The Value of Values


By Joshua Bodwell

Photography Irvin Serrano


A Portland building leader shares the importance of connection and craftsmanship

Shaped like a child’s crudely scrawled “H,” Cliff Island lies at the outer edge of Casco Bay. Ten miles out to sea, with less than one hundred year-round residents, the island is an outpost—a place where community is prized and where friendships often last a lifetime.


For John Ryan, Cliff Island played a larger role in shaping the trajectory of his life than any other spot on the globe. The relationships and values that Ryan formed on the island allowed him to cast off his lines and set sail on a journey that has led him to, among other things, ownership of Portland’s acclaimed Wright-Ryan Construction firm.




Ryan’s connection to Cliff Island began even before he was born: his parents—one summering from Boston and the other from Philadelphia—met on the island. Since each side of his family had a home there, Ryan inevitably spent long stretches of every summer on Cliff. In the early 1970s, when Ryan was still in high school, his life took another fortuitous turn when he befriended a talented young carpenter on the island: his future business partner, Tom Wright.


During the summer vacations of his adolescence, Ryan worked for Wright on a variety of building projects, tackling everything from new porch stairs to additions and renovations. “I didn’t know anything about carpentry,” laughs the 54-year-old Ryan today. “I credit Tom with teaching me how to build.”


After graduating from high school, Ryan, who was raised in Nebraska, began his adult life quite far from Cliff Island: the Pacific Northwest. After working as a surveyor for the Union Pacific Railroad for a short time, Ryan majored in history and English at the University of Oregon. But the railroad work sparked a new interest, and Ryan soon entered the University of Washington, where he earned a degree in civil engineering.


In 1979, with two degrees in his back pocket, Ryan rode across the country on a motorcycle. His intention was to make a brief visit to Cliff Island before returning to settle in Seattle. Yet his plans quickly changed. “Tom had a ton of work lined up and a summer working in Maine sounded perfect,” remembers Ryan. But Wright had done something else that convinced Ryan to stay—he had hired a young woman fresh out of architectural school named Jenny. Once again, Cliff Island brought new shape to Ryan’s life: on the same sliver of land in the Atlantic where his parents first met, he found his own future wife.ryan2.jpg


After working with Wright for two years and growing Thomas B. Wright Carpentry to a crew of ten, Ryan hungered to put his civil-engineering degree to work. He joined a Connecticut-based consulting firm and traveled the country for more than two years evaluating the structural engineering of bridges, dams, piers, pipelines, and oil platforms. But when Ryan returned to Maine to attend the funeral of Wright’s father, the old friends had a long talk.


“We took stock,” recalls Ryan. “I was on the road all the time, but Jenny was in Portland working full-time for the architect George Terrien. It wasn’t an ideal situation. Tom and I talked about what would make a good working life and we decided on two things: having good work and working with people you truly like.”


In short order, Ryan returned to Portland, married Jenny, and, in 1984, Wright-Ryan was officially born. Though the business began with only the two partners and one employee, it has since grown to a staff of ninety. While the company’s expansion has been exceptional, its values have remained traditional: much of its success can be attributed to an enduring commitment to craftsmanship.


During the mid-1980s, Wright-Ryan began to expand into commercial framing, and by the late-1980s it was offering general contracting services. Their leap into large-scale commercial work came in the 1990s when, at breakneck speed, they erected the University of Southern Maine Ice Arena—the only Olympic-size ice surface in the state—in just five months.


Today, the business continues to take on every sort of commercial, public, and institutional project imaginable, from hotels and auditoriums to libraries and courthouses. While Ryan says that residential construction—once the core of their business—now makes up just twenty percent of their work, that small percentage still comprises an average of six homes a year. A Wright-Ryan home is easily recognized by its meticulous custom craftsmanship. Nearly every detail, whether it is cabinetry or freestanding furniture, is fabricated in the company’s 5,000-square-foot millwork facility. “The millwork was Tom’s passion,” says Ryan, “and it remains a big part of who we are.”


Over the years, Wright-Ryan has garnered numerous awards for its work. In 2005, their John Mitchell Center at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham, which houses the engineering and technology programs on campus, became the second building in the state to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. In addition to numerous awards from the Maine chapter of the American Institute of Architects for buildings as diverse as Portland’s Preble Street Resource Center and the environmental education center at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, they have also received several Maine Historic Preservation Honor Awards.


Recently, Wright-Ryan has taken the lead in promoting sustainable design and construction in Maine by doing something they had never done before: build a spec house. Working with Richard Renner Architects, they built a 3,000-square-foot home in Freeport that received a Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council—making it only the third home in the country to attain the highest LEED certification for residential construction.
With the company reaching new heights, Tom Wright decided to retire in 2006 and Ryan took the helm himself. “Yes, we’ve definitely evolved,” he says with a laugh today.


While the past decade has seen the biggest jump in Wright-Ryan’s growth, Ryan doesn’t seem to measure success by either awards or profits. His measurement goes back to a much earlier time when he and Wright worked side by side on Cliff Island. He often evokes the word “values,” especially when talking about the direction of Wright-Ryan over the next ten or twenty years.


“I think that how we deal with problems has set us apart,” says Ryan. “Our idea is to always end up with a collaborative solution. It’s a competitive world, but there are more important things in this life than being right, and we try to hire people who understand that value.” By taking the longer view and focusing on growing relationships, Ryan knows the firm will remain healthy.


ryan.jpg When John Ryan considers his own eventual retirement, he has one wish for the company: “Whether Wright-Ryan grows is less important to me than if it continues the values that Tom and I started it with.”


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