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EPISODE #33

#33 Nailing the “Why” Of Your Business with Ryan Moss

Craig sits down with Ryan Moss the CEO of Little Giant Ladder Systems. They discuss how Ryan was able to get into the position he’s in today with only a high school education!

 

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Transcription:

Speaker 1:

 From his first job flipping burgers at McDonald’s and delivering The Washington Post, Craig Willett counts only one and a half years of his adult life working for someone else. Welcome to The Biz Sherpa podcast with your host, Craig Willett. Founder of several multimillion-dollar businesses and trusted advisor to other business owners, he’s giving back to help business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs achieve fulfillment, enhance their lives, and create enduring wealth. The Biz Sherpa.

Craig Willett:

This is Craig Willett, The Biz Sherpa. I’m glad you could join me today. I’m in Springville, Utah with Little Giant Ladder Systems. I’m grateful that they are friends of mine and that they would allow me to come to their offices today. I have the opportunity to visit with Ryan Moss, who’s the CEO of Little Giant Ladder Systems. I think you’ll find some insights here that will be good for each of us to think about. Ryan has a different path to business ownership than a lot of people and he has a lot of innovative background. I think he’ll be an inspiration to those who will take the time to watch the entire video today. Welcome, Ryan.

Ryan Moss:

Thanks, Craig. Appreciate you having me on.

Craig Willett:

This is a great opportunity for me. Not everyone that’s a business owner started out the way you did. When you started with Little Giant Ladders, how many employees were there?

Ryan Moss:

Boy, there weren’t very many at that time. There might have been—oh, probably 35, maybe 40 on the outside, but really not that many.

Craig Willett:

What was your initial role with the company?

Ryan Moss:

I actually started in manufacturing. I tease a little bit that I started at $4.50 an hour, and I just recently got a raise to $5.00, but anyway—yeah, I started in manufacturing. I was punching rung and bending channel, sweeping floors, and just part of the manufacturing process.

Craig Willett:

How many years ago was that?

Ryan Moss:

We’re coming up on 37 years now.

Craig Willett:

Wow. That’s quite a bit of time with the company. I think that says probably a lot to why you’re still here, your dedication. With 35 employees, you saw a lot of different things happen. In the history of Wing Enterprises or Little Giant Ladder Systems, I know the company was sold by the family at one point. You were working with the company then, weren’t you—when they sold it?

Ryan Moss:

I was, yeah. It was sold to a company by the name of Technical Equities. There was kind of I guess a shady group that was running that or at least an individual that ended up causing some trouble with that company, and ultimately, its demise. Because of all that, Hal Wing, who was the original founder of Little Giant Ladders, went back and bought all the assets of Little Giant and started over again.

Craig Willett:

You were with him through that transition.

Ryan Moss:

I was.

Craig Willett:

What role did you play in the restart of Little Giant Ladders?

Ryan Moss:

I had only been with the company for two years, still in manufacturing when all of that took place. As Hal bought back the assets and opened a facility here in Springville, I was made the shop foreman, which was kind of terrifying. I was pretty young at the time. I was 23 years old and a lot of the guys working for me were double my age. Anyway, Hal saw something in me that maybe I didn’t see in myself, I don’t know, but he gave me the opportunity to be the shop foreman over this new facility.

Craig Willett:

What did you do with those responsibilities once you got comfortable and settled into the major task ahead of you?

Ryan Moss:

I think for me, really the way to understand how to be a good leader was to get right in with those people that were working on the line. I got involved in the challenges that we were facing in producing—at that time, we were producing hinges and ladders for hinges and that type of thing, and really got involved in what does it take to build these and what are the challenges? I used to maybe have a different view of I’m just making this stuff, and I didn’t really care so much about what the challenges were that were involved, but in a leadership role, then it’s, well, what challenges are we having as far as getting materials or being able to produce enough on time and those type of things. It really changed my perspective by getting closer to the guy on the line to really understand what challenges he was having, and then how could I help him.

Craig Willett:

Where did you learn this leadership? I mean, you didn’t have—did you have a formal education in leadership?

Ryan Moss:

Actually, no. I have a high school diploma, and at that, maybe—I often say an 11th grade education because my senior year was spent in all gym classes.

Craig Willett:

You aced everything else through the 11th grade, and you could just play.

Ryan Moss:

Yeah, I didn’t really—I did have to have one English credit, of which I took Spanish for that. Anyway, formal education, I really don’t have much anything past high school. I do read a lot, but I will tell you that I was blessed with good parents that provided a lot of opportunities for me to work. Small farm and lots of things to do, and I was really engaged from a young age at taking care of responsibilities that I had on a small farm. I give a lot of credit to my parents for making sure that I knew how to work and how to problem solve.

Craig Willett:

You were able to take those hard working attributes and problem solve, take it to the shop floor and figure out where the snags or difficulties were to make it more effective.

Ryan Moss:

Yeah.

Craig Willett:

When next did you capture the attention of Hal Wing—who by the way, is the founder of this company—how did you take what you were learning on the shop floor and take it to him as the owner and president of the company?

Ryan Moss:

I think I captured his attention early on. I was recommended by Jeff Dinsdale, who at the time was over manufacturing, to fill that shop foreman role. It was early on where we were having some challenges in meeting some demand and, as we were trying to resolve some of those supply challenges, I had come across a couple of large containers of parts that had been set aside. Potentially—I can’t remember if it was for quality issues or some type of issues. Anyway, we went through all of those and were able to glean enough good parts to be able to supply the demand. That got back to Hal, and he came out and talked to me about that. Really, it was one of those early experiences that really kind of caught his eye, and he said, “I just don’t think we’ve seen that kind of approach before.”

I think we really thought a lot alike in problem solving and in work ethic and hustle and ingenuity. We just saw a lot of things eye to eye. We became friends over the years, but I think mostly because we shared similar values.

Craig Willett:

That’s interesting. Elon Musk recently was quoted as saying that we have too many MBAs in the world. We need people who can set aside the financial statements and learn to innovate and do that. You mentioned that you and Hal probably bonded or found common ground on ingenuity and innovation, so not only solving that on the shop floor; I sat in board meetings where I saw you present new product, inventions that you came up with. What role did some of the innovations that you have come up with—or that your team has come up with, because I know you won’t take the credit, you’re too humble, but I’ll attribute it to you, so I can embarrass you for a minute, but—

Ryan Moss:

Well, you’re going to.

Craig Willett:

I know the truth. You can’t pull the wool over my eyes on that one, but I know that through your innovation, there were probably periods of time where the company being kind of a one ladder, one-trick pony, it became something more than that. Maybe tell us a little bit about that, some inflection point in the company where your ability to innovate, and where there were demands and other opportunities for your ladders to fill other markets than what you were penetrating at the time. How do you go about that?

Ryan Moss:

Sure. Maybe I can answer this with a little bit of a story, a little bit of history because—

Craig Willett:

I’d love to hear a story.

Ryan Moss:

You mentioned us being a one-trick pony. I specifically recall a time, in fact, I will never forget the time where many of us were around a conference room table in the old Springville facility, and we were having a meeting. I’m not sure about what. Somebody brought in a USA Today newspaper and spread it out and laid it out on the conference room table. There was a full page ad of an identical replica of our product.

Now, we had really one product in a few sizes. It was the aluminum articulating ladder, and they showed this product, it said, “Now available at Home Depot for $199.” Now, we sold that product and were the originator of that product at $400 or $399, so it was exactly half the price. You can imagine the gut shot that took place in that conference room. The ripple went through the company.

We later learned that this company that had this replica of our product went to the home and garden shows, bought the ladder from our salesmen, sent it to China, told them to copy it identically, to not change anything. In fact, they copied it so closely that you could interchange the parts from our ladders and their ladders. That’s how close everything was.

Craig Willett:

Same kind of materials or different materials?

Ryan Moss:

Similar materials, but they even copied the die lines from the extruders. They didn’t know why they were copying things, but die lines are identification marks from extruders, and they even copied those. Here we had this kind of gut shot that ran through the company, and we had salesmen saying, “I’ll never be able to sell another ladder again. How long are we going to be able to hold on? Are we going to make it? I’ve got a mortgage and kids to put through college and food on the table. Should I start looking for a new job?”

You can imagine there was some time that was really concerning for the company. We had a couple of different meetings on what can we do. Ultimately, proposed to do an infomercial. Now, anybody that knows Little Giant’s history today say, “Yeah, that was genius,” well, I think we were blessed because what we know about infomercials today is only one out of a hundred work. When we say work, that means that they maybe broke even, but drove some retail sales. Ours was wildly successful. Well, let me backup for just a second.

Hal wasn’t quite sure, like what is this infomercial thing, how is it going to work? We talked about it a few times and he finally said, “Okay, let’s do this,” because there was two years left on the patents, so we could either fight legally, but in the end, if we win, we lose because—

Craig Willett:

Because the patents expire anyway.

Ryan Moss:

—the patent would be expired at that point or take a different approach. The infomercial was the other approach.

Craig Willett:

The infomercial idea was so that you could capture the market as the innovator, the original.

Ryan Moss:

Really, yeah. Just to be the original because we weren’t in big boxes, so it was going to look the other way around that this one, this knockoff was in Home Depot, was the original, and we’re this little company copying. You have to think about it, this was all in 2000 and the end of 2002-2003. We had had the twin towers go down in 2001, so the economy was going down. We had had a 20% drop in sales at that time, and then we have this knockoff.

Craig Willett:

Price competition. Yeah.

Ryan Moss:

Boy, it was tough. We didn’t have the money to fight legally or to really do anything else, and Hal had a little farm down here in Springville, went to the bank and he leveraged—he bet the farm on this infomercial. Borrowed a million dollars and we went to work, spent about eight months putting that all together. There was a whole new excitement in this company that we’re going to shout to the world that we’re the original, we’re the best, made in America, all those kinds of things.

Craig Willett:

Right. Take pride in your products and let everybody know what it is.

Ryan Moss:

Let everyone know and it was going to be this branding exercise. Anyway, we got all ready, did the first spot.

Craig Willett:

You didn’t know that very few were successful.

Ryan Moss:

We had no idea. We had no idea statistically that we were in a rough way as far as… more than likely you would lose the money and your effort would be nothing kind of thing. We didn’t know that.

Craig Willett:

Because you didn’t really have a retail outlet to sell.

Ryan Moss:

When we did our first airing, although it was a small test airing, everybody’s waiting for those results. We get them at the end of the day, and had run, after a million dollars and eight months in time, we had received four phone calls and sold one ladder.

Craig Willett:

Wow.

Ryan Moss:

Another gut shot hit, and it was like, “Oh, wow, we spent all this money and all this time, and we sold one ladder.” As you can imagine, all the emotions came back again. How long are we going to be able to hold on? We’re not going to make it. Fortunately, we had some good people helping us with the infomercial and they said, “A 25% close rate is pretty good.” We said, “Yeah, but it’s only four phone calls.”

Craig Willett:

Got to look at the sample base.

Ryan Moss:

They helped us out. When we talk about innovation, innovation isn’t always just product. It’s innovation in going into the market in different ways. The one thing we did know over the many years we had been demonstrating ladders is when we demonstrate to people, we sell, and an infomercial is a bigger group of people. We thought, well we have to. We did go buy the—

Craig Willett:

Your demonstration experience prior to this had been trade shows.

Ryan Moss:

Trade shows, home and garden shows, state fairs—

Craig Willett:

County fairs.

Ryan Moss:

—those kind of things. We were a small company, didn’t have a lot of money to do what we were about to embark on, but-

Craig Willett:

What were your sales like in that—

Ryan Moss:

At that time, we were—gosh, we had slumped from about 20 million down to around 17 and a half million because the economy was in a recession at that time, so we were small. Here’s what happened. We went and made some changes and the world turned around for us. We grew by 600% that year. The next year we grew by another 500%, so you can imagine in two years’ time going from 17 and a half million to 170 million. Doing that all in a little, teeny facility. I remember that time all too well because I was over manufacturing at that time. I was in operations, and we went around the clock. Went from building 280 ladders a day to 7000 ladders a day—

Craig Willett:

Wow.

Ryan Moss:

—all in that same tiny, little facility. We were blessed. It was wildly, wildly successful.

Craig Willett:

You say you were blessed, and I can understand what you may mean by that because having served on the board of the company at one point, Hal would start board meetings with prayer. I know he was a God-fearing man, believed in God, and I can understand that that blessing comes from Him, but I also understand you have to work to receive the blessing. What about the innovation, what about your demonstration, because you guys were expert demonstrators, why did that appeal in your opinion in the infomercial market?

Ryan Moss:

Well, first of all, I think one of the things that really helped was we had Hal as our host, and he had a lot of passion for the product. You do mention, we still today start our management meetings with prayer, and we believe that we do have to work hard and do our part, but a little help from beyond has also helped to get us where we’re at today and will help us to get there in the future. I think we applied a work ethic and let’s call it the leap of faith in about everything that we’ve been able to accomplish.

Craig Willett:

This was the time in Hal’s life to—his biggest sales moment probably ever.

Ryan Moss:

Yeah.

Craig Willett:

Other than this first one when he pulled up to the first show to demonstrate his ladder. Next to that, this was probably a very pinnacle moment for him to do the biggest sales pitch of his life.

Ryan Moss:

It absolutely was and-

Craig Willett:

I liked that he was all-in because he bet the farm, so he was not just feeling the pressure of that, but he had to prove that he was right. He had to believe in it.

Ryan Moss:

He was all-in. He risked—I mean, he would have given up the farm literally if it didn’t work out. It would have went back to the bank and that’s the passion of Hal. That came through in the infomercial. Of course, we had a great product, which also helps. Right?

Craig Willett:

Right.

Ryan Moss:

An innovative product that does a lot of things and that passion for showing and solving problems. Right? So here’s what happened. We had this great success, so sales went like this, but you also have to think about it, a very, very popular infomercial in which we still run the infomercial today, now almost 18 years later, which is another anomaly because they usually last, if they’re good, about 18 months. Now, we don’t run anywhere near as much media today as we used to. I mean, back then we were spending a million dollars a week on media, but we were selling. We drove sales to all types of retailers. In fact, we ended up selling our product in Home Depot, next to the knock off.

Craig Willett:

Wow.

Ryan Moss:

We were double the price, and we were incredibly successful in Home Depot even at double the price because of that media, because of that infomercial that really drove demand.

Craig Willett:

I love that. That’s really important. Often people ask questions about how to price your product, and so many people think they have to price to the lowest cost producer. When you have a superior product, and you’re the original, you have a lot of room. This tells me there’s a lot of flexibility and a lot of elasticity to be able to price.

Ryan Moss:

Well, and the ability to create value because I think a lot of times, people with their product don’t give it credit, if it’s an innovative product, credit for what it will really do. What they’re going to accomplish with that. If you think about somebody buying a quarter inch drill bit, they really don’t want a quarter inch drill bit. What they want is a quarter inch hole, and the reason they want a quarter inch hole is they’re going to put an anchor there and put a picture on the wall. Right?

Craig Willett:

Right.

Ryan Moss:

They really don’t care about the bit; they care about the picture being hung on the wall. We would take the opportunity to show people what they were going to accomplish with the ladder, not just what the ladder did. I think that’s that value of—creating value of what is it going to help you do?

Craig Willett:

It’s not a ladder is a ladder is a ladder.

Ryan Moss:

Right.

Craig Willett:

It’s this ladder does 27 or 32 different things.

Ryan Moss:

It’s the safest, strongest, most versatile ladder in the world, so there was value that was brought into it. That’s how we could sell for double the one that was right there next to it. Now, we also sold in interesting places. Right? Bed Bath and Beyond and Linens N Things. There was so much popularity that everybody wanted to sell it.

Craig Willett:

Wow.

Ryan Moss:

What happened, Craig is—what you would expect to happen—is in time, enough people had seen it and, of course, the interest starts to wane. We’d taken all of these sales for years and compressed them, which created this bell curve, but you know after you get to the top, where does it go?

Craig Willett:

Right.

Ryan Moss:

It starts coming down. Let me tell you, as we’re coming off and you start cutting back on media because you can’t afford to keep doing that, well, then the retailers start losing interest, so you’re losing infomercial sales, then retail sales. At this point then, 2008, we lost the general contractor, so it was kind of boom, boom, boom. We lost all of those, and—

Craig Willett:

2008, because of the financial crisis?

Ryan Moss:

Because of the housing crisis. Right?

Craig Willett:

Yeah.

Ryan Moss:

All the general contractors are like, “I’m not building anything.” You know what I mean? People were giving houses away at that point. We had the whammy after whammy, you know, three of those in a row, and what we decided to do at that point was to innovate. We knew we had this one-trick pony, but we can’t just rely on that, especially where we’ve compressed many years of sales into a shorter period of time.

Craig Willett:

What were your sales about this period of time? I’m just trying to give people perspective.

Ryan Moss:

They start, I mean, from our high of 170-ish, boy, you go down into 2008 or 09, maybe got clear down to 40, so we never went back to where we were pre-infomercial because the one thing that did was brand us, but we went down a long, long ways. We had a choice. Do we hunker down and just ride out this or do we innovate and be ready to take market share when the economy turns around—which we knew it would, just not how long is it going to take.

Craig Willett:

Right.

Ryan Moss:

We decided to innovate, and I have an affinity for products. I love the innovation process, and have been blessed with the ability to see what could be in products and to listen to pain points and interpolate those into products. The best products solve pain points, but I will tell you we learned the hard way in innovation. This is what we’re going to do, this is our mantra, we’re going to innovate. We brought on some more marketing people and some engineers, and I worked specifically with this group to say, “Well, here we go. Let’s get going.” We had—

Craig Willett:

I’m curious to find out what you identified as the biggest pain point to go after the biggest potential—

Ryan Moss:

Well, I’ll tell you what our biggest pain point was initially was not listening to the customer. We spent two years and a lot of money—think about how far the sales had come down and this was part of our plan in innovating. We spent two years and a lot of money, and we created some really, really cool products that nobody wanted.

Craig Willett:

Oh, no. Okay.

Ryan Moss:

The reason being is we got ahead of ourselves. They were cool, they were innovative, but they weren’t solving anybody’s pain points. We learned the hard way on that. We had to step back and really analyze what is it that—why is it that we are innovating and what is it that we’re going to try to accomplish with—

Craig Willett:

At this point in your career, you’re leading this innovation team.

Ryan Moss:

Yeah. I was, at that time—so I was promoted from Chief Operations Officer to CEO in 2006, so—

Craig Willett:

In the middle of all this.

Ryan Moss:

It was in the middle of all that. That was actually one of the first big major decisions was, what are we going to do next? That was, let’s innovate, but also, I failed at it terribly because we didn’t listen to the customer. We just created—we just thought we could sit down and create innovative things, which we did, but there was a—

Craig Willett:

I’m glad you did that because normally, I have to ask people what their greatest failure is and what they learned from it, but you just told me what it is.

Ryan Moss:

It was an epic failure, absolutely epic failure. Here’s the thing that really helped get us going. During this time, after we’d had these failures, we started to realize, “Okay, wow we really need to get some people in here and talk about ladder usage and what pain points they have and what struggles and all those types of things, and really understand the end user.” We started to do that. We brought a lot of general contractors in here and we showed them some prototypes and things we were working on.

Craig Willett:

You’re looking for more industrial users, not retail users.

Ryan Moss:

Yeah. Yeah. We were focusing kind of on the industrial, so we brought them in, and we started listening and just talking and what challenges and what kind of things—and it started opening our minds to so many opportunities with ladders. At that time, I was on the board of the American Ladder Institute, today I’m the president of that group, which is made up of the North American ladder manufacturers. We weren’t really talking about the same things on this group that we were hearing from these contractors and safety professionals and all of those. I found it interesting because many of them started talking about ladder accidents and how these safety professionals would have to go to the families of somebody that was either killed or severely injured in a ladder accident. Ultimately, learned through this whole process, and I couldn’t believe that we weren’t talking about this in the American Ladder Institute, that there’s 2000 ladder accidents every day.

Craig Willett:

Wow.

Ryan Moss:

And a hundred disabilities from those accidents and a death every day. I thought, “How in the world could we be part of an industry that somehow finds this acceptable?” If it was the airline industry, there’d be Congressional hearings every day about how to solve this problem, but apparently since it’s ladders, it must be okay. I was just really, really surprised.

We learned from these different professionals. At the same time, I’d been reading a book by Simon Sinek called Start With Why. It’s a fascinating book, highly recommend it to anybody in business. The premise is that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. I’m an all-in believer on that. In fact, I give a lot of credit to Simon Sinek for much of the success—he doesn’t know this, but the success we’ve had because that started us on a path.

All of this is happening, and I finished the book and went to the rest of our management team, and I asked them to read it with me. Not literally sit down and read it. We made a weekly meeting where we’d read a couple chapters, get together, talk about it. Until we got done, we said, “We’re going to create our ‘Why.’” We got all the way through, and, “We’ve got it, guys, this is our ‘Why,’” and I’m going to be embarrassed to tell you what I thought it was—

Craig Willett:

Okay.

Ryan Moss:

—or what we thought it was, but I’m going to tell you.

Craig Willett:

I appreciate your honesty.

Ryan Moss:

I’m going to tell you. We get through the whole thing, and we say, “Okay, our ‘Why’ is chasing excellence.” Now, if you’ve read the book, you’d say, “That’s a terrible ‘Why.’” Right?

Craig Willett:

Right.

Ryan Moss:

It was, but we had all the justification in the world. Chasing, you’re doing things with speed and excellence is never obtainable, so you’re going to have these—you’re always going to be moving the bar up on your products. Today, I just cringe to think that we actually accepted that.

Craig Willett:

It’s inspirational, but not concrete enough to do anything measured. Right?

Ryan Moss:

Yeah. There’s really not—it just doesn’t feel good without some justification. Anyway, we go, “Okay, that’s our ‘Why,’ keep chasing excellence,” and a few weeks later I’m getting on a plane to come back to Utah. I get a phone call from Ted Hartman, who was our marketing coordinator at the time. He just says, “Hey, we can’t do it.” I said, “Can’t do what?” He’s like, “We can’t do the whole chasing excellence thing.” I said, “I’m so glad you called me because I feel the same way.” I said, “I don’t feel anything when we say it.” He’s like, “We don’t either, and we don’t get how to promote it or anything.” I said, “Super. Let’s read the book again.”

So we all got together, we read the book again, we went through the whole exercise, and this time when we got done, when we said it, we felt that we had to have no rationalization. That was, our ‘Why’ was preventing injuries and saving lives.

Craig Willett:

I took a picture in your boardroom of that on the wall this morning. I thought, “Okay, this is the ‘Why.’”

Ryan Moss:

I will tell you it was a reinvigorating turning point for Little Giant Ladders because you think about it. Now we don’t just get up to build ladders to sell ladders. We get up to get the one guy home tonight to play soccer with his kids or go to his daughter’s piano recital or take his wife out on a date. That’s what we do. We do it through better climbing equipment, so it now drove all the decision making in innovation. We’re not going to innovate anything unless it helps to prevent an injury and save a life. Right? It has to make the product safer.

Craig Willett:

It’s interesting that you did this by not being sued by someone forcing you to do it.

Ryan Moss:

No, no, no, no.

Craig Willett:

Usually, a lot of this comes when—

Ryan Moss:

We actually have very, very low incident rates with our products, so—

Craig Willett:

Probably did from the beginning.

Ryan Moss:

Oh, from the beginning. It’s been inherent in our design and quality and all of that. But we realized that by having this “Why,” it could lead our innovation, but not just that, everything we do in the company. There’s signs out in the facility that says, “Every rivet, every weld, every person matters.” Those building the product knowing that, “Hey, people are going to climb this,” and understanding that—I don’t want to say that we embrace those statistics, but we kind of did. That 2000 injuries a day, a hundred disabilities. We just said, let’s not shy away from this. Let’s embrace it and see if we can lower it. It invigorated the company, and now, everybody comes to work knowing, hey, we’re just trying to get that one guy home at night that might not come home. That’s our “Why.” The way we—

Craig Willett:

How did that translate into sales then?

Ryan Moss:

Oh, the thing that was—so think about that beacon to product innovation, and then taking those innovative products back to these safety professionals that came here or the ones that we visited with all over this country and shown them, “Hey, we listened to you. We heard.” We took the five leading causes of ladder accidents, identified how and why they’re happening. Most of them really are basically just human traits where we’re overreaching, so we make products that if you’re going to overreach, we still discourage it, but we know that people do it.

Craig Willett:

Right.

Ryan Moss:

We make it harder for them to get hurt doing it. We kind of protect them from themselves. We have a ground cue at the bottom of a ladder. 25% of ladder accidents are missing the bottom rung while descending, so we now have an audible, tactile ground cue that when you’re going up and down, you hear that and you know, “Oh, okay, I’m safe to step off.” I could go on and on about all of these innovations we have. Most people, when you tell them innovate a ladder, they look at you like—

Craig Willett:

Yeah. How are you going to do that?

Ryan Moss:

—“What could you possibly do? Isn’t it like rails and rungs and—”and we show them what we have and they’re just, their minds are like, “Wow, I had no idea you could do all this with a ladder.” We have a full on innovation team, a whole group of engineers now. We lead the world in ladder innovation. We are the benchmark for ladder innovation that really helps from a safety perspective, but then we also learned something else that’s really, really critical is safety is very important to safety professionals, not important—well, everybody wants a safe ladder, but a lot of people are saying, “Hey, I use a ladder to get a job done.”

Craig Willett:

Right.

Ryan Moss:

It’s also critical to understand that it’s we have this kind of mantra, “Faster, safer.” Right? They need to be able to get their job done quickly, whether you’re doing it for yourself or you’re making a living by that, people want to get it done quickly, but they also want to make sure they’re safe in doing that. We’ve designed all of these products that really do make it to where they can be highly productive, yet safer at the same time. Having that “Why” helped really in product innovation because that drove all of these new sales for people that were looking for answers to this problem.

Craig Willett:

Right. You mentioned, so I’m curious because I think this might be a key for some people. The safety people, do they make the buying decisions and who makes the buying decisions, and how do you get going from the safety perspective to getting companies to adopt your product, not only from a safety standpoint, but from a function and in a cost-effective manner because you’re probably going to be more expensive than your competition?

Ryan Moss:

We are. We are. Innovation costs money. Pioneering new products costs money. Marketing costs money. All of those things make you more expensive. I will tell you that’s not an easy approach, but what we did is we took our products to the safety professionals, and for the first time, they said, “Wow, somebody actually listened to me.” We made friends very, very quickly, and we did this in many, many industries, but then we would get them some sample products and they would get them in the hands of their users. The experiences they were having and seeing another ladder, in fact, one of the leading causes of ladder accidents is the weight of carrying extension ladder. Back injuries, neck injuries, shoulder injuries, knee injuries from carrying those big, old extension ladders. We reduced the weight by 25%, so you can imagine end users going, “No, I don’t want my—I know I’m field trialing this one, but I don’t want my ladder back. This is way better.” Right. That would kind of just spread through, so we had to do a lot of long, I mean, years of expensive leg work to get these products in the hands of people, and now people see them all over and like, “Oh, yeah, I want that. I want that.” We did take it to the safety professional because he has influence when it comes to, you think about it, injuries and accidents are a cost, a business cost.

Craig Willett:

Right. They start adding up, the disability costs and—

Ryan Moss:

Right. You start adding lost work time, all of that. Procurement’s going to take a different route, they’re going to just say, “Hey, well I’m incentivized to buy cheaper products.” Well, that’s where we use these safety professionals as our leverage in those companies to say, “Hey, time out here. I’m incentivized to reduce costs due to accident and injury.” Those working together ultimately, it’s been good work.

Craig Willett:

Combine the budgets.

Ryan Moss:

Yeah.

Craig Willett:

They can afford it.

Ryan Moss:

Then, some of that stuff is carrying on into retail now because most DIYers or weekend warriors, homeowners, they want to have good quality products and they also have day jobs. They see what’s out there in the professional world and many people that use a Dewalt drill in their day job, also have one for their home.

Craig Willett:

Right.

Ryan Moss:

I think we’re having a lot of success, and people also appreciate innovation. They will pay for it, and we’ve proven that over and over is that they will pay for innovation that solves problems. It’s riskier and harder. The one other thing that I think that really helped in our favor, you think about ladders, right, it’s probably maybe one of the first tools ever invented. We joke that Adam and Eve used a ladder to get the fruit, but probably wasn’t.

Craig Willett:

It was a fairly new tree, so it might have been short.

Ryan Moss:

Yeah, it might have been short. You’ve seen pictures from Anasazi Ruins or whatever, where there’s old ladders there, so ladders have been—ladders were invented before the wheel, so we’re talking about a category that is thousands of years old. I think that’s why the industry is so stale is just because it’s kind of commoditized. You’ll see on Black Friday a ladder for $19. You can’t buy the materials for $19, let alone retail it for that, but that’s a whole another discussion. People have taken what we view as a lifesaving tool and put it into this throwaway category, which we just said we’re going to take a different approach because we believe that human life values more than a throwaway item and that we’re going to take this approach where we’re going to help you work safer, but also more efficiently.

It will cost a little bit of a premium, but we have found that people are willing to pay for that. That’s every day. We have the most expensive ladder and yet, we’re growing year over year over year. We’re a 48-year-old company now with—I mentioned to you the last three years in a row, 20% year over year over year at a 48-year-old company. We’re blessed and it’s working because there is an appreciation.

Craig Willett:

Because of branding, then innovate on top of that branding, and you bring the “Why,” so that everybody understands.

Ryan Moss:

You bring that all together. It’s that listening to the customer. One of our products, there was a company in Salt Lake that came down, a safety professional described the problems he was having. One of our—in fact, the most expensive product we sell today was a direct result of listening to that safety professional. That is now going all over the world being used, and it was because we listened to a problem he was having, and we innovated based on solving that specific need. It’s the combination of those things of truly understanding the customer.

Craig Willett:

It’s my belief that problems require truth to solve the problem, and then, if you take the premise that I believe in that truth resonates with people, so the truth resonates with the users of your product, or they wouldn’t be continuing to order it. When you’re able to solve the problem with the truth and get the truth out, then there’s no sales pitch, there’s no sales job. There might be some marketing, there might be some marketing channels and that, but now you’ve solved probably one of the business’s biggest problems is how do you distinguish yourself, and you did it. How to solve the problem.

Now, you solved a different problem for me. As I look at business owners in The Biz Sherpa podcast, I typically will see people who started on their own or who are third or fourth or second generation in the family. You’re unique in the sense that you’re not a member of the Wing family, who founded Little Giant Ladder Systems, and you still became a business owner. Tell me a little bit about what that was like and what that means to you.

Ryan Moss:

Well, first of all, I don’t take it lightly because I understand outside of Hal and Brigitte, who founded the company, and their children, who had ownership in the business after Hal and Brigitte passed, that I was the only one outside of the family to have ownership in the business, so I don’t take it lightly. I do feel very, very blessed to have had the opportunity to participate in ownership, and I will tell you that it, for me, when you have that little mind shift of that, “Hey, this is partly mine,” right, I was a minority stake in it, but every decision I make is also directly affecting me, I think it does change your decision making some. Although, I felt like the reason that I got it in the first place, and mine came in buckets over the years, I mentioned I’ve been here 37 years, so it came in—not all at once—in some along the way, that even when I first started, I still tried to work as if it really meant something because it did. I mean, I was just taught that if you’re going to do a job, you do right.

Craig Willett:

Right.

Ryan Moss:

You get in and do it and be dedicated. I went the first—and I wouldn’t recommend this to anybody—the first 16 years that I worked at Little Giant without taking a vacation day. I went 30 years without taking a sick day, and I can promise you I was sick. I wouldn’t recommend that. I don’t know that that was the right approach, but it worked for me, and I know that Hal saw that dedication, he saw the problem solving, he saw the initiative, and he didn’t want to lose it. As a business owner, he did not want to lose that.

I think the first thing he did, even before stock, initially, was like, “Hey, I’m going to pay for a whole life insurance policy for you as these golden handcuffs. As long as you’re here, you have this kind of thing.” Then, he saw in time that I need to make him more and more a part of this. I think part of my success also, and I’ve tried to help our people understand that it doesn’t—not that Hal had every answer, because he didn’t, he had a lot of people to help him grow this business, but I did try to understand him and the way he thought.

I could pretty much finish his sentences. I knew the way he thought about certain things, so if a problem came up, I could pretty much tell you, “I know exactly how he would—” and 99.9% of the time, I was spot on because I made it a point to understand the way he viewed business and the way he viewed problem solving, and the way he would view spending money, those kinds of things.

Craig Willett:

You aligned yourself with the values of the ownership and that put you in a position to be an owner.

Ryan Moss:

Yeah. It’s like, “Hey, he’s acting just like we are, and seeing things the way we are.” That doesn’t mean I didn’t have an opinion. Many times, Hal would come to me with the problem and say, “What do you think we should do?” I would tell him, and he would say, “I think you’re right,” and we would do it. He wouldn’t always come in with—many times he wouldn’t come in with the answer. He would come and ask me, “What do you think we should do?”

It wasn’t that I was just yes-man on everything. It was I’ll give you a perspective and let’s share perspectives and let’s come to a—but I felt like it was important to understand that. I got to the point, and we laugh about this a little bit, and a few others in the company that have been here a long time, depending on what he was wearing when he came into the building, you knew exactly the mood he was in, so you would know whether to be in another part of the building or if you were going to be around him.

I think maybe you don’t have to quite know the person that well, but for us, it was—in my case I felt like really understanding him helped me to propel my career here and then ultimate ownership.

Craig Willett:

I’m going to say something that you wouldn’t say about yourself, but I wonder what your reaction to this statement would be. You used this earlier when you were talking about the product. You talked about adding value. You might be dedicated. That could add value, but you said it alone, not taking a vacation for 16 years you don’t recommend, and it doesn’t necessarily add value unless those are productive dedication.

Ryan Moss:

That’s exactly right.

Craig Willett:

Being able to align yourself with the philosophy of ownership qualifies you to be an owner potentially, but probably people get ownership or succeed in business because they add value to the company, to the product, and ultimately, to the lives of the people who benefit from the product. How do you react to that? I know I’m embarrassing you because you probably wouldn’t say that.

Ryan Moss:

You’re right.

Craig Willett:

What I heard today is a story of someone who added value.

Ryan Moss:

I mean, that’s the thing is people get—it’s the difference between getting a cost of living raise, and a raise. Right? Cost of living is you existed, you did okay.

Craig Willett:

Right.

Ryan Moss:

Whatever.

Craig Willett:

You didn’t stub your toe too many times.

Ryan Moss:

Yeah. I should be careful on that because there’s times in a business cycle to where maybe you can’t do more than the cost of living, so you just do that, but there are those who get a raise because they brought value. They brought something to the company, and you shared with them what they brought. I would say I have been fortunate to have ideas, products that have been developed, things that have truly brought value to the company, and I’ve been fortunate that way, and I can’t say this without saying that I feel like I’ve been blessed, but I’ve also worked hard for it. It has to be a combination of luck—what is the saying? That luck is when preparedness meets opportunity.

Craig Willett:

Exactly.

Ryan Moss:

Right?

Craig Willett:

Yep.

Ryan Moss:

There’s definitely a combination of that, but you are right. I mean, if it’s not perceived that you’re bringing value, people won’t give you something of value. Right?

Craig Willett:

Right.

Ryan Moss:

It really is an exchange for value for value.

Craig Willett:

I think that is the greatest lesson we can take today. Ryan, I appreciate your time. This has been very insightful, very rewarding to me, and it will be to all the viewers as they watch this video. I think it’s amazing the value that you’ve been able to add, and it not only has blessed many lives with the safety and the penetration that you’ve been able to do, and the thought of somebody going home tonight to their family because they were more safe on the job because of innovation of the company you preside over, but also, I look at it and say that you add value to the company every day.

The fact that you would admit that you were wrong on the “Why” and then go through the exercise twice, tells me not only are you dedicated, but you’re humble enough to know that when you don’t have it right, you need to do what it takes to add that value. I appreciate that. It’s one of the greatest lessons, greatest examples that I’ve ever seen, and I know that this will mean a lot.

Ryan Moss:

Thank you. One thing that I tell everybody that comes to our facility, and this particular facility is a quarter million square feet, is we have some big rooms in this facility, but the biggest room is the room for improvement. I think if we own up to that, life is a lot better. Yeah, sure we all have egos, and we all want to put on the face that we know what we’re doing and truthfully, none of us faced 2020 ever before. Right?

Craig Willett:

Right.

Ryan Moss:

You just have to do your best and have to recognize your weakness and shortcomings. I actually feel like there’s nothing—there shouldn’t be anything wrong with sharing your failures because we learn more from our failures than we do our successes. If more people are open about those, we could, I think, accelerate business growth by being willing to share those with each other and to recognize that we learned it’s not really a failure unless you don’t get back up. If you stay down, it’s a failure, but if you get back up, it’s a success.

Craig Willett:

So often we think when we do fall down, we’re going to get fired anyway, so it’s kind of hard to own up to it.

Ryan Moss:

It can be.

Craig Willett:

I think you’re a great example of that. 37 years with the company and I think there’s some rewards that you’ve experienced recently. I’ll be talking with one of your partners in this, Hal’s son, Art, and he’ll tell us a little bit more about what happened with the sale of this business this last year and how you rolled some of your equity and stayed in, but I commend you for your example. I’m grateful that you’d be a guest today on our show. 

Ryan Moss:

Thank you.

Craig Willett:

Thanks for taking the time.

Ryan Moss:

Thank you.

Craig Willett:

I know you’re busy and it’s a busy time of year, and I do know Ryan’s leaving next week to go on a vacation to the beach.

Ryan Moss:

I am. I’ll tell you this, I would close on this note. I have learned that not taking a vacation actually was hampering and that many, in fact, most of these people here, dread the fact when I go because I come back with—

Craig Willett:

All kinds of ideas.

Ryan Moss:

After I relax for a couple days, I’ve got all kinds of ideas, and they’re like, “Oh, boy. Here we go.” I truly have had some of what I would consider my best thought processes and things that have helped the business while I’ve been on a beach. You can’t spend all your time there, but if you block that out, it is amazing how the subconscious will take over when you pull away from the daily grind.

Craig Willett:

There’s a lot to that. I finished reading a book recently, Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and it’s a great book if you haven’t read it. It subscribes to that when you do less, but better.

Ryan Moss:

Yeah.

Craig Willett:

I think that’s something we can all strive for. Well, Ryan, I appreciate your time. This is really meaningful, and I’m glad our friendship continues through the years, and that you’d respond to my call to be a guest. This is Craig Willett, The Biz Sherpa. Thanks for joining us today.

Speaker 1:

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