In the Biz of Celebrating Biz

When Erin Ryan followed his brother Patrick to the podium to accept one of the seven trophies presented during a recent business awards program, the audience might have expected a few tag-on comments about the ambulance business the duo inherited. The mood was celebratory, given Patrick’s opening remarks about their father and his brother, who founded the family business in 1962.

Instead, Erin became so choked up that he had to step back from the mic while thanking his brother Patrick, his partner at Ryan Brothers Ambulance, for being such a great brother, partner, and helpmate.

I wasn’t as surprised as some folks by the abrupt love fest. I’m a repeat attendee, and so I know that this high emotion is what separates the Wisconsin Family Business Awards from a lot of other events. It’s what makes it worth attending year after year — the genuine tears of pride and gratitude. Every year, there are tales of making it through rough times, and recollections of taking more risks during the good times.

Every year, there is genuine passion expressed for the business opportunities the families forged together. And every year, watching as both an awards judge and a spectator, I get choked up myself. Why not? I identify with family business owners, having grown up in various family enterprises.

My first job, at age 12, was for Joyce’s Burger Inn — my mother’s restaurant. She later opened a Dog ‘N Suds, where I carhopped. She then bought an interest in a meat processing plant. She bought a yellow sports car one month, only to sell it the next (rather than default on the new loan) because a meat cooler broke down. She made daily choices regarding accounts payable.

My mother rode her own success/failure teeter-totter with all the respect a bucking bronco deserved. She was in it to win it, to stay her eight seconds until she could build a profitable enough business to sell. And then, after a sale, her greatest ambition was to start all over and do it again. She was a serial entrepreneur living in the moment every day.

Many, many years ago, we opened a nightclub in Denver together, my mother and brothers and me, again donning aprons and 16-hour workdays. My mother managed the kitchen; I managed the bar and live entertainment. We signed personal notes to guarantee bank loans, and sometimes cash flow cycles worked to our advantage, and sometimes they did not and we scrambled.

So believe me, I know that owning a family business means a lot of juggling, cajoling, negotiating and, sometimes, when it all goes right, it means all your bills are paid. In the best of times, a lot of people’s bills get paid … all because you signed your name on the bottom line of an LLC agreement and then again on payroll checks. That feels good!

I get it. And so did the other folks in the audience, many of them family business members themselves. Frankly, I saw a lot of grown men and women alike touch their eyes as Erin reached for his brother’s arm.

If you missed the awards, here’s a list of the statewide winners.

Grand Awards: Miron Construction Company, Inc., Neenah; Gordy’s Lakefront Marine, Inc., Fontana, and Home Lumber Company, Whitewater. Special Awards went to CJ & Associates, Inc., New Berlin; Rechek’s Food Pride, Beaver Dam; Ryan Brothers Ambulance, Inc., Madison; and Sowinski Farms, Inc., Rhinelander.

The Wisconsin Family Business of the Year Award was created to highlight and celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of family businesses that make an impact on the Wisconsin business community. The program is sponsored by Smith & Gesteland, LLP; DeWitt Ross & Stevens SC; and Associated Bank.

Coming next: The Dane County Small Business Awards with keynote speeches by two area inventors. Awards will be given to Dane County entrepreneurs who care about business success, their employees, and building community. Come celebrate success!

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