2021 LM150: How Ryan Lawn & Tree raises its game

June 28, 2021 -  By
The culture is one of a kind,” says Katherine Miller (pictured center), customer service manager. “(It’s) about the people; they have the heart.” From left to right: Larry Ryan, Roy Heinbach, Miller, Mark Stuhlsatz and Rodney St. John, Ph.D. (Photo: LM Staff)

The culture is one of a kind,” says Katherine Miller (pictured center), customer service manager. “(It’s) about the people; they have the heart.” From left to right: Larry Ryan, Roy Heinbach, Miller, Mark Stuhlsatz and Rodney St. John, Ph.D. (Photo: LM Staff)

Larry Ryan, president of Ryan Lawn & Tree, cringes at wasted effort. He’s led Ryan Lawn & Tree since 1987, but before that, he spent 10 years in the food service industry, where margins are slim. First, it was a family business selling fish and chips, and then he entered the pizza game.

It was during his years selling pizzas that everything changed. His boss took him to a seminar on hiring that changed his life. The focus of the seminar was to hire talents, not people. Hiring the right person (and talent) is key to the life of a business. Because the seminar was expensive, to Ryan, it was important. He commented that had it been free, he would not have given it the meaning it deserved.

It’s that mentality that has made him grow Ryan Lawn & Tree over the last 34 years into a $47 million company with nine branches and 360 full-time employees across Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Ryan is a big believer in a strong, positive culture, and that led him to transition the company into an employee-owned company in 1998. The emphasis on hiring full-time employees is a big part of that culture. The company is one of the biggest movers on the 2021 LM150 list, growing $7 million over the year and going from No. 51 last year to No. 45 this year.

The ownership culture

Rodney St. John, Ph.D., is the agronomist for Ryan Lawn & Tree. Previously, he worked as a professor at Kansas State University and consulted for multiple lawn care companies around the state. St. John says the way Ryan runs his company made it an easy decision to join the Ryan Lawn & Tree team in 2012.

“Most of the time, you see the president of the company, and he has a big house in town and a big house down at the lake and multiple cars,” St. John says. “This company was designed to make sure everybody has a career opportunity and everybody shares in the wealth of this company — not just one person. That is also part of our culture.”

The company recently invested in the business principles of the Great Game of Business (GGOB) as a way to further motivate employees to reach their fullest potential. The GGOB philosophy is to educate employees on the rules of business and give them a stake in the outcome.

“We trust our employees, the ownership culture,” St. John says. “The Great Game of Business program has been very exciting, very fun, to see exactly what everything costs. One of the most eye-opening experiences for a new person is when they get here in December/January, they’re going to see how we’re going to do a couple hundred thousand dollars in revenue for those months, but we’re going to lose several million dollars over that three-month period. ‘Wait a minute, we’re going to lose money? How do we stay in business?’ Well, that’s why we have to make up for it in the other 10 months.”

New to the Ryan team is Roy Heinbach, vice president and CFO. The certified public accountant joined Ryan six months ago and brings 26 years of experience from a local accounting firm, a national telecommunications company and a global finance leader in the clinical research industry.

Heinbach is quick with the list of things that appealed to him about working for Ryan Lawn & Tree: It’s a faith-based company; a desire to grow both organically and with acquisitions; employee owned since ’98; the industry itself; and Larry Ryan’s vision for the industry.

Hit F9 and watch

Heinbach enjoys telling employees about a longtime employee who got into Ryan’s 401(k) early and now boasts $300,000 in his 401(k) and $600,000 in company stock.

“He wouldn’t have that anywhere else in our industry, not being a manager,” Heinbach says. “He just comes to work every day, prunes trees and shrubs and enjoys it.”

A giant dry erase board in the heart of the company’s Merriam, Kan., office displays the running totals in dollars and cents for every department. Near the lobby, another board shows the value of the company’s stock through the years.

“I joke with the team that we’ve created a bunch of mini CFOs,” Heinbach says. “There are not too many places where you know what your numbers are going to be or pretty close before month’s end. This is special. I’ve come from a $12-billion-a-year company, to here where employees at all levels are so much more on top of our numbers than we were over there. In this industry, that’s shocking.”

Larry Ryan says the Great Game of Business is “fueling the engine” of culture at the company. Employees get four bonuses a year. The bonus percent increases each quarter, and the bonus goes up as goals are met. If a team is in a hole, they know it and can work to dig out. It’s all because they know the score. The score creates purpose, Ryan says, just as in sports. The score creates excitement. The employees know what they have to do to win.

It’s a different mentality from 30-plus years ago when Ryan’s solution to every challenge was just to work harder.

“I told a manager recently, ‘Not all of you worked seven days a week like I did when I got this going … You’re more rational than I am.’ I’m lucky to still be married,” Ryan says. “I love those guys, and the only difference between us is age and the understanding of the game. We didn’t have Excel files. We had Lotus 1-2-3 when I started. The computers were so antiquated. If the spreadsheet got big, you had to do manual calculations. When you’d get all your numbers typed in, you’d hit F9. It was amazing watching the numbers fly up! It was the most motivating thing at 10 o’clock every night to add in three new customers and their dollar amounts. Hit F9, and watch gross revenue go from $78,200 to $79,300.”

There might not be an F9 button today, but Ryan says he wants everyone to feel that same excitement of ownership. He compares it to the excitement of hitting three free throws in a row to send a basketball game into overtime.

Mark Stuhlsatz, vice president of irrigation and landscape, credits Larry Ryan with raising the bar in the industry in the Kansas City area. He remembers a meeting he was in when he first started with the company, and he thought to himself that every person in the room was qualified to lead the team at his old company.

“What’s different about us is our culture and our people, but that’s a basic answer,” Stuhlsatz says. “In my experience here, what is truly different about us is the ownership mentality people take with everything they do. That’s the bulk of the culture at Ryan Lawn & Tree. Everybody wants to win. We all want to work together. Rarely do you find someone rowing against you; we all are going the same direction.”

Heinbach agrees and says his goal is for the company to grow faster in the next five to 10 years. He says there are things the company can do even better — he calls them opportunities — and that turned-on and focused employees are the key.

“We do internal surveys to see how everyone is doing and how they are feeling about Ryan. We must meet the needs for their professional growth, have succession plans and keep solving problems,” he says. “One thing about Great Game of Business is it’s not just focused on the numbers. It’s focused on the people as well and making sure they have a voice, making sure they are excited about the company. One of the GGOB sayings is, ‘people support what they help create.’”

Top 5 keys to success

Larry Ryan, president of Ryan Lawn & Tree, No. 45 on the LM150 list, shares his top five keys to success.

1. Hire better. Better employees will make your company better.

2. Offer employees more. If you can’t find good people, look at what you are offering.

3. Charge more. Better people doing a better job command a higher price.

4. Sell better. A lot of our work is hard or hazardous or both. Share this with the client when you give them the higher bid. Tell them (truthfully), “They will be glad they chose you.” Then live up to it!

5. Overall, take better care of your employees. Few things will do as much to grow your image and your business or our industry!

This article is tagged with , , , and posted in Featured, From the Magazine, June 2021, LM150
Seth Jones

About the Author:

Seth Jones, a graduate of Kansas University’s William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, was voted best columnist in the industry in 2014 and 2018 by the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. Seth has more than 23 years of experience in the golf and turf industries and has traveled the world seeking great stories. He is editor-in-chief of Landscape Management, Golfdom and Athletic Turf magazines. Jones can be reached at sjones@northcoastmedia.net.

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