As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Miller.
He has been at PWI for 25 years, President for the past 15 years & CEO for the past 4 years. Ryan is passionate about leadership and is driven by his vision for continuous improvement and growth in both his company and others in his community. Ryan has been featured by Dave Ramsey as an example of how to successfully transfer a family business from the first generation to the second. He spends most of his days working on key relationships, growth strategy, and whatever is new or broken at PWI.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up working alongside my father in his small family-operated fabrication business which was right in our backyard in Northern Indiana. I knew from a young age that welding was what I wanted to do. After my freshman year in high school, my dad looked at me and asked if I wanted to run the business someday, and I said “Absolutely!” School was not going the best for me at the time, and I saw this as a huge opportunity. My dad felt he could teach me more about life and running a business than I would ever learn in high school. I dropped out and dove headfirst into this business, loving every minute of it.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I would have to say my father inspired me a lot by believing in me, allowing me to lead from a young age, and giving me the chance to learn on the job even when I made my share of mistakes. He made me feel like a man long before I actually was one. While dropping out of high school may not have been the smartest decision I have ever made, I have never regretted the 7-year jumpstart on my career, or my calling, as I consider it today. From the beginning, I have always loved going to work every day and being able to provide solutions for our customers. Although our business has changed immensely, it is still what I get to do today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In the early 2000’s, business wasn’t going so great. We were not growing, and we did not know why. One day, a salesperson for an east coast consulting company walked into our shop and convinced us to hire them for the following week. That way they could have an in-depth look at our business and “turn our company around while increasing our profits”. They also promised that they would “never charge us more than what they knew our cash-on-hand would allow”. Intrigued by their proposal, we said yes and the following Monday morning, two “suits” walked through our door and set up in our tiny office. After a week of mostly meaningless questions from them, digging through file cabinets, spreadsheets, and pie charts, they handed us an invoice for $25,000. We were stunned, upset, and felt like we had been robbed. Back then, that was more money than we made in months of profit! We had to call our bank and beg for a loan just to pay them and get them off our property.
Before they left that afternoon, the one consultant looked at me and said, “You know, after being here for a week, I have noticed that you guys are profitable on the sales you do have, you just don’t have any sales. Ryan, you’re a natural salesperson, why don’t you hire someone to run this shop, so you can start selling your products and services?”
The moment he said it, I knew he was right. I made some phone calls that same day and made a hire almost immediately. The hire I made that day (almost 20 years ago now) is our current VP of Operations. Our revenue doubled in just a year or two.
I learned an extremely valuable lesson that day although it took me a few years to recognize it — an outside perspective can make all the difference in the world. That was probably the best $25,000 investment I have ever made even though I did not realize it at the time.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Agreed. I have learned the invaluable need to surround myself with people who are ahead of me on the journey. I greatly appreciate all the time I have been able to spend with several mentors over the years since I have stepped into leadership. I try to live by the motto, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room”. In the past 3 years, I have become friends with a local entrepreneur. He runs a company three times our size and has simply taken an interest in helping me grow personally and professionally. He does not just pat me on the back but has instead challenged me and pushed me to get better at what we do in almost every aspect of our business.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We spent many years trying to figure out who we were as a company. We were a fabrication company that built anything for anybody, but we just did not make a whole lot of money at the end of the day. I recall the first “big addition” we put on with hopes that we would grow into some new markets. The expansion was 6,400 SQ FT but we were only able to pour the concrete for about 2,000 SQ FT due to our lack of cash flow and debt limits. We also could not afford overhead doors, so we literally built temporary plywood covers over the door openings and worked that way for several years. Pathetic, right? Yet, this is the way many dreamers start, and it was simply the cost my father paid to be an entrepreneur. I am grateful that I was able to be around the business in those days because it was great to experience the business finally starting to gain some synergy. It always amazes me how an extra 10% or 20% in revenue can often go directly to the bottom line because the overhead is all covered already. Those small differences can sometimes double your net profits. Watching this firsthand was exciting to me and gave me hope. When you start seeing that happen, you know there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I am naturally a very optimistic person as well as extremely competitive, so quitting has never really been an option. I think my faith has a lot to do with this as well, and God has certainly had to lift me up during some tough times. We have been tithing a portion of every dollar of revenue for decades. When you look at your work as being His business and you are simply managing it for Him, it makes you see the big picture a little differently.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going well here at PWI. However, I am finding that you never truly get to a plateau where you can kick back, put your feet up, and watch a business run itself. I would argue that this is true in every organization regardless of the size. John Maxwell says, “Everything rises and falls with leadership”, and he is correct. When I, as the leader, relax or put my “car” in cruise control, guess what, everybody else naturally does too. I have found that every level of business brings new challenges that range from newly mandated employee benefits to additional policies and procedures that need to be uniquely catered to your business. More employees mean better communication. More revenue requires more square footage. You find yourself waking up and saying wow, what got us here, will not get us there. What worked 3 years ago, is no longer applicable. Technology from 2 years ago is no longer cutting edge. I was recently listening to Seth Godin, and his message resonated distinctly with the battle I was facing that day regarding change. I will put into my own words what I recall hearing him say: A sailor doesn’t need wind that’s coming from the east or the west or the north, he just needs wind. A surfer does not need the waves today to be exactly the same as the waves tomorrow, nor does he want the waves ahead of him to be just like the waves behind him. All the waves are different, that is the whole point. Stop sitting around wishing things were like they used to be or waiting to see what your competition is going to do about the changes. Instead, why don’t you invent the future?
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
From the very beginning, our company was founded on the idea that relationships are far more valuable than making a buck. This is simply the way we have always done business. Our customers are not numbers to us, they are real people that need real solutions. We try to take care of them at all costs, and it matters more to us that they are happy at the end of the project than for us to make a profit.
In a project-based business like we are in, there are many chances for things to go south or sideways as details or scopes change. I recall sitting in a very heated meeting at a customer’s facility many years ago. The arrows were all pointing at me due to the fact I had just informed them of some very bad news. After an engineer review of our original solution, my scope would no longer work to safely meet their needs. After being verbally belittled and mistreated for quite some time by a corporate bigwig at this company, I left the meeting almost in tears.
Within an hour of leaving the meeting, I received two phone calls from other sub-managers at this company who had heard about the awful meeting and wanted to apologize for how I had been treated. These guys made a big enough stir to defend me, that by the next morning at 7AM, that same bigwig was standing in my office, apologizing for his words and his attitude the previous day.
We were able to come to an agreement and renegotiate the project with the new upgrades and have been doing business with them ever since. I am grateful to say that we have never had to get a lawyer involved in any project or payment dispute. I guess I would much rather have my customers go to bat for me any day.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
3 tips: Delegation. Delegation. Delegation. Seems simple, yet I believe this may be the most transformational change to a business going from stagnant to steady YoY growth. It can be hard for an entrepreneur, founder, or CEO to let go of things. At the very core of most people in these types of positions is the drive and the will to say, “I got this. I can do it faster and better than anyone else. He or she will just mess it up. It will take longer to explain it than just to do it myself.” This is small-minded and short-sided thinking. A leader must be a step ahead of the team who is running daily operations, so he has thought through the next steps and paved a vision that he can then clearly articulate to his team. You will never be able to do this well if you are also the “top sales guy” or the “IT person”. As soon as a process or task is identified into a rough job description by the CEO, it should be delegated within weeks to either someone on the team who has that unique skill or hire someone who does. If the task is assigned to the right person, they will have more time to focus on that task, and they will quickly find a way to do the task more effectively than what you anticipated in the first place.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As I mentioned previously, our family loves to give, especially to local needs right here in our community. My father taught my two brothers (also my business partners) and I the joy of giving long before he had much to give. I think contributions can quickly become “marketing schemes”, another way to get recognition, or your face on a billboard. Our goal is to make a difference in our community, many times without anyone needing to find out. I have just recently started confidentially sharing our contribution numbers with our team, not to get recognition in any way, but to allow them to understand that they play a part as a team member. It is pretty awesome to know that the stairway you built yesterday not only made a customer happy, but also paid groceries for a local family that is currently unemployed and having a tough month.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Importance of an All-Star Team: You will spend more hours per week working with your team than what you will get to spend with your family. This may be sad, but it is true at least in many cases. If you are going to hang out with these people all week, you may as well like them. The argument I hear many times is “I can’t afford to hire people like that”. I would offer the challenge that you cannot afford not to. Good people pay for themselves. I wish I would have stretched our hiring budgets decades ago, as I feel it would have caused organic growth quicker, simply because the right people would have been on the bus sooner. Our first production manager, as well as our first sales hires were far out of our comfort zone in salary amounts, yet we knew they would take us to a new level in business.
Organize: Clearly lay out an organizational chart so everyone on your team knows who they answer to and how the operation should flow. I have even been challenged to create revised org charts that look out 5 and 10 years down the road so I can envision how things will likely change as growth happens. Having a current, crystal clear organization chart is like having an engine running at the right oil level. An engine can run with low oil and even no oil at all for a short period of time. Eventually though, things will heat up, start making more and more noise, and come to a screeching halt completely locked up. Make sure all this stuff is hanging on the wall for all team members to see. A fancy plan does no good buried in some discreet folder on your PC. When it is confusing to a team about who is really their supervisor and who they go to for questions, it will cause more and more friction until your business locks up — usually causing good people to walk out your door. I’m embarrassed to say that I learned this the hard way. For many years, I just thought it was obvious who works for who, which can happen when your business starts small as many do. Bob and Sally work for Bill. How hard is that to understand?
Delegate. I did not understand this very well when I first started. I would have felt lazy or even guilty somehow for not being directly involved in operations where I was producing something tangible for the bottom line. As I mentioned earlier, every business and every team needs vision to know where they are going and how they’re going to get there. It is almost impossible to do that when you are knee-deep in operations every day.
Don’t Think So Small: For years, I believed we would always be a tiny family business. While I have always been an optimistic person, I felt “big growth” was doing 4% more revenue next year than what we did this year. Growth in my mind twenty years ago would have meant adding a few more employees in the next several years. I would have thoughts like, “We will never be able to cashflow new trucks or new equipment or building expansions”. Those types of success stories were always for “the other guys”, which usually meant our competition. Jeff Bezos correctly says, “Obsess about your customers not your competitors”. If you get that right, the rest seems to take care of itself.
Have an Abundance Mentality: While I think there needs to be a certain amount of fire in your belly believing that your company is the very best in the world, I think it can go too far. I continue to see a striking difference between companies that think with a mindset of abundance compared to those who constantly think with scarcity. There will always be enough to go around. There is enough work for everyone. The companies that live tight-fisted in their communities or are always making sure they beat their vendors to death on pricing, usually do not win. This type of mindset is generally intended to be veiled from the customer or sales side of the business, but it comes through loud and clear. When you build a company around a scarcity mindset, it flows through to everyone including your customers. Give a little extra at no charge. Go the extra mile. Honor a price for 31 days if you are able to. Have a friendly lunch with a competitor to see how they are doing. Take care of your vendors as well as you take care of your customers. Life is so much easier if everyone wins and not every decision is about pennies.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
I still do not have it all figured out, which is why I try to constantly be growing, listening to podcasts, and reading great books. Yes, I believe my leadership style has changed over the years, especially in the area of being able to give up control. I’ve learned to trust others around me to make good decisions and be okay with their decision even when it may not get done exactly the way I would have done it.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I think experience is without question the best teacher of all, however I believe I have also been able to avoid some catastrophic mistakes by learning from others and paying attention to their advice. The Bible says in Proverbs 23: “Don’t waste your breath on fools, for they will despise the wisest advice”. I do not want to be a fool. I would rather listen when those wiser than me have something to say because it just may save me a lot of grief.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The training & empowering of young leaders. It deeply saddens me when I see 30, 40, or even 50-year-olds with nothing to say or nothing to add. I love to see a hungry, energetic 23-year-old who is ready to attack life and add value wherever he goes. He doesn’t have any experience, but he’ll raise his hand and volunteer because he wants to be involved! What is so great about empowering leaders is that when you teach one person to lead, the ripple effect can be huge! That one person can positively affect hundreds and even thousands of people. We often hear phrases like “Too many cooks in the kitchen” or other similar lines. I would argue that I have more often seen it the other way around. Meetings where everyone looks at each other waiting for someone else to step up to the plate. A conversation where something tough needs to be said, but nobody is willing to be honest. Defending an idea even when it’s not the most popular thing to do. Just lead! My passion is to raise up a generation behind us full of leaders that will go farther and to greater places than my generation could ever go.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow my work online by connecting with me on LinkedIn. I would love to connect with you and keep the conversation going.