By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Banker Joel D. Gardner was recently named to the Birmingham Business Journal’s list of 30 and Under Rising Stars of Real Estate and Construction for 2018, but there is something else he is just as proud of.
“I take more pride in being able to get somebody financed who may not have been able to be financed [for a mortgage], … but the pat on the back was pretty cool,” he said.
Gardner, 29, is a senior mortgage banker at Renasant Bank, where he has worked for five years, holding the position of senior mortgage banker for two. He works mostly with the African-American community and people with low to moderate incomes.
“I look for different mortgage products to best help people, depending on the situation that they’re in,” he said.
Growing up, Gardner said he wanted to help people—and his job allows that.
“The home is the center of a household,” he said. “It brings a lot of pride, togetherness, and closeness to the family. In addition, [it’s] a financial asset. I always think that in each house I [can find for a family], there’s going to be a Christmas tree in December and it’s going to be very impactful to that family.”
Gardner knows the importance of a strong household. He grew up in Birmingham with his parents, Barry and Jewell, and his two siblings. Gardner’s parents made sure their children were active in the community; the family had a membership in Jack and Jill of America Inc., an organization “dedicated to nurturing future African-American leaders by strengthening children through leadership development, volunteer service, philanthropic giving, and civic duty,” according to jackandjillinc.org.
Gardner also took piano lessons, played soccer and basketball, and even took up ice skating.
“I did ice skating for a couple of years and stopped in middle school because I wanted to do more of the same activities everyone else in the neighborhood was doing, like playing basketball and hanging out. [Ice skating] was fun, though; it gave me a different perspective and different experience,” he said, adding that you don’t hear of many people in the South ice skating.
Gardner attended Hillview Elementary School and Bottenfield Junior High School (now Minor Middle School) and Minor High School. After graduating from high school, he found his “Home by the Sea” at Hampton University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Hampton, Virginia, where he majored in business administration. The university earned its moniker because the Chesapeake Bay borders the campus on three sides and students often see boats and mariners on the water.
Gardner said his experience at Hampton had a profound impact.
“I loved it. It really changed my perspective on our communities and what we need to do,” he said. “We have what we called the Hamptonian woman or man, and there is a standard you have to uphold. Men can’t wear hats in the buildings, you can’t walk around in pajamas or anything like that—there was a standard. There is an image you must uphold as a Hamptonian that really defines you and the school. It’s a brand. That’s one very important thing I learned: the importance of a good brand and a good image.”
At Hampton, Gardner wrote for the school newspaper, The Hampton Script, and participated in case competitions through the business school. He also tutored at the local middle and high school.
“[During] case competition, a real company would give you a packet on that particular company, and you were to advise that company on what decision to make when facing an obstacle … and give a presentation about it. [The teams] mostly consisted of about three to five people, and you competed against not only other teams in the school but also teams from other universities. I was actually on a few winning teams and teams that placed nationally,” he said.
Hampton helped in another way, too.
“I work within the community to push programs and find out about grants and programs,” Gardner said. “Being at Hampton really helped with going out in the community and getting things done. It was a great teaching ground for me in everything I do today.”
That Extra Step
Gardner graduated from Hampton in 2011 and began working for Surgical Care Affiliates in Birmingham as an accountant. He knew accounting wasn’t the road he wanted to take, though. He moved to Wells Fargo and then to Mechanics & Farmers (M & F) Bank before it was acquired by Renasant—on his second day on the job.
At Renasant, Gardner focuses on the needs of the individual and the delivery of services.
“You never want to overpromise and underdeliver,” he said. “If anything, I try to underpromise and overdeliver. At the same time, I have a good track record on being able to get people approved. It just goes back to working with people and going that extra step to put a plan in place to help them.”
Gardner has conducted financial-literacy classes at community centers, churches, and schools on a broad range of topics, including credit, investing, money management, and home ownership. Those classes are important for several reasons.
“A lot of times, I have to start with that educational component of how to use a credit card or some things that [people] shouldn’t do, like have a very high car note in comparison to their income. Sometimes that is a challenge,” he said.
“Anytime there is a need, we’ll go out in the community and teach people because it’s important for everyone. Money is important, and what I do is enable people to make better financial decisions. I’m able to facilitate people who want to purchase homes, people who want to have something they can pass down to their children and help start generational wealth.”
Gardner is a member of the Omicron Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and is active with several community organizations, including serving on the board of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Medicine Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC). He also is a member of the Woodland Park Church of Christ. Gardner and his wife, Angelica, have been married for two years.