About Utah: Garffs know incentives work

Published: Sunday, Oct. 20 2013 10:40 p.m. MDT

Robert and Katharine Garff Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, in Bountiful.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

BOUNTIFUL — Ten years ago, Bob and Kathi Garff, having arrived at that enviable stage in life where they could stop worrying about making money and start worrying about spending it, summoned their five grown children to the kitchen table in their home in Bountiful and spelled out what they wanted to do with their inheritance.

They wanted to give away cars.

But not to their kids. To other people’s kids.

Thus was born a program that has evolved into the Success in Education Foundation, a remarkably successful public charity with widespread public sector support that a decade later is used by more than 300 Utah schools to motivate their students to reach for the stars … or at least the car keys.

If the words “Garff” and “cars” ring a bell, then you have not spent the past century in a Utah cave. Few automobile dealerships have been around longer than the one Kendall D. Garff started in 1932 in downtown Salt Lake City when he was 26 years old. At first he sold used cars, but as the Great Depression shifted into World War II he acquired an Oldsmobile franchise, and the Ken Garff empire was begun. Eighty-one years later, there are more than 80 branches of the Ken Garff Automotive Group in eight states, making it the fifth-largest private car business in the country.

Understanding that background is essential to know not only how Bob Garff, Ken’s son and current chairman of Ken Garff Automotive Group, and his family were able to provide funding to start something as ambitious as the Success in Education programs, but why Bob Garff’s initial brainstorm was to entice students with cars.

All his life — he started working in his dad’s dealership in 1945 when he was 13 — he has appreciated the one ingredient that never fails to get results in the car business: incentives.

Dangle something in front of a salesman or customer that they find appealing — a bonus, a trip to Hawaii, higher commissions, zero percent interest, leather at no added cost — and it’s amazing how many cars you sell.

In dealership lingo: “That which you reward gets done.”

If the goal was to motivate students to pay attention in class, get better grades and move on to college, it only made sense to Bob Garff to dangle something that would pique their interest.

What better motivation than a car?

And what better cause than education?

Like all married couples, Bob and Kathi Garff don’t agree on everything. But there are two things they agree on unequivocally. One, education is vitally important for everyone, and two, education in Utah could use some help.

They came to these views independently while traversing parallel paths within the system, as it were, Bob as a state legislator who served as speaker of the house in the 1980s and Kathi as a member of the State Board of Education, where she served a term as chairman, and later as a member of the State Board of Regents, the body that oversees higher education.

From these respective perches, the Garffs became intimately acquainted with the realities of public education in Utah. They saw what was working and what wasn’t in a unique place that ranks last in the nation in money spent per student yet ranks first in money spent per family.

The biggest problem, as far as they could see, was that there were far too many programs with good intentions that were accomplishing next to nothing.

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