Chief encouragement officer

Although Larry Ryan doesn’t own most of his company, he still puts his entire heart into the operation.

Larry Ryan started Ryan Lawn & Tree in 1987 and is now a minority owner of the company.
Photos courtesy of Ryan Lawn & Tree

Most people will say that the best jobs they had were the ones where their boss, CEO, owner and other higher ups knew them and took the time to make them feel like a part of the work family.

This can be said about Larry Ryan, founder of Ryan Lawn & Tree.

“Most people who were around the office felt very free to pop in and say something to Larry,” says Chris Senske, president of Senske Services, who visited Ryan’s company for business reasons. “And it didn’t matter whether it was a manager or a service technician, a field person or office person. He knew them all by name, which I think is awesome.”

Started by Ryan in 1987, Ryan Lawn & Tree has a unique setup in that it’s now an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).

“If you told me 29 years ago that we’d had this today, I would not believe it,” Ryan says.

Ryan says the idea to have the ESOP came from his bank. One of the employees told him how they owned part of the bank, and he decided to look into it. Previously, Ryan Lawn & Tree had shared profits in a similar situation with its employees, but Ryan liked the idea of giving more to his team.

“They were growing the company so shouldn’t they share the rewards?” he says. Every year, employees are given stock based on profitability. As the current owners, Ryan and his wife had to sell off part of the company, which they did at a time when it was small enough that shares didn’t cost much.

At one point, the Ryans sold $3 million of the company to their more than 240 employees for the price of $1 million. The couple then donated part of that money to local charities, which in return use Ryan Lawn & Tree for services. Ryan and his wife now own 40 percent of the company.

“My wife’s and my goal is to not get rich out of this deal,” he says. “It’s to create an environment where our employees turn into owners of the company.” He likens it to a farmer passing on the family farm to his children.

As an ESOP, the majority of the company is owned by its employees. Ryan and his wife own 40 percent.

Ryan does admit that it’s not always a perfect setup to no longer fully own his company.

“I don’t want this to sound like utopia,” he says. “It’s incredible, but every day I have to realize I’m losing control of the company. So you have to work with that side of yourself. Are you really willing to live being the giver?”

In company meetings and in day-to-day activities, the associates come up with ideas to make the company better. They also work together to plan their days, maintain and purchase equipment, and brainstorm how to solve problems for upset clients.

Those ideas are helping. Ryan says they expect the company to reach $100 million by 2030 through both organic growth and acquisitions of other companies.

About the team

Focusing on employee needs is something Ryan does a lot of.

“His main concern is making sure our futures are secure and that we have a fulfilling career,” says Debra Warner, staffing coordinator with Ryan Lawn & Tree. “There are few multi-million dollar companies where the president is accessible and works just as hard as his employees either in the field or in the office. Larry challenges all of us to be the best version of ourselves.”

“I’m an encourager,” he says. “One of my jobs that I feel very strongly for is to encourage the people who join us – to thank them.”

He makes an effort to show new employees what a job with Ryan Lawn & Tree can give them. He shows them that they can raise a family with this job, and that it’s a way to start a career.

“Their job will grow. Their salary will grow. There’s a future for them,” he says.

“I’m an encourager. One of my jobs that I feel very strongly for is to encourage the people who join us. To thank them.” Larry Ryan, founder, Ryan Lawn & Tree

And a future in the business for his employees is something he strives to nurture.

“Every single person has got to believe in what we do and who we are,” he says. “That is better than any training you can do.”

Training is important, which is why Ryan Lawn & Tree has a training center with a coordinator to handle all the training requirements for new and current crew members.

However, Ryan says a good employee starts with the hiring process.

“Selecting the right people is a huge part of the whole equation,” he says. “We spend a lot of time selecting the right people.”

But according to Senske, it’s not just about selecting the right people. Ryan also puts in an extra effort to build relationships with employees.

“He knows all his employees and all of the things going on in their lives,” Senske says. “There wasn’t a single one we bumped into that he didn’t ask about a wife, or somebody’s surgery or how they’re healing after an injury. That kind of thing.”

When Ryan says “selecting the right people,” he’s not just talking about new hires. Ryan Lawn & Tree also does a number of acquisitions, which is important for him because those companies’ employees become Ryan Lawn & Tree owners.

More than 30 of the company’s associates have more than $100,000 of value in Ryan Lawn & Tree.

“At the end of the day, every single associate becomes the face of Ryan,” he says. “If a person doesn’t fit, there is not magic.”

Before acquiring a company, Ryan makes sure the current owner and employees are willing to continue operating under the Ryan Lawn & Tree format. After an acquired company joins Ryan, he tries to visit that new branch frequently.

“Branch visits are very important. You can’t visit a branch two times a year and have the associates in the branch understand who you are, have your values or get your culture,” he says. “Visits need to be frequent and the newly acquired associates need to see your sincerity.”

Thomas Tolkacz, CEO and owner of Swingle Lawn, Tree and Landscape Care, says Ryan has a passion for the industry, but it might be trumped by his passion for those in it.

“I think behind this person, who is sincerely dedicated to the green industry from a horticultural standpoint, there is a very intuitive, well read, sharp, driven, savvy business person who likes to be a winner, he says.

“It is rare you find someone who, I think, has combined their avocation and their vocation so closely together, not only to their own personal success and benefit, but to the team members and community.”

On the job

Because he’s not technically a majority owner of the company, Ryan could easily spend the majority of his time outside of the office, managing from afar.

He doesn’t, however, instead choosing to be immersed in the company culture with his employees.

His day typically starts at a branch, where he’ll take time to talk to the crews and see how they’re doing. His hands-on approach continues as he usually will then ride with one of the technicians for the day, keeping his finger on the pulse of the company as he’s out in the field, experiencing what the crews are doing.

The rest of his day is spent reading articles and talking with different people to figure out who Ryan Lawn & Tree is and where the company is going.

“The real key ingredient, I think, is the passion for the business and the compassion for employees,” Senske says. “And building that business based on sharing and everybody participating.”

Although Ryan can’t take all the credit for himself, it’s safe to say he plays a large role in how Ryan Lawn & Tree impacts the industry.

“We have been so blessed for 29 years,” he says. “We work every day to try to be a role model company.”

“We know we can’t change the industry or other companies,” he says. “If we put all our energy into the Ryan organization, we have a chance to affect some change. The first words in our mission statement are ‘Serve God.’

“We only do this when our people feel good about what they do, take those good feelings to our clients, and at the end of the year, get pay checks that allow them to live a worthwhile life.”

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