June 17 2020 10:57 AM

The founder of Ryan Lawn & Tree develops his company by giving back to his employees.

Photos: Leigh Mitchell

Ryan Lawn & Tree is headquarted in Merriam, Kansas, and has five branches across Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Employing more than 300 people and earning revenue of $41 million in 2019, the lawn care and landscape company has made its mark in the industry. But what far outshines these numbers is the way its founder, Larry Ryan, has built the company and culture around its employees, the ones he credits with making this growth possible.

After earning his college degree in forestry, Ryan spent time working for the U.S. Forest Service and a tree company before returning to the Kansas City area to work in the restaurant business. He managed a pizza franchise business until his partners sold out, and he and his wife, Kathy, started Ryan Lawn & Tree in 1987.

While his past work experience gave him some insight into running a business, he says the biggest way he learned the lawn care industry was by asking a lot of questions.

“I tell people I’m a C student on a good day, so there’s nothing special about me,” says Ryan. “But if you can ask questions, you can get a lot of answers.”

Ryan credits several people inside and outside the industry who helped him in the early years learn how to run his company — a friend who owned a business in Wichita, a roommate who worked for ChemLawn in Atlanta and a friend who was a national account manager for Gatorade.

“I literally asked everybody. I got answers everywhere,” says Ryan.

He began attending trade shows around his fourth year in business. When he’d hear speakers, he’d have a list of questions to ask them at the end of their presentations.

Being a good business owner also meant learning to be an avid reader, Ryan says. His reading list is comprised of books filled with ideas on ways to build a successful company and how to attract and manage great employees.

“We just started working to incorporate those ideas into our business,” he says. “It really doesn’t make any difference whose idea you use or borrow if it works and it helps your people to grow and be better.”

Taking time for clients

Another practice that benefitted Ryan during the early years was making personal service calls. “I was doing every service call,” Ryan says. “What I found is oftentimes that service call was the very first time I got to connect personally with that customer.”

Not only did it not cost him anything, the personal visit would help him develop a rapport with the customer, he says, and he’d often get a referral out of it.

To this day, Ryan continues to make time to talk with clients.

“Just the other day, one of my employees said, ‘Larry, would you ride with me for part of the day?’ One of my customers wanted to meet me. Well, the guy worked in quality control for John Deere. We’re the same age. He retired seven years ago. We became almost like instant friends,” says Ryan. He told the client, “‘There’s going to come a time here that I need to talk to you because I want to find out some of the things that made Deere so incredible over the years.’ And he was very comfortable in sharing that.”

Ryan says when someone’s had an incredibly successful career, they usually love telling you their story, and there’s so much value in studying how other companies and individuals have become successful.

Looking the part

When establishing the Ryan Lawn & Tree brand image, Ryan decided on its trademark bright red trucks prominently displaying its logo. Trucks were driven by clean-shaven employees wearing khaki pants and a Ryan-logoed collared shirt, a uniform adapted from the Disney brand. Ryan interviewed a man early on who had interned at Disney and showed him their employee manual. Ryan was inspired and wanted to adopt that ‘all-American’ look, something his customers seemed to like.

Above is Jaret Hansen, a turf manager at Ryan Lawn & Tree who has worked at the company for six years. Wearing khaki pants and a Ryan-logoed collared shirt is a uniform Larry Ryan adapted from the Disney brand in the company’s early years.

“They said I looked dressed up for the job. It made me feel good. I wanted our people to feel the same way,” he says.

Another big step in the company came about 12 years ago when Ryan changed the company mission statement to start with the words “Serve God by helping our clients create beautiful and sustainable environments, while we create opportunities for our associates and business partners.”

Ryan says the most difficult thing about stating you are a Christian company is living it every day. If you claim to have that as a value but then take advantage of employees in pay or benefits, they see through it quickly, he says, and every aspect of what Ryan Lawn & Tree does must be lived out in its mission to the smallest detail.

Helping others grow

Ryan’s favorite thing about his job is simple: watching people grow.

This includes helping his staff become better communicators. Ryan explains that a friend of his brought him to a Toastmasters meeting 40 years ago at a time when he could barely stand and introduce himself to people. Being able to practice public speaking and communication through this avenue, Ryan saw his confidence grow over time. This is a practice the company has implemented at all of its branches.

“We really work at growing our people, even to the point that we have a Toastmasters public speaking program inside all the branches, and we teach our people to be better presenters — all the field staff go through it,” he explains.

One of the biggest changes that’s impacted its staff happened in 1998 when the company became 100% employee-owned.

Ryan says because of the decision to implement an employee stock ownership plan, there’s an ownership attitude today. Offering ownership to employees gives them the right to share in the company’s success and make decisions about how it’s run.R

What helped Ryan come to this decision is reflecting on what he could do for his team. In his
previous jobs, he didn’t have owners who asked him at the end of the year, “Did you feel good about this year? Did you grow enough? How can I help you be a better employee?”

“I never felt very valued, and I’ve talked to a lot of other people, too, that have the same attitude,” he explains. “I thought ‘How can we make people feel like they’re more valued, that they’re more important?’”

Instead of being an employer that asks, “What have you done for me this year?” Ryan says he wanted to be an employer that asked his employees, “How can I help you grow?”

Each year, Ryan loves getting to personally thank his employees for their work and hand out the stock certificates showing them what their account balances have grown to. The best part, he says, is watching their eyes light up when they see the amounts.

“There’s about 225 people now in the employee stock ownership plan. Sixty-two of them have account balances over $100,000,” he says. Some employees who have been with the company for 20 years have $200,000-$400,000 of value in the company.

Ryan says using employee ownership as an employee benefit has also helped the company attract high-quality employees, reduce turnover and provides a way for employees to save for retirement.

“Me and my wife Kathy have never been here to see how much we could get out of this company, but rather, it’s how we help others,” says Ryan.

At Ryan Lawn & Tree, all employees are full-time and have full benefits. As an employer, Ryan feels he has a responsibility to his employees and their families to provide year-round jobs so those raising families are not out of work during the off-season.

Ryan strongly supports paying higher salaries for green industry employees. He says the industry struggles to help students graduate and continue in lawn care.

“If we want more students, we’ve got to raise the pay of the graduates,” he says. “I think we need to turn out a student that has more confidence in himself or herself. First, we have to do a better job for the customer, and then we charge them more, and then we pay our people more. So it’s a process, but we’re absolutely committed to that process.”

Looking forward

Ryan says the company has a clear vision for the next 10 years. “We did $41 million last year, and we want to be $100 million in 2030,” he explains. While they operate in five markets right now, he believes they can do $100 million in those markets.

Ryan has complete confidence in his team looking ahead, crediting his managers with the ability to run the company better than he could even dream of. While they’ll also be looking at new markets, Ryan says you have to move one step at a time, because if you try to go too fast, you’ll lose.

“One of the things that we discovered is until you are doing what you’re doing really well, do not add on another service or you just dilute your quality in both things that you do,” he says. “You never go beyond what you can control in quality.”

Today, Ryan names recruiting people as one of his top responsibilities.

“It sounds crazy that the president of the company recruits, but we recruit people and we’re continually looking at companies that would want to be a part of us,” he explains. “Our culture is so unique being faith-based and employee-owned. We really don’t want to buy a customer list. If we do merge with somebody, it’s got to be somebody that can adapt to and/or share our values.”

At the end of the day, Ryan believes your people are your greatest asset. One of his team members says, “You’re never better than your worst employee.” Ryan explains that this belief, his faith and learning humility are what helped him develop into the leader he is today.

“When you start gaining a little bit of wealth, it’s really easy to get a little bit consumed with who you think you are,” says Ryan. “But at the end of the day, I remind myself that who really has grown this company is our people.”

The author is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at sarahbunyea@igin.com.