Reflections from a Safety Industry Giant

April 1, 2008
May marks the end of an era when John T. Ryan III retires as chairman and CEO of Mine Safety Appliances (MSA, Pittsburgh, Pa.). Ryan has been with the

May marks the end of an era when John T. Ryan III retires as chairman and CEO of Mine Safety Appliances (MSA, Pittsburgh, Pa.).

Ryan has been with the company since 1969 and is the third generation of Ryans to lead the company. He has held the position of chairman and chief executive officer since October 1991. Ryan's grandfather, John Ryan, and George Deike - two rescue engineers for the old U.S. Bureau of Mines - founded the company in 1914 with the help of Thomas Edison.

When MSA's management succession plan was announced, Ryan noted, “After my retirement as an executive, I plan to keep a deep interest in MSA and to be active as a shareholder and director of MSA's board. Since our founders, all of the CEOs of the company, who were fortunate to live to age 65, retired from this position at that time and likewise it seems sensible for me to do so also.”

William M. Lambert, the current president and chief operating officer of MSA, will succeed Ryan as chief executive officer when Ryan retires. Lambert also serves as an MSA director.

Commenting on Lambert's impending promotion, Ryan noted: “One of my particular satisfactions at this time is the breadth and skill of our management staff at MSA which we have built up over the recent decade and a half. Bill Lambert will have an excellent team with whom to work in the years ahead, both at the executive level and at all positions throughout this organization in the many countries in which we have operations.”

Proudest Moment for MSA

Ryan has had his share of moments of achievement in his 39 years at MSA. One of those moments, said Ryan, “was how our team performed on 9/ll.”

Events on 9/11 showed the stuff MSA is made of. “What does MSA do in emergencies? We grab products that people need and get them to the location where people need them,” Ryan told EHS Today.

“We had people who were specialists in the field and the fire service, who thought, now, if you were on the ground right there, what would you need? So we packed up a lot of breathing apparatus and respirators, firefighter hats and more, and got it on three trucks.

“We were kind enough to call one of our competitors in town and say ‘Hey, do you have stuff that they need at the location,’ and they did, so they brought a truck over, and the four trucks were escorted by the Pennsylvania and then the New Jersey state police right to Ground Zero,” Ryan remembers.

“We had one quarter of our sales force in the U.S. in New York City for the next few months at the scene, training people on how to select the right respirator, and how to use and maintain the respirator. The devotion that MSA people had was something great,” explained Ryan. He describes his own visit to the 911 scene, two weeks after the event, as “an extremely sobering experience.”

Another proud moment for Ryan was seeing the MSA factory in Murrysville, Pa. (20 miles east of Pittsburgh) survive and thrive. The plant, whose productivity had fallen to 75 percent, was destined for closing after MSA lost a major military contract.

Ryan assembled a team to turn around the Murrysville facility and correct its manufacturing inefficiencies. Ryan gave the plant's managers a year to meet high, but doable, goals or face closing the plant.

MSA introduced Six Sigma and lean manufacturing standards and started monthly performance evaluations for employees, who were reviewed on quality, productivity, safety, delivery and attendance.

By 2000, Ryan and his team completed the transformation, with the Murrysville plant winning an IndustryWeek Best Plants award as one of the 10 best manufacturing facilities in the United States.

“So, from almost being shut down to be one of the best factories in America, there was a lot of satisfaction in what we did at Murrysville,” said Ryan.

MSA Hits a Rough Patch

“The 1990s were our most challenging years,” remembers Ryan. “Smokestack America went to hell during some of that period - the restructuring of America. Things changed in Europe; some military business went away. A major market stopped using respirators, and it was a major transition.”

During those years, MSA was forced to shift from selling direct to marketing through distributors because manufacturers were outsourcing their plant maintenance departments and other critical operations.

“Our customers just told us very forcefully that they wanted to buy through distributors; they didn't want to buy direct anymore. So we had to change, and that hit us pretty hard, because our whole structure was built on direct sales. We made changes and adjusted, and when you move from selling direct to distribution, you lose a lot of profitability right away, as you transfer those accounts, to selling at a higher discount,” Ryan said.

“The distribution channel, however, gets you into more places, keeps the business you've got and then helps you get business that you weren't getting before, including a lot of smaller subcontractors who were working in the big manufacturing facilities,” explained Ryan. “So eventually, we did very well with the new channel. But the transition was hard.”

In addition to the above challenges, MSA had to find $500,000 scarce dollars in company coffers to invest in additional R&D work on a thermal imaging camera that MSA product development engineers were working on. What's more, the company experienced a difficult transition to a new computer system.

An inspirational passage from the Bible may have made the difference during these challenging years at MSA. “I used the quote at the depths of our toughest times at a key meeting, and things turned around,” said Ryan. The quote he cited at the meeting is Galatians 6:9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap the harvest if we do not give up.”

Ryan pulled MSA through the 1990s by making changes in its manufacturing operations and by recapturing the spirit of innovation and development that had made MSA a leader in the personal protective equipment market over the years

“It was a very tough time, but we persevered, and then starting in the year 2000, we made our goal 6 years in a row, and our stock increased by a lot of multiples, and we kept the faith,” explained Ryan.

Industry Leadership

“First of all, just from an historical perspective, John is the third John Ryan who was the chief elected officer of this association, the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA, Arlington, Va.),” said ISEA Presient Daniel K. Shipp.

Shipp continued: “His grandfather, John Ryan, was elected the first president of ISEA when it was formed back in 1933. Later, his father, John Ryan Jr., was the chairman of the association, and then John the III was chairman of the association during the time since I've been here. So that's remarkable history.”

Shipp added that the Ryan family “has brought a consistently strong, family commitment to MSA, to the health and safety industry and to the industry's association. Its leadership in the industry has been remarkable.

“I guess the one thing that most characterizes John Ryan III is that here's a person who cares about the people that work for him - all the employees of Mine Safety Appliances, all over the world,” said Shipp. “He cares about the MSA shareholders, and John's done very well for them. He cares about his family, obviously. And I think he really cares about the people, all over the world, who are wearing or carrying or using products that are made by MSA, and are protected and safe in the work they do, throughout their work shifts.”

More compliments come from Dr. Richard D. Fulwiler, CIH, CSHM, president of Technology Leadership Associates (Cincinnati, Ohio) and former global director of EHS at Procter & Gamble. He said, “I am proud to have known his father who was a great leader and simply said, a good person. The same can be said for John Ryan III.

“John Ryan III was among the selected leaders in the safety equipment business whom I personally interviewed regarding the development of the QSSP (Qualified Safety Sales Professional) program. His input and vision was invaluable in the development of this very successful and enduring program.”

A Global Perspective

“My father's vision basically was: We were a strong safety company, and rather than expand elsewhere into related businesses like mining equipment and such, that we ought to go to the world, because we were No. 1 in safety at that time, and so let's use that position in geographic areas that haven't heard of products that MSA makes,” Ryan explained. “And we've continued to grow. We think that overseas markets offer the greatest percentage growth opportunity for MSA worldwide.”

Ryan's global vision extends to the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, where he serves as vice chairman of the board. The council's mission is to promote, on a non-partisan basis, understanding of important international issues, throughout the Pittsburgh community, and with a special focus on the region's secondary schools.

“John has been a strong advocate of the council, both for its engagement with our region's civic and corporate leaders on issues of global importance, and for its long-standing and award-winning outreach to secondary schools throughout western Pennsylvania,” said Dr. Schuyler Foerster, president of the council.

Foerster continued: “This is an extension of his work at MSA, since John has continued the work of his father in expanding MSA's operations across the globe, and he has been a leading voice in this region for growing the Pittsburgh region's international business reach.”

Ryan's Future Role

“My father,” said Ryan, “gave me a great role model of how to be in the position that I'm about to go in. My father was non-executive chairman of MSA for about 15 years, and he really was there to advise. Beyond doing the tasks of a shareholder and a director, my father let the CEO do his job, and that's the way things will work.

“There can only be one boss, and Bill Lambert will be the boss,” he continued. “He'll be the CEO, and he'll be running the company, day by day. He'll be doing what I've been doing for the past 16 years.”

Future Activities

“There are a lot of things I've wanted to do all my life that I've done a little bit of. My day job gets in the way of doing too much more. There's places in the world I'd like to visit, books I'd like to read,” said Ryan, who also wants to see more sunsets at Cape Cod.

Here's hoping John Ryan III gets to spend more time with his four grandchildren and stays active in MSA, the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh and the many other organizations that rely on his time and expertise.

Michael Keating is the research editor for EHS Today. He can be reached at [email protected].

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