make for a healthier and more stable supply chain.

I sometimes tend to be outspoken about these issues, particularly about doing business with adversarial countries. It sometimes makes folks uncomfortable, and I’ve had more than one competitor tell me I had better watch what I say, but these are conversations that need to be had. I don’t claim to have all the right answers, but I do think whether purchasing for a company or your individual household, we could all take a little more time to consider the long-term effects of our purchases.

How has the perception of Asian machinery evolved over the years? Do you see continued room for growth in terms of sales?

Gardner: Oh boy, Asian machinery, what does that even mean these days? There are Japanese brands, Korean brands, Taiwanese brands and Chinese brands; additionally, we have German machines, Austrian, Italian and even U.S. brands. But determining the real country of origin or the nationality behind the brand is harder than ever. For example, a major Italian maker is now owned by a Japanese brand; a major German maker is owned by a large Chinese corporation; a famous U.S. brand is making many machines in India; some Chinese makers tout their “German design”; and many Japanese makers make most of their machines somewhere other than Japan. 

Many end users have no idea where their machine was manufactured or assembled, and finding out can be a tricky endeavor. Such is the global manufacturing world we live in. I think the best a customer can do is ask their vendor questions, try to evaluate where the major components come from, and judge if the supply of those components will be more or less subject to potential disruptions in the future, or if they may become obsolete, making it difficult to repair a machine. I’ve noticed a real lack of transparency around this issue. A machine supplier should be able to disclose the details of how and where their machines are made and identify the sources of major components.

At LS Mtron, our machines for the North American market are entirely built in South Korea with steel from our company-owned casting facility (also in South Korea). Other components come from various global sources in Korea, Japan, Austria, Italy, etc. Our team discloses this during the sales process as a positive attribute of the machine, and can articulate the benefits of such, be it quality, availability or ease of substitution, lower cost, etc. Regardless of IMM brand, I think any maker has the ability to gain market share if they do things right and keep customer satisfaction as a top priority.

What are the biggest challenges facing the industry? What are the most exciting advances or opportunities for advances? 

Gardner: Finding qualified workers is a challenge. After decades of offshoring manufacturing jobs, we now find ourselves with either unskilled workers or folks with a college degree who think they don’t want to work in a manufacturing environment. It’s a real challenge for everyone.

Automation and Industry 4.0 may be a partial answer to the worker shortage issue. If we can leverage technology to enable our manufacturers to run machinery, and turn our factories into high-tech, clean workspaces, we can reverse the image of manufacturing and potentially attract more workers.

What do you enjoy about working in the industry? 

Gardner: I really enjoy working with my team to delight our customers. And when it all comes together with a big order or win and the client tells us it’s because of our team, it really is something that makes our whole group feel good.

I saw recently LS Mtron is marketing itself with an endorsement of a NASCAR race car driver. What do you think of this strategy?

Gardner: The NASCAR sponsorship of Jeb Burton is a part of the marketing promotions for our sister division, LS Tractor, based in Battleboro, N.C. In the U.S., the injection molding division and tractor division employees are all part of the same U.S. corporation, totaling about 100 people. It is fun to see the LS logo on NASCAR, and I even have a die cast LS NASCAR model on my desk.

Outside of work, what do you enjoy doing?

Gardner: Outside of work, I am basically a full-time husband and a dad to 14-year-old boy-girl twins. Living in the San Francisco Bay area, we can be kept busy year-round with kids’ soccer, skiing, mountain biking, hiking, surfing and all the other activities afforded by coastal living.

What do you see as your legacy? What impressions do you hope others have of you?

Gardner: I really don’t have a goal for a business legacy, other than to turn over the reins someday and be able to say I’ve left a business in better shape than when I started with it.  As far as what impressions others have of me, I used to care a lot about this, and would be a bit worried if I thought somebody didn’t like me or the way I ran a business.  But, with age and maturity, I’ve really let go of all of that. Some folks will appreciate me, and some folks won’t.  Just my family and close circle of friends is enough for me.

Just the facts

WHO IS HE: Peter Gardner, business director of LS Mtron

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in plastics engineering from Illinois State University; bachelor’s degree in business from DePaul University, graduating with a perfect GPA

DOT-COM SUCCESS: As a co-founder of a Silicon Valley technology company, he helped secure $525 million in venture capital.