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Joe Ryan: growing a business on the square

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[January 17, 2011]  Joe Ryan is a son, a father, a husband, a brother, a sports enthusiast, an assistant football coach, a closet Van Halen fan and recently opened his own Country Financial office on the south side of Lincoln's downtown square.

InsuranceRyan came to the community when he was in his early teen years. His parents, Jim and Sue Ryan, moved the family to Lincoln from West Frankfort in southern Illinois.

He finished his early education at Lincoln Junior High and Lincoln Community High School, where he was very active in sports, especially football.

After high school he enrolled in a two-year program at Lincoln College. When he completed his studies there, he married, went to work for a local utility company and started raising his family.

Nursing Homes

According to Ryan, for the next 12 years, there really wasn't a whole lot to say about his life, but then he reached a point where he wanted to do something more than he was doing.

"I thought about the time I spent every day reading newspapers and decided if I could devote that time to studying, I could go back to college and get a higher degree," he said.

With that decision made, he enrolled at the University of Illinois in Springfield and earned his degree in communications.

It was then that Ryan met John Blackburn, the CEO of Country Financial. Ryan said that he was first impressed by Blackburn before he even considered Country Financial.

"John Blackburn is a very honest, upright guy," he said.

Ryan's impression of Blackburn is what led him to become a Country Financial representative, and he said that as he became familiar with the company, he was also impressed with the honesty and integrity of the insurance provider.

"The best compliment I can give them," Ryan said, "is that if I ever left here (Country), I'd still leave my insurance with them. That's just how much I trust them."

Ryan said that as a representative of the company, one of the things that impresses him the most is that they do not issue cookie-cutter policies. He said that when customers come in with unusual circumstances, while other providers might turn them away, Country will make every effort to customize a policy that will work for them.

"They look at each situation on a one-on-one basis. Of course it doesn't always work out, but I know they always try to give potential customers what they need," he said.

Country Financial developed from an insurance company that was started as a division of Farm Bureau in 1925.

Farm Bureau was founded in 1919 as a member-only farmers' cooperative aimed at unifying small farms into one larger entity with greater buying and selling power.

Farm Bureau formed Country Companies Insurance in 1925, first offering crop insurance. In 1927 they added auto insurance and in 1929 they began selling life insurance.

The company remained an insurance-only operation until the 1970s. Ryan said that the decision to go into financial services was at least partially based of the fact that the banking industry had made a move to go into insurance.

The financial services that Country now offers include retirement planning, estate planning, investment management and annuities. Ryan added that even though some insurance providers have also gotten into lending, Country has opted not to offer that particular financial service.

For the first 10 years of his career with Country, Ryan occupied a space in the Logan County Farm Bureau building at 120 N. McLean, but in December he moved his business to a separate office at 509 Pulaski St., on the south side of Lincoln's downtown square.

Ryan said that he very much enjoyed the time he spent in the Farm Bureau building, and now that he has moved, he misses getting to see his friends in that building on a daily basis. But for him, the move was a part of establishing his own identity.

"I wanted a business with my name on it, so people know when they stop by that they are going to Joe Ryan's," he said.

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When the space on Pulaski became available, Ryan met with building owner John Guzzardo.

"When I came in the first time, this building was really just a shell, but John and some other people around town helped me out and really made a great office space for us," Ryan said.

Right now, he and his staff are working to get the office organized, have a place for everything and everything in its place. As time goes by, he wants to add some customer comfort to the office, such as coffee in the waiting area and other things that will make clients feel more welcome and more at home when they stop by.

Ryan said that a part of his success is due to the staff that he has with him. Lacey Groce has been with him four years and does a terrific job. Monica Ritchhart is relatively new to the agency, but Ryan said she has really taken to it and is doing very well.

Groce's title is service assistant, and Ritchhart is the office assistant. Ryan said that as a producer, he finalizes all policies written for the office, but both Groce and Ritchhart are licensed and very well qualified to deal with customers, offer quotes and get the ball rolling on new policies.

Ryan added, though, that he couldn't be thanking them for their good work if it were not for another lady who really helped him out in the beginning. Jean Oglesby was Ryan's first assistant and was very familiar with Country when he came to the business.

"She really showed me the ropes and got me started," he said.

Ryan said that Oglesby is retired now, but he will always appreciate all that she did to help him get started.

In addition to his career with Country Financial, Ryan has spent the last 17 years as an assistant football coach at Lincoln Community High School. He said it's a job he truly loves, and in some ways it offers an escape from the worries of the day.

"When I'm on the field with the team, everything else leaves me, and for those few hours, all I care about is the game," he said.

Ryan also enjoys and appreciates his family. He and wife Michelle, who teaches at LCHS, are nearing the completion of raising a family. Ryan's two oldest children, Marty and Emily, are grown and on their own now. Son Andrew is a senior in college and son Garrett is in junior high.

Joe also appreciates the time he spends with his parents and noted that it was his mother and his sister, Bridgett Thomas, who came in and did all of his Christmas decorating in the office this year.

In addition to family and basically two careers, Ryan is also involved in the Knights of Columbus, Lincoln Rotary Club, Lincoln/Logan Chamber of Commerce, Lincoln Elks Lodge, Eagles Lodge, the YMCA board and has a deep appreciation for the downtown area.

"I really do love the downtown area," Ryan said. "In so many towns, the downtown area is dying, and I don't want to see that happen here. It's one of the reasons that I wanted my office right here on the square."

While Ryan himself appeared to be somewhat modest about his life and not so sure that anyone would find his story interesting, it is precisely this kind of story of a hardworking, community-minded, small-town business owner that makes Joe Ryan very deserving of having the LDN Business Spotlight shine on him.


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