Alumnus Spotlight: Greg Gensheimer’s career path brought him back to nature

Greg Gensheimer, UF Soil and Water Sciences alumnus, standing in front of trees.
Greg Gensheimer

Greg Gensheimer (Ph.D. 1985) has always enjoyed being active. He grew up playing ice hockey in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But Greg found that swimming, fishing, and playing soccer in sunny Florida were excellent pastimes to keep him busy while a graduate student in the Soil and Water Sciences Department.

“I would swim laps in Florida Pool or even play some water polo,” Gensheimer said, recalling his love of being active outdoors. Even collecting field samples in the hot, humid summer with a labmate was as a good time.

Greg came to UF after earning a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology and a master’s degree in soil science at West Virginia University. He thought about starting his career, but an eye-opening interview with a mining company in Wyoming and the prospect of an $11,000 per year job in Kentucky pushed him to pursue a Ph.D.

“I got here and wanted to do phosphate mine reclamation. I was under the impression that there was a unified group of researchers working on that, but it wasn’t the case,” Gensheimer said. “There were maybe half a dozen professors, all working on their own things, in different departments.”

After some ups and downs with choosing a project, Greg decided his dissertation research would focus on using a geostatistical method known as Kriging.

“We received permission to work on a reclaimed phosphate mine near Mulberry, Florida. I wanted to create a sampling method and figure out the variability of phosphate mine soil because you couldn’t map it like you can a regular soil.”

Greg did the bulk of his sample collection with a fellow student from Holland, Jacob Boss, who was in Dr. Mary Collins’ lab.

“He’s a great guy and he went with me – in the middle of summer – to drag a Giddings (hydraulic) probe all over the place to punch lots of holes,” Gensheimer said. “And that’s what my dissertation was based on. I learned a ton.”

Blowing off steam

As the doctoral program went on, Greg was looking for new ways to take a break from school and get outside. Joining a soccer league was one answer. That placed him on a company team with employees of ESE, an environmental consulting firm with an office in Gainesville.

“In between games, I got to know them and talked about my work,” he remembers. “They invited me to come for a formal interview and in Spring 1984, I started working part-time.”

Greg went full-time with ESE later that fall. He was trying to complete his dissertation too. He does not recommend any Ph.D. student follow that path.

“I would work my nine-to-five, or six o’clock, and then drive to campus and stay until two in the morning. I’d go home and then do it all over again,” Gensheimer said. “I took Saturdays and Sunday mornings off but would be back at it later on Sunday.”

While the schedule was grueling, Greg found support from his fellow students. One was Eric Flaig. They shared a graduate student office in McCarty Hall and, for a short time, were roommates.

“Greg is a gregarious fellow. He’s easy-going and always has a smile,” Flaig said. “But he’s a worker – taking on projects and getting them done. I remember he worked a lot of late nights.”

Another McCarty officemate was Mark Seyfried.

“I remember we went fishing one time off a bridge near the coast,” Seyfried said. “Greg caught a ton of them. We went to his relative’s house and had a giant fish fry.”

Seyfried said the graduate students were like an extended family. He recalls spending Thanksgiving together at least once and inviting Greg to his wedding.

Career

In one way, Greg Gensheimer was in a good position at the end of his doctoral program. He already had a full-time job and was enjoying success in it. But he admits he was burnt out working more than 40 hours a week and trying to prepare for his dissertation defense. While it was tough, he earned his Ph.D. and could focus on his job with the consulting firm.

“ESE was a big company – about 1,000 employees. In one year, I brought in 10% of its revenue, just by myself because I brought in my own projects,” he said.

In 1993, several of his projects wound down and his brother had a unique proposition for him.

“He was at a mutual fund company in Pittsburgh and PNC Bank there hired environmental experts, so the mutual fund company said if PNC needs an expert, maybe we do too,” Gensheimer said. “My brother said, ‘Don’t you do this kind of stuff? I think the company wants to hire you.’”

Greg took the job. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.

“The junior execs who hired me didn’t tell the senior execs what they were doing,” he said. “At that time, the liability was potentially so significant that the seniors weren’t going to get in at all.”

He moved into insurance but realized quickly that was not going to last. Then another door opened. Someone in the company’s 401k group told Greg they needed help.

“They asked what I knew about 401k investments. I said I have one. Then they asked, ‘What do you know about writing proposals?’ I told them I can do that,” Gensheimer said. “It took a long time to learn the product because it’s just like talking soil physics to somebody in the insurance business – what are you talking about? What does that word mean?”

Eventually, the company he was working for shut down sales. He moved on, landed a job at SunTrust, and headed back to Florida. But it wasn’t long until his brother called him again.

“My brother started a company in 1999. I refused to move back to Pittsburg, but I went up there for the summer of 2000 to help them take the business plan and make it work,” he said. “In 2006, the venture capital folks, who really owned the company, sold it to an insurance business in Oregon. I worked there until I retired in 2019 as an investment advisor.”

Back to Nature
Green Mountain Scenic Byway overlook at Lake Apopka.
The scenic overlook at Lake Apopka. (photo from Green Mountain Scenic Byway)

Before he retired, Greg had a side job of sorts. He helped create the Green Mountain Scenic Byway in 2002. It is a 501(c)3 non-profit that creates economic development opportunities through nature, heritage, and recreation-based tourism. The area needed that because the housing boom in central Florida was about to explode.

“Through community planning, I can work on the scenic byway and we’re not controlling growth, but we can try to guide growth, so we have a sense of place and a sense of community,” Gensheimer said. “If we do things the right way and bring tourists into the area, and sustainable recreation, then they’re going to leave their money behind so it’s economic development.”

By the late-2000s, the housing bubble burst, and developers were out of business. Greg and his community partners saw the opportunity to try to bring in trails.

“I got onto the Lake County Land Acquisition Advisory Committee, and I was chairman of that for a couple of years. I was just trying to buy properties to save greenspace for the county,” he said. “About that time, St Johns River Water Management District was getting close to ending the pesticide clean-up within the 20,000 acres of farmland along the Lake Apopka North shore and they were about to open it up to the public. We started working with anybody and everybody to put trails out there. Now we have 20,000 acres with trails all through the place.”

The crowning jewel, in Greg’s mind, is the trailhead and scenic overlook on the northwest side of Lake Apopka.

“We wrote a grant and got $800,000. Lake County pitched in another $400,000 or $500,000. It’s a great facility,” he said. “It makes me feel good. I look at it and I think, I built that.”

“His tower is something else and it’s a pretty park,” Eric Flaig said of the trailhead. “Greg’s roots are in wildlife, so he’s back to his roots after spending years away from it.”

“If I hadn’t taken a couple of soil science classes in college, I don’t know what I’d be doing, so keep your options open,” Gensheimer advised. “In my wildest dreams, I never ever imagined I’d be a 401k person, but I like solving problems and helping people. You just never know. Allow yourself opportunities to see what’s out there.”

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Posted: January 4, 2022


Category: Conservation, Natural Resources, UF/IFAS Teaching
Tags: Green Mountain Scenic Byway, Greg Gensheimer, Soil And Water Sciences, Soil And Water Sciences Department


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