Always on stage

Ryan Lawn & Tree employees know they’re constantly performing for the company out in the field.

Becoming an ESOP business has helped Ryan Lawn & Tree attract and retain quality employees.
All photos courtesy of Ryan Lawn & Tree

Andy Green has worked at Ryan Lawn & Tree long enough to remember when Larry Ryan, the company founder, got up in a presentation and highlighted how many employees they’d need for massive growth.

Larry Ryan

Green will celebrate his 30-year anniversary with the company this August, and he’s seen it grow into a Lawn & Landscape Top 100 company. But at the time in the early 90s, it was merely a 10- or 12-person operation. So, when Ryan got up one winter to show the staffing needs for a 10-25% growth, Green remembers feeling incredulous.

“We looked at him like he was crazy when he said 75 employees,” Green says. “Look at us now – I guess we’re over 400 or close to it.”

Ryan Lawn & Tree was selected as one of Lawn & Landscape’s Best Places To Work, and employees at the company can cite strong employee training and retention, plus other variables like being a faith-based business, as reasons it has achieved this feat.

Always on stage

Those projections weren’t the only things Ryan used to put up on the projector. Green recalls Ryan playing videos called Disney On Stage, which showcases what company employees – primarily the actors portraying characters like Mickey or Goofy would do behind the scenes to prepare for a role. In Disney’s eyes, it’s important to pretend like you’re always on stage and do the right things, even when you’re not visible to the public.

At Ryan, it’s not too dissimilar. Green says he’s had some clients that have moved several times within his region, but they all maintain their services with Ryan because of the client-company relationship. Some of his clients have even become Facebook friends over the years.

“When you’ve got the costume on, when they open those doors…they’re on stage, so they have to act and perform and be the character that they are,” Green says. “That’s something that I’ve always kept in mind.”

Susan Ott, who’s the head of human resources for the company, has only worked at Ryan for less than a year. Even still, she’s seen that amidst a dire labor shortage in the industry, Ryan still has less than 12% turnover and they turn away 95% of applicants. Getting into the company is almost an exclusive club, but it’s largely because Ott believes they’re trying to find the right fit.

She’s heard stories of significant growth over the year, but she’s also noticed that there’s a lot of hard work to ensure they maintain the same family atmosphere.

Everyone takes care of each other, Ott says, not to perform like they’ve got good company culture but because it’s the right thing to do.

“There’s just hundreds of (stories), and they don’t do it to try and get a plaque,” Ott says. “They do it humbly and in order to take care of one another.”

Making the right choice

Ryan Lawn & Tree still has less than 12% turnover and they turn away 95% of those who apply.

A significant part of Ryan’s success has been finding employees that match the company culture, then training them out in the field to do a little bit of everything.

Green says Ryan is looking for employees that exhibit good communication skills and seem like ethical, hard-working people. Their interviewing process is a bit different, as they’ll have employees come in for an initial interview then have them go out in the field for a half-day ride along. They’ll put them with people at Ryan who have a good eye for character, Green says, evaluating them along the way. He’s noticed that if the company can get an employee to stay for three years, they tend to stay for a significant period of time.

“We don’t hit them all on the head,” Green admits. “We do have some turnover, but it’s not like it is at other places.”

Ryan can afford to be a bit more selective because of the presence of its company culture, even attracting employees from other industries. Green recalls a few employees leaving their jobs to come work at Ryan for less money. And Ott herself is new to the green industry, drawn to Ryan because of its faith-based business operations and team atmosphere.

Of course, that doesn’t mean every applicant is a good fit. Ott says the company shows every candidate “great, deep respect” because even if they’re not a good fit for that role, they might boomerang back to you or they might become a customer later.

“If you run into them in a grocery store, you want to make sure you treated them well because that’s who we are,” Ott says.

A faith-based mission

Ott remembers that during one of her first meetings at the company, an employee stood up and closed it out in prayer.

Ott has worked in business long enough to know some places don’t mean it when they say they’re a faith-based business – many companies will put Bible verses up on the wall or say they’re operating with Christian values in mind.

But Ryan seemed to be taking an extra step. “To serve God” are the first three words of its mission statement, and though they volunteer and donate to secular organizations, too, they also help out at local Salvation Army and Cristo Rey chapters.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing, they’re actually doing it,’” Ott says. “I thought I’d have to retire and do volunteer work for our church, but we’re allowed to openly live our faith at work.”

Employees need not be Christians to work at Ryan, nor are they required to practice their faith at work. Employees who don’t want to take part in any prayers before or after meetings are just asked to be respectful. “It’s not a requirement to work for us,” Ott says. “The requirement to work for Ryan is to have a happy heart.”

The long haul

Green trains employees by showing them the basics of how to do things in just two weeks, including relating to customers, using the team’s software and how to do an application. There’s a great company culture, sure, but Green says the employees are also tasked with working pretty hard. The compensation makes the work worth it, too, he says.

Larry Ryan made the company a fully employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) business over the last 20 years, which he previously told Lawn & Landscape was a huge recruiting chip. But as Green puts it, it’s also a nice reason to stay, as he estimates his ESOP grew by $25,000 this year alone.

Nothing is perfect, even at Ryan, where Green says some clients have concerns that the company is getting too big to maintain their personalized touch. They’re also still formalizing their training program in more depth, and they’re going to need even more employees as they continue to grow.

But Green, the long-time Ryan employee, has essentially become a loyalist. Over the last 30 years, he says he never seriously contemplated leaving the company to start his own or work elsewhere in the green industry, even when the going got tough at Ryan specifically.

“After a while, I realized I wouldn’t do this for myself,” he says, “and I wouldn’t do this for anybody other than Larry.”

The author is associate editor with Lawn & Landscape.

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