Executive Q&A: Brothers Patrick and Erin Ryan run growing network of first responders

By Barry Adams, Madison.com 10/8/11 - When brothers Pat and Paul Ryan founded their ambulance service in 1962, there was no 911 system and the Madison Fire Department didn't have ambulances.

In the 1990s, when Pat Ryan's sons, Patrick and Erin, started working for Ryan Brothers Ambulance, the company was making about 2,000 transports a year and had four full-time and five or six part-time employees who primarily transferred patients between hospitals, nursing homes or from homes to doctors' appointments.

But almost 50 years after its founding and less than 20 years since the second generation of Ryans came on board, Ryan Brothers has become the largest private ambulance service in Dane County and continues to grow.

The company, based along busy South Park Street, operates seven stations in three counties and has 18 ambulances that last year had 14,800 transports. By comparison, the Madison Fire Department has medical units at eight stations that in 2010 responded to 18,409 calls.

Last year, Ryan Brothers opened a station in Sun Prairie to help transport patients from the new St. Mary's emergency room center on the city's south side to area hospitals. This year, the company added a station in Janesville and began providing 911 emergency ambulance service for the village of Maple Bluff, something it also does for the city of Fort Atkinson.

The growth has meant that Patrick, 43, and Erin, 40, who now run the company, must focus more on the operation of the business instead of dodging oblivious motorists while on an ambulance run.


Q: Do you miss going out on calls?

Erin Ryan: Yeah. It's something we always did. But as we grew, there was just so many more administrative things we had to do. But you do miss it.

Patrick Ryan: It's kind of an internal struggle because our dad and uncle were the face of Ryan Brothers. They were Ryan Brothers and when there was an ambulance (call), 80 percent of the time it was them. And that's the way we were reared. So we had to kind of come to grips with the fact that for us to be successful long term, we needed to be more big picture and look ahead and improve (the company) internally.

Q: What's creating the growth for your company?

Patrick: We've looked at growth only when it made sense, not growth for its own sake. When we had an opportunity and it fit with what we did, then we took advantage of it.

Erin: Bigger isn't better. Better is better. People always want to know what we're doing next, but it's not like we're looking for something to do next. We just want to continue to do what we do better.

Q: What was it like politically trying to convince the village of Maple Bluff to go with a private ambulance service to handle 911 calls?

Erin: It was a struggle for the people on the outside, not so much for the people on the inside (of village government). Learning about each other made it easier, so when they brought it out in the open, that's what got tough because the outside people don't know how we work. So that was kind of a shocker, the people not knowing about us.

Q: What does the Maple Bluff experience do for your company?

Patrick: I think it allows others to see the quality service we provide every day and it's kind of like our foot in the door, so to speak, to be able to really show people our ability. There's not a lot of true, firsthand knowledge of our operation. They see us, but that's about it.

Erin: We've extended our offer to help the county in multiple different ways but we continually have doors closed in our face because we're private or we run a different type of paramedic system. We're probably one of the top two resources in EMS in the county and we're not even on the table. Volunteers do a great job but if you don't have volunteers available, where's the public safety?

Q: Your company was considered as the provider for the Deer-Grove EMS service but the community ultimately chose to remain public. However, you have a station in Deerfield. Why?

Erin: We put that station there in 2008 so that we could go down to the Jefferson County area and help out with our growth in inter-facility (transports) there as well as come out to the Madison area. If we get there quicker, we can service our customers better.

Q: What's the biggest misconception of your company?

Erin: I still think people think we don't know how to perform skills and we're just taking grandpa and grandma back and forth to appointments.

Patrick: I think they don't realize that many times when Med Flight can't fly (to transport a patient from hospital to hospital) because of the weather, we get called. In the '60s, '70s and '80s, like Erin said, we took grandma home. That's what we did and we still do that but we now take the most critically ill patients from anywhere. In a way, our people have a wider breadth of experience than anybody, including the city of Madison, because (our paramedics) do the whole gamut.

Q: What have you learned from your father?

Erin: I think the biggest thing is customer service and talking to people. People choose to call us every day. They don't have to; they could call other people. We have two (types of customers). We have the sick or hurt person but (when) doing inter-facility, we have a lot of people who call us who aren't the patient. So, how you talk with them is really important.

Patrick: I'd say, being honest. If you do something wrong, you admit it and try and do better and you only commit to something if you truly can do it. And if not, you say so.

Reprinted with Permission of Barry Adams, Madison.com (Executive Q&A)