Early in his career, John Ryan, president of Wright-Ryan Construction in Portland, plumbed the depths of places like New York Harbor. But for the past 30 years, he’s used his engineering expertise to develop some of Maine’s most notable buildings.
Ryan started the firm with his business partner Tom Wright. They grew up as childhood friends, spending summers on a small island off Portland and later working odd jobs in the 1970s. Ryan started his career as a civil engineer, while Wright pursued construction and industrial arts education. They later formed Wright-Ryan and worked together until Wright retired in 2006 to pursue community service projects.
The firm now employs more than 75 workers. Its projects range from historic renovations of buildings for nonprofits, inns and hotels, to constructing health care and educational facilities.
Junior Achievement named Ryan as one of the 2014 laureates when it celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Maine Business Hall of Fame on May 7. It was one of several state and national accolades for the firm in recognition of its sustainable, environmentally friendly business practices. The firm has won other awards for design and historical preservation. Among its more recent projects of note are the Harold Alfond Forum ice arena at the University of New England, the Pearl Place II affordable housing project for Avesta Housing and the new energy-efficient Agren Appliance store in Topsham.
Q. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the firm. What’s been the biggest, defining moment in the history of Wright-Ryan?
A. It’s really hard to name a single defining moment outside of when the firm started. My partner and I set out to do something different. Good friends working together with a shared notion of excellence can do some incredible things. The firm has adapted, changed over time but never strayed from the core vision we started. It’s been more of a steady evolution over the years with many small victories.
Q. What does the next phase of the company look like over the next five to 10 years?
A. We do a lot of strategic planning at the firm. About 10 or 12 years ago, we really set out to establish a clear direction for ourselves and be more intentional about what we do. But the 2008-2009 era made it clear to me that it’s hard to look that far out into the future with any degree of certainty. What we’ve realized is that customer needs change so quickly. We need to stay ahead of our customers’ needs by investing and developing our team, by taking advantage of different skills and knowledge in the company. We need to continue to invest in our people, technology and equipment to make our teams more productive.
Q. You began your career as a civil engineer. What was missing in that job that prompted you to develop your own construction firm?
A. I enjoyed the people, but what was missing was a sense of shared values and mission and connection. I was a hard-hat, commercial engineer and inspector. I was an engineer diver for an underwater engineering and construction firm. I was underwater for three years in places like New York Harbor, Baltimore – places they call black water diving. I liked that work. But I was drawn to a love of putting work into place and seeing the tangible results. Seeing the fruits of your labor. I still find it gratifying to see our projects all over Maine.
Q. Do you have a project or type of project that is the most special to you personally. If so, why?
A. All projects are special. Some are more equal than others. We’ve been so fortunate to enjoy so many types of projects over the years. Projects that support communities or have a community element to them – education, arts, nonprofit organizations – are tremendously fulfilling. The right facility is often vital to an organization to accomplish a mission. It’s very meaningful to contribute to those groups’ missions. Challenging projects – from institutions to single-family homes – that require us to work at the highest level of our abilities are very fulfilling. One example was the University of Southern Maine ice arena. We had an incredibly demanding schedule. We had 5½ months to complete it. It really put us on the map. The Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine is a beautiful building with a great mission. Congregation Bet Ha’am is also very special. I hate to name projects over others, but those were defining projects for us.
Q. What’s been the biggest challenge of leading the firm on your own since it originally started as a team effort with Tom Wright?
A. Tom and I worked together for 20 years. One of the things that worked well for us is that we had very different sets of skills. Tom was a craftsman and risk-taker. I was an engineer and detail oriented. We complemented each other. I had to recognize that I wasn’t going to replace Tom or his skills. So I built a broader leadership team to focus on core business segments. Before, Tom and I did (a little bit of everything) ourselves. After his departure, I had to move to broaden the leadership team. It’s been very successful.
Q. What is the biggest competition for the firm? Other Maine companies or out-of-state firms?
A. It varies with the nature of the project. There’s no No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 competitor that we look at as our biggest competition. We have a broad range of projects, we do such a range of work, so each of those groups or categories has their own competitors. For larger projects, we have more out-of-state competitors. For small projects or housing-related projects, it’s more in-state competition. But we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about competition.
Q. Your firm has incorporated several green business practices. Why is that important to you?
A. I’ve been deeply interested in environmental issues from the early days since I went to school in Oregon. Oregon was a leader at the time in environmental legislation. I got interested in it there and in college and it carried through here. As good corporate citizens, we have an obligation to reduce our carbon footprint. We do it internally and encourage our customers to do the same thing. There’s a lot of wasteful practices in the building industry. Buildings consume a lot of energy. We happen to be in a position to help make a dent in reducing that drain. We built the first LEED platinum home in the Northeast. We don’t just do it for projects for customers. We help our employees do environmentally friendly modifications at their homes. We really do focus a lot on the building envelope and how the details are executed, as well as the construction process.
Q. The firm has been lauded for its efforts in historic rehabilitation, green housing and nonprofit projects. How do you balance good deeds against building a strong business model?
A. There’s a way to do both. Sometimes those types of projects are often the most interesting projects. The challenging and most demanding projects are easy to get excited about. For us, we’re lucky to have a mix of work. So, while some projects may not be driven by profits, you can have a mix of projects that allow you to do good works.
Q. You have a unique view into corporate and municipal spending. What is your view on the economy going forward? Is spending going to increase? Are companies committing to big projects?
A. I’ve gotten it wrong before when I try to predict the future. After 2009, 2010, 2011, I thought we were poised to climb out of the slump. But then it hit me that we may never climb out. We’ve focused a lot of energy thinking how can we be successful in this new work environment. I don’t see a lot of big new construction projects in the near future. There’s a lot of caution in the private marketplace and a lack of funding in the public sector. The exception is multifamily housing. That seems to be very strong in other areas of the country. What could drive spending? Tax credits – that’s been really important for us, whether it’s historic tax credits, the New Markets tax credits, low-income house tax credits –will help drive economic activity.
Q. There’s been a lot of development in Portland in the past few years. Where do you see that development going and how do you see the community changing over time?
A. Anecdotally, Portland is poised for growth. People are always interested in Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon. When you’re traveling and you say you’re from Portland, people take interest in the quality of life, the food, the arts. The challenge is that we’re not creating enough new jobs (to lure enough people from outside the area) into the workforce. There’s a group of people who can live and work from anywhere, and they’ve chosen to live in Portland, and a number of people are retiring here. My hope for Portland is that we’re generating enough new jobs to attract working people.
We have an opportunity for more market-rate housing. Any healthy community needs to offer a diverse mix of housing to thrive. Affordable workforce housing will help us retain a healthy mix across all sectors. I’m cautiously optimistic that Portland will continue to grow thoughtfully and won’t forget some of our own more needy groups. A big problem in Portland is dealing with homelessness. It’s a critical issue facing our community over the next 10 years.
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: