Tips from the Top: Larry Ryan, Ryan Lawn & Tree

Larry Ryan, Ryan Lawn & Tree


Self-described C student Larry Ryan took his experience in the food industry and applied it to turf care to grow one of the largest landscape companies in the Midwest. Thanks to a smart hiring process and employee ownership, the company has grown by leaps and bounds.

I’ve been very blessed. I’m a C student on a good day. But I find that you don’t have to be the brilliant student. It’s that old cliché: A students become professionals and B students go to work for C students. There’s some truth to that, because C students still have something to prove in life.

I have a brother two years younger than me. Both of his degrees – bachelor’s and masters – are in literature. We both started our businesses 26 years ago. We’ll do $24 million this year. He’ll do about $2 billion. In fairness, he’s in brokering truck freight and factors receivables all over the hemisphere. But that English thing – that ability to communicate well – I wasn’t good at it at all.

A friend dragged me to a Toastmaster meeting one morning. It scared me to death. The only thing that scared me more than giving a talk was admitting to my friend that I was frightened. I stayed in the club for eight years.

I’m a paranoid speaker, by which I mean I practice a lot. My weakness, that fear of speaking, turned out to be a blessing.

My family was in the food business, and I moved to Kansas City to open a chain of pizza stores. I started with one and grew it to eight stores over a period of eight years. That’s what taught me business. I learned to read a financial statement, build a spreadsheet and hire great people. Those things are the foundation of our business today.

I had worked for the guy that started Pizza Hut, Dan Carney when I was 25. When I was 27 and working for a tree business, I decided I wanted to start my own tree care company. I called Dan and told him my plans. His advice was to work for other people – learn on the other guy’s nickel until you are 30 years old. That was great advice.

I started my company in 1987. I had no customers and really no background in turf. So the first year I grew to 300 accounts, then grew to 600 accounts by myself. It was a nightmare. You’re hand-writing every ticket, answering every phone call, depositing every check. It was absolutely a nightmare.

We don’t have a problem finding employees. Our issue is finding out if they’re the right people. If they don’t have any personality, we don’t want them. I want to get along with them, and I want them to get along with our customers. We used a company called Selection Research to help our hiring process. They taught us that each person is a unique collection of talents – you are who you are and you can’t change. So we hire for gifts and not for weaknesses. We look at 10 to 20 resumes for each position.

We lose most hires in the first year. One of the great opportunities is that the work is hard. The fact that it’s hard really separates out people. We’re glad that it’s hard to find good people. We rejoice in that, and we’re willing to pay the price.

We created an environment that creates opportunity. Employees own 90 percent of the company. I own 10 percent. We did that in 1998. We have over 30 people that have more than $100,000 value in our company.

Peter Drucker said the purpose of a business is to create jobs. Turning employee ownership over has made us create a job where I’m not more important than other people. It’s made me look at my job like I’m another employee in the business.

Learn horticulture, but study business. Mimic success of other companies. You don’t have enough years to learn everything yourself; that gets you 80 percent of the way there.

April 2013
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