Forward thinking keeps Ryan Vending competitive in an ever-evolving market
By Brandi Cowen
Ryan Company Ltd. is a fourth-generation family business that provides vending and office coffee service across much of British Columbia. Though its history spans nearly eight decades, Ryan Vending is a progressive company, firmly rooted in the present and always with an eye on the future.
J.E. Ryan founded the company in the 1940s. In its earliest days, it was a tobacco and confectionary wholesaler. In the 1960s a successful experiment in cigarette vending by Ryan’s son-in-law, W.T. Oughtred, ushered in a new era that saw the wholesale operation sold off. Then, in the 1980s, Robert M. (Bob) Oughtred purchased the company from his father. Bob and his business partner, Glen Jackson, recognized that changing social norms would require the business to break new ground in order to remain viable. They re-oriented the company to snack and refreshment vending and, through strategic acquisitions of competitors through the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the company experienced significant growth.
The most recent succession occurred in 2009, when Bob’s three children – Anne, who has a management degree and currently serves as branch manager in Coquitlam, Bill, who is a chartered accountant and currently serves as director of finance, and Rob, who has an MBA and is currently the company’s director of operations – purchased the business from their father. Rob calls this transition something of a “soft succession,” since Jackson has stayed on as general manager and director of sales and marketing.
Rob says his father’s succession planning began long before either he or his siblings were in a position to take over the business. “We were told, if you want to work in the business, you’ve got to go to school,” he explains. “My dad also put a lot of energy into preparation for succession. He really worked with our lawyers and accountants to structure the succession of our business properly.”
“To this day, there’s a lot of coaching,” Rob adds. “Brothers and sisters working together can present a ton of benefits and it’s a lot of fun, but as you can imagine, there can be times when there are challenges. We work through those with consultants for coaching on how to conduct a family enterprise.”
It’s a little early to say whether a fifth generation will take over the business. Between the three of them, Anne, Bill and Rob have eight children, ranging in age from one to eight years old.
Changing with the times
One of the biggest challenges Ryan Vending has confronted in recent years came in the form of healthy vending rules restricting products that could be sold in public buildings, including secondary schools and hospitals, across the province.
“It had a huge impact,” Rob says. “We lost a lot of top end revenue, so we had to adjust the size of our business. We went through periods when we downsized and consolidated operations. After that, we looked at each other and asked whether it was the right strategy.”
They decided it wasn’t. The company pursued growth instead, acquiring other operators and expanding into new markets. Rob says that, although there were some stressful periods in recent years, the company made a conscious decision to view these challenges as opportunities and press them to their full advantage. “We got aggressive in the marketplace rather than sitting back and trying to consolidate and protect ourselves. We went out and tried to capture new revenue that we hadn’t been earning before.”
New revenue also came from non-vending related activities, which dovetailed nicely with the company’s operations. Examples of these include currency processing, distribution and merchandising and office coffee delivery.
Ahead of the curve
Ryan Vending prides itself on being a socially responsible business and has invested a lot of time and energy in initiatives that demonstrate this commitment to staff, customers, and the broader communities the company operates in. In January 2010, the company officially became a carbon-neutral operation.
“For us it was about finding out what our footprint was – that was a ton of learning there – and then learning what we can do to eliminate it,” Rob says.
The company embraced technology to improve route efficiency, allowing it to continue delivering excellent service to its customers while reducing the number of trucks on the road and slashing its annual fuel consumption. The company also sourced out the most fuel-efficient vehicles to meet its needs, upgrading its truck fleet and investing in hybrid management vehicles. A regular maintenance routine aims to keep all vehicles operating at their peak for the best gas mileage possible, ensuring the company reaps the maximum benefits from its eco-minded investments.
They also work closely with customers to minimize the energy impact of the machines. For customers who operate seasonally, such as secondary schools, this may mean turning off the machines for Christmas and spring breaks. For other clients with shorter windows of routine down time, the company can install timers that turn off the machines for a few hours – say between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. in an office building staffed by nine-to-fivers.
These measures went a long way towards minimizing the company’s carbon footprint. But attaining carbon-neutral status required purchasing carbon offsets from a trusted source. Rob believes that, more than five years after working through the processes, the commitment has been good for business.
“Once you understand your footprint, when customers talk to you and they ask questions you know what you’re talking about. From a competitive perspective, it’s been good,” he says.
Reducing Ryan Vending’s carbon footprint has also been good for employee engagement.
“There’s a certain age demographic today for whom this is a big deal. They were coming forward and saying we should be doing some things around this topic,” Rob explains. “We’ve had a lot of our staff take it seriously.”
Next up on the efficiency-boosting to-do list is upgrading to more efficient warehouse lighting. The company has already applied for a grant from BC Hydro to help fund this project.
Another building block of Ryan Vending’s success can be found in the value the company places in forming connections with other operators across Canada.
Ryan Vending is a founding member of the Canadian National Vending Alliance (CNVA). This group of nine independent vending companies from across Canada teamed up to offer vending services and support one another through challenges ranging from day-to-day operations right on up to game-changing issues facing the industry. Bill and Glen Jackson currently represent Ryan Vending among the CNVA partners.
Meanwhile Rob got involved with the Canadian Automatic Merchandising Association (CAMA) executive in order to develop mutually beneficial relationships with other operators. He currently serves as vice-president on CAMA’s national board of directors.
“These are people that are experiencing the same things we are, all across the country,” he explains. “Every opportunity that you get to work and talk with other operators – whether it’s by being part of the associations and getting involved there or going to the trade shows – working with other people who are working in the industry is important.
“I can pick up the phone to call another successful operator that I trust and say, ‘I’ve got this employment issue, or this technology issue, et cetera. Have you ever dealt with something like this?’ Having access to a network like that is invaluable.”