I am inspired by people that make the most out of what may at first seem like huge roadblocks in their lives.
Kelly Ryan was one of those people. It all began when Ryan was working for Omaha Steel Works in his early 20s, more than 75 years ago and was severely injured when a hoist fell on his back.
“He was done working there after the injury because there was no such thing as work comp benefits in those days,” his daughter Kathy Cook said – who is one of the owners of the Blair, Neb. firm, Kelly Ryan Equipment Company, Inc.
While he may have been done at that job, Ryan was not done with life. In fact, the experience helped launch his dreams. “At that point, Dad decided to start his own company with the mission of building farm machinery of his design and providing a place of employment where employees would be treated the way they should be,” Cook said.
Ryan had grown up on a farm northwest of Blair and quit school after the tenth grade to help his family on the farm. While he did not have a high school diploma or college degree, Cook said, “Mechanically, he was a genius. I guess you could say he started the company at age 26 after attending ‘The School of Hard Knocks.’”
With Ryan’s determined spirit, driven to treat others right and create something farmers could use, during the 1940s and 50s, the company employed up to 400 people operating four different plants in the Blair area. They worked around the clock producing and shipping up to 100 elevators a day to be used for elevating hay bales on thousands of farms, Cook explained.
Ryan married his wife Mardelle (Kuhr) in Blair and had one son, Jim and three daughters, Nancy (Frazier), Janis (Rogge) and Kathy. “Mom and Dad were married in December 1941 right after Pearl Harbor. After a short time of living in Omaha and working out of his garage, dad moved his family to Blair and launched the farm equipment manufacturing business bearing his name,” Cook said.
“I remember hearing people in the family talking over and over about how Dad’s goal was to have a business where employees were well-treated and respected,” Cook went on. “I am happy to say we have tried really hard to continue that tradition as his kids. Having former and current employees saying it’s a great place to work means a lot to us.”
Cook said of her father, “He was highly sensitive and devoted to the needs of his employees and the community. Hands-down, he was committed at every turn to the betterment of his fellow man, especially the American farmer. To give you a bit of insight into his character, in the 1950s there was talk around town that his business was not contributing enough to the local economy. His answer to that was paying all his employees in silver dollars! He encouraged them to spend them around town, so when the merchants took that money they knew where it came from.”
Cook said her father also owned a newspaper, The Review Herald, “to resist some of the political issues going around locally. In 1949, Dad’s photo was featured on the front page of The Omaha World-Herald’s Sunday Magazine of the Midlands. In this article, the 30-year-old industrialist was referred to as ‘Blair’s Stormy Petrel.’ This gives you an idea of what kind of person he was.”
“We knew there were times when Dad did not cash his paycheck to make sure the employees’ checks all flew,” Cook noted. “He also had a phone at his house so that when the switchboard was off at the business, it would ring at his house during the evening and on weekends. Sometimes he was the one who packed up and loaded repair parts for someone who was broke down on the weekend. If possible, he hand-delivered them. Dad cared so deeply about this business, his employees and customers that he truly went out of his way. He was on the move and was a man of great ideas who could never be told that something couldn’t be done. He would always say, ‘Oh yes it can.’”
Cook said the business and family have remained strong, “We are proud to say the company is being run by third generation Ryans. The grandsons, R. J. Ryan and Steven Cook, who now primarily run the business, believed their grandfather could ‘walk on water’ so they are determined to keep the business open and the Kelly Ryan name alive to promote Dad’s good reputation in the agri-business world.”
Mostly, she said, it’s about the employees and farmers and ranchers they serve, “We are personally interested in them as people, not just as a means to an end. We really try to take care of them, respect them and treat them well. That is what it’s all about.”
May that focus on people first with an “it can be done” spirit drive us today.