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Advice from Dad

June 11, 2017

Advice from Dad

Father's Day Small Business Advice

I started thinking about this post when I was writing, The Best Small Business Advice We've Received, but decided I wanted to give my old man his own space. So here goes. 

A quick background.

We lost our dad (Jim Ryan) in 2009, after a 9 month battle with melanoma that had metastasized in his liver and then spread to his brain. We found out he was sick in August, and lost him in May. It was a terrible time, but one that I would give anything to go back to for one more minute with him. He was so good at living, so good at making us all feel so loved and special. Even as this mean disease ravaged his body and took away his ability to fully communicate, he felt so good to be around. 

A thousand times, F Cancer. 

Dad was born and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota—part of a region affectionately known as the Iron-Range. His grandfather, James Henry Ryan, started a lumber company, Ryan Lumber and Coal in 1938, after emigrating from Ireland. When two of his sons (my grandpa, Russell and his brother Fran) took an interest in expanding into construction, James partnered with them and formed Ryan Realty Company. Later my dad would join and help them grow even more, turning it into Ryan Construction, and eventually Ryan Companies. Today his cousin Pat continues to run Ryan with my godfather Tim Gray (and a big team of very smart people). 

Dad came from a line of men that worked really, really hard, got a lot of things right, and benefited from a lot of good 'ole Irish luck. They committed themselves fully to their goals and things mostly worked out for them. I grew up thinking he was the smartest person in the world, everyone loved him, and that his pancake recipe was absolutely unbeatable.  

I've come to understand, as an adult, that he was in fact human and had many faults just like everyone else. Worth noting that the pancake part still stands.

So it's not surprising that if there was one person in this world I would give anything to talk to about starting and growing a business, it's my Dad. It's incredibly difficult for me not to dwell on this, especially when I'm feeling beaten by a day or week or project. I wish so badly I could share my ideas with him, and look closely at his face to really gauge his reaction to my ideas and really understand his advice. 

But the reality is, I already know a lot of what he would tell me—and not tell me—and it's up to me to put it into action. So this post is a few of things I think about most often when I think of my dad in relation to my work. 

Fatherly Advice on Family Business

Do the right thing.

I will be the first to admit, this advice is incredibly corny, and I used to give my dad a hard time about it all the time. In spite of my criticism, the number one lesson he reiterated to us again and again, was the importance of doing what you knew was right. 

It sounds so obvious and so broad that it can't possibly have any real meaning. But the more I live the more I realize how many times in a life, a year, a day this comes into play—in big and small decisions alike. It's hard to overstate how closely he held this mantra to his heart, and how much he wanted to share it with the world. My mom's laundry room is still full of  Ryan Construction shirts with this slogan printed on them!

One of his most proud stories to share about Ryan Construction and of his dad, uncles and grandfather was of a job they did in the 50's that went awry after completion. It was a small town grocery store, and it started sinking slightly after construction. After extensive investigation, it was discovered that a stream bed ran under the building's footings—this was not Ryan's fault or liability to repair. Instead of leaving their client high and dry, they made the tough decision to rebuild the store across the street at no cost to the customer. It was a huge expense that almost broke the growing business, but it became the cornerstone of the kind of company they were building and the kind of people they were.  

Dad and my oldest Sister, Molly

Hire People Smarter Than You

Dad used to sit at the end of our dinner table to work, dictating emails into a recorder for his amazing assistant to type up the next day. Not great with the keyboard, that guy. In any case, I literally cannot recount the number of times he would put down what he was working on and say, "always hire people smarter than you". Looking back, I can gather that he was so consistently impressed with or inspired by the people on his team—he was constantly grateful for them! These nuggets of wisdom were usually dropped while I was busy furiously stirring my vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce into a "malt" while working to extend the dinner hour to avoid homework. Likely why it's taken me a little longer to recognize this lesson. 

advice from my dad for Father's Day

Never Fight About Money

Dad grew up watching his dad and uncles work together, and came of age working for them, then with them—alongside his cousin and best friend from college, no less. It's hard to imagine a more familiar environment. Less than one third of family businesses survive the transition from first to second generation ownership. Another 50% don’t survive the transition from second to third generation. (Forbes) Ryan is healthily in it's third generation as a family-led company, with the fourth actively at work learning the ropes. It has never been a secret that working with family successfully takes deliberate action and a lot of discipline.  

The executive team at Ryan developed a charter to guide the family as the company grew—a set of rules that managed how family could enter the business, to what capacity. Some of the rules are really specific, like you have to work somewhere else for 5 years before joining the team. Some are less so, but equally revered. One of these was to never fight about money. Dad would mention often that he had definitely seen his farther and uncles argue, but never about money. It's an incredibly liberating pact that consistently underscores the level of trust you have with your partners. 

Dad and his Uncle (and boss!) Fran Ryan

Leave Work at Work

Dad worked a lot, sometimes as I mentioned it was from home, but I never felt his stresses coming into the house when he walked in the door. When he was home he was a husband and father (or maybe a ninth child and playmate? You'll have to ask Bullets). He and the executive team at Ryan felt so strongly about this that one of the guidelines for the charter is no in-laws. No one that marries into the family can work at Ryan. This might seem in direct contrast to "Hiring people smarter than you" because the majority of us have  been fortunate enough to marry-up. This rule is not about protecting the company, it's about protecting our homes and family lives from getting mixed in with work. It's important to have a safe place to vent, and even better, completely forget about work and recharge. 

Family Business Advice from Dad

Remember How Lucky You Are

I like this last bit of advice, because it feels so topical now. There seems to be a spreading sentiment that to acknowledge even the possibility of luck playing a role in your success is a sign of weakness. I feel so strongly the opposite; I think probably because I was raised to feel that way. Not acknowledging that you had help, or that there were some things that just worked out is not seeing the complete picture. You really can't do anything alone, so don't let yourself think you can. Take your lucky breaks as the gift they are and turn them into something bigger. 

So many other lessons that don't directly tie into work. Find a great partner and spend your life working on serving and loving them better everyday. Know and fully understand that you are a small part of a big picture, in your family, at work, in your community, as a part of this planet. Be aware of the gifts you've been given, use them and be grateful. Don't take yourself too seriously (or seriously at all). Enjoy your time on this earth because no matter how long it is, it will always be too short.

And last but not least, if you force your children to refer to you as "The King of the Jungle", they might actually grow up to believe it.  


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