Transcription of Building Maine Businesses #294

Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at Here are some highlights from this week’s program.
Melissa Smith: The simplest version is everyone we do business with is a business in some way, shape, or form. And what we’re trying to do is take where payment, technology, and data intersect. That’s a place that we create value.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: And everybody feels like they know them. Those guys usually sit with me and somebody will walk by and say, “Jaime, I saw you play in that game!” And it’s really personal and really important to that person to express to the athlete or ex-athlete how much they love watching them play.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you’re listening to Love Maine Radio show number 294: Building Maine Businesses, airing for the first time on Sunday May 7th, 2017. Business is booming in Maine.
Today we speak with two individuals who are leading the way in this field. Melissa Smith is the president and CEO of WEX, which is one of three companies in our state to have revenues of more than a billion dollars.
William J. Ryan, Jr. is the principal owner and chairman of the Maine Red Claws, Portland’s NBA Development team. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: With summer now upon us, I invite you to join us at the Kennebunkport Festival. Five days of celebration centered around food, wine, art, music, and of course community. This year’s festival is June 5th through 10th, and we’re especially excited to note that Love Maine Radio’s producer, Spencer Albee, and his band are headlining the Maine Craft Music Festival with special guests the Ghost of Paul Revere. For tickets to the Maine Craft Music Festival and details about all the good times waiting for you at the festival, go to All of us at Maine Media Collective look forward to seeing you there.
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Lisa Belisle: It’s my great pleasure today to speak with Melissa Smith, who is the President and CEO of WEX, located in South Portland. I actually don’t often get to do a husband and wife separate interviews, but I interviewed Brian Corcoran, your husband, back in May of 2015. So now I feel like we’re just doing the full circle, the whole family thing.
Melissa Smith: Yeah. And he had a great time.
Lisa Belisle: Oh I’m glad to hear that!
Melissa Smith: No, he did. He had a great time. He appreciated the interview and had fun.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I love the fact that the both of you…. Welcome in, by the way.
Melissa Smith: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Lisa Belisle: Thank you for taking time out of your very busy schedule, because I know that time is at a premium these days with all that’s going on in your life. I think I’m most interested in what WEX actually does. I’ve done a lot of reading on your company and I am very impressed with the numbers. You just hit a billion dollars, which is amazing. You’re one of three companies, that we know of, within the state. There’s cards, financial, there’s travel, there’s health.
Melissa Smith: There’s a bunch of urban legends around what WEX does….
Lisa Belisle: Okay. Good.
Melissa Smith: I think it’s kind of funny. Rob and I were talking about that recently, about all the different ways that people think we do business, but the simplest version is everyone we do business with is a business in some way, shape, or form. And what we’re trying to do is take where payment, technology, and data intersect. That’s a place that we create value and it’s probably easiest to give examples of it.
So if you were to go on, you were to book a hotel room and you were to book that with Priceline or Expedia or virtually any online travel agency, you would pay that hotel with your consumer credit card. But when all the hotels in the world get paid, they’re paid behind the scenes with a virtual card that’s generated by WEX. In that case, we’re integrated into the online travel agency’s systems in a way that creates a lot of efficiency for them when they make a payment, because often a consumer is paying them two or three months in advance. When you go there, you may have a bad experience and you want to actually get a refund of your money. So for them to track that created a mass of people. What we did is we went in and said, “There’s a simpler way of doing that. Let’s do that all electronically behind the scenes.” And that’s a part of our business that has grown tremendously over the last 10 years. So that’s one example.
Other examples for us; if you were an employee with the federal government and you have a vehicle that you are using for commercial purposes, then you would have a WEX card. And that WEX card would enable you to buy fuel and there would be a series of controls around that that would make sure that you weren’t filling up your family car. And depending on who that customer is, and some of those are really small businesses, some are really big businesses, they want higher levels of controls and sophistication. And what we try to do is tailor that to whatever the customer wants.
Another example, if you are working for a company and you have a tax-deferred account, like an HSA account or an FSA account, we provide technology that’s used in order for you to track all of the expenses that you’re using on that account. So everything we’re doing is heavily behind the scenes, which is why I think people don’t really understand what we do, but at the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is just make something that is facilitating a payment. We’re trying to make that as simple, as easy as possible, for the business so they can focus on growing.
Lisa Belisle: This is a big evolution from, what was it, the late 1800’s when this whole company began as Ride Express, and the focus was on coal.
Melissa Smith: Coal.
Lisa Belisle: I mean it seems like that’s a fairly straightforward thing that we can all understand. And now more than a hundred years later, you’re doing something somewhat related to transportation, but in many other ways not related at all.
Melissa Smith: It’s been really interesting history, if you look back on the company because I would say we’re more of a descendant of A.R. Wright. So family company, coal company, and one of the children had an idea, which was really how to facilitate an electronic payment. And I think back then when people were paying with fuel, had all those manual receipts, and they just wanted to make that simpler.
That was the original concept and there was a lot of work that went in behind the scenes to make sure that you got acceptance and any of the payment companies like WEX, getting acceptance is a really big barrier. So they spent a number of years, the company was founded in 1983, and then it became venture-backed in 1985, and it didn’t make money until 1993. So you might imagine that was a long period of many different rounds of funding and then from that point forward, I started in 1997 and there were five ownership changes in the next five-ish years.
So a lot of different corporate parents, a lot of different changes at that level. But one of the things that’s been great is that this company has continued to grow and thrive, despite what was happening and kind of the dramatic backdrop until we went public in 2005. That’s when we really decided we claimed our independence and we became much more secure in the future of the company.
Lisa Belisle: And this is important to the state of Maine because you currently have 750 Maine people who are employed here, and it’s important around the world because you have 2,700 employees. So all of the things that you just described are making it possible for lots of people to make a living.
Melissa Smith: Yeah, when I think about the company, one of the things that I think a lot about is we’ve got employees, and I have this visual of all the employees that are around the world, and then all their families that are attached to them. So we have, I think, quite a bit of impact and that’s a great responsibility.
The fun part of being in a growth company is you create opportunity too. So you have the careers of the people that are working there, but if the company continues to grow, a great example, you create opportunity for people and because it grows it changes every few years and so it feels a little bit different as the core.
The company, who we are, I say, is very similar to it has been in 20 years, but when we went public that made us very different, and when we became global that made it very different. I would say in steps, when we first went into something that was global it was in Australia, so English speaking, time zone differences, but not a huge difference, but now we’re doing business throughout Europe. We have an office in Singapore, we have an office in Brazil, where you get into countries that are not English speaking as their primary language and it changed the fiber of the business and the company, but it also made it richer. So I think as an employee, you get to now work with people all over the world and you experience things in a different way, which I think is a really additive way.
Lisa Belisle: It’s interesting that this is happening with WEX at the same time as we were all becoming aware of this whole global citizenship idea. What your company has gone through is really kind of reflective of the changing times.
Melissa Smith: Yeah, I think that’s true. I think you can get insular in many ways and you think about what you see everyday is the best and then you can go into a totally different market where people experience life in a very different way.
When you go into Brazil, safety is really experienced in a different way for the people that live there. As a result, their products are built with that much more forefront in their mind. So I think it’s interesting as you go from one region to another you realize that the United States, while it is very important, it’s not the same experience that’s happening around the world and yet at the same time you’re competing in many ways on a global basis, and it’s something that I think is really important.
We have offices in 10 different countries, we have 37 offices. So we think about how we compete for talent, we think about it globally. We think about Maine and how it competes on a global level and how important that is, because the companies that we’re competing against are global companies, and they can shift employees into different regions of the world or really pick up on innovation in different parts of the world in a way that we also have to be thinking about. So I think of that as a big positive but also something that we have to be more thoughtful about as we’ve gotten bigger and gone into more of that global world.
Lisa Belisle: And your husband, Brian Corcoran, his Shamrock Sports also has definitely national and perhaps really international interests as well. So that’s an interesting thing. I mean, they’re different types of industry certainly and his is a smaller business, but it must create lots of kind of fascinating conversations in that-
Melissa Smith: Yeah, our dinner conversations are probably different than most peoples’. I think what Brian does is so fascinating to me probably because it’s so very different. Most people don’t think about the business of sports and that’s the world that he lives in and at the same time he gets to experience these really fun events.
So there’s a fun part of what he does, there’s a really hard part of what he does, because his business is largely about selling and that’s a difficult part of the business to be in. But at the same time, he gets to go to some pretty amazing events and I’ve been able to go to some of those with him. I’ve been able to go to the Olympics in London and I’ve been to the Kentucky Derby, and I can go on and on about different things that we’ve done over the years that we’ve been together.
What he likes about that is the pride in the event, because at the end of the day someone is deciding to sponsor that and you want to make sure that the people who go are entertained, that they have a good experience, and often these are world class events and one of the things he’s been passionate about is bringing some of those to Maine, which is a great way to create economic development.
Lisa Belisle: You grew up in a pretty small town.
Melissa Smith: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: I’m not really sure even where it is because I read-
Melissa Smith: It’s not on the map?
Lisa Belisle: Because I read the name of it and I was like, “Oh I’ve been to the county a lot but I’ve….” So where did you grow up?
Melissa Smith: I grew up in Winn, Maine, which is about an hour north of Bangor. It’s in Penobscot County, but the Northern part of Penobscot County. I grew up on a farm, so middle of nowhere. I think there were 450 people in my hometown. There was no traffic lights. Everybody knows everybody. It’s a great place to grow up. We grew up with animals, so we had horses, dogs, cats, rabbits, you name it.
I think some of the things you learn from growing up in a small town, you learn the importance of community because everybody has to really participate. There really isn’t an option. I also think that growing up in that part of Maine, there’s a lot of poverty there and I think that’s in many ways a good way to grow up. I know it’s going to sound wrong, but I think I grew up very grounded in what you need and what you want and that those are two different things in life. The people that I grew up with are incredibly happy, fulfilled, and that’s without lots of material things, and I think that is an important part.
Now living in Southern Maine, it’s in many ways a very different experience than the Maine that I really understood and grew up with when I first started.
Lisa Belisle: And there were three of you? Three kids?
Melissa Smith: I come with one of those nontraditional families. So there are three girls. My mother married somebody, my mother remarried when I was five and she married somebody that had five children. We were the Brady Bunch, so three of his children, his three younger ones, and us three girls lived together. His two older ones were old enough on their own that they didn’t ever live with us.
So there were six kids and, like I said, all kinds of animals. I’m used to chaos in my life, that’s why I’m pretty good with chaos, but again great. My stepfather was a very important part of my life. He unfortunately passed away a little over a year ago, but he’s been in my life since I was two years old. So really he’s been the rock in my life. He also taught me how important it is how men treat women, because he was so great to my mother. He adored her, which was a wonderful thing to see growing up.
Lisa Belisle: I would guess that in addition to the small town sense of community, growing up in a household of six there’s also- and you said you grew up on a farm-
Melissa Smith: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: So there’s shared responsibilities sort of all the way around.
Melissa Smith: Yes. Well it’s interesting because my mother had this philosophy on children and so she had this balance of giving us a lot of freedom to have fun and at the same time there was kind of this stick of responsibility that was always in the background. But she wanted to make sure there was some of each.
So we all had responsibilities and there’s things like, as a family we’d bring in hay every year. Bringing in hay meant I drove a big huge old hay truck when I was literally just old enough to see over the wheel. What I learned from that is when you dumped the hay truck you had to reload it yourself. So you learn pretty quickly that you had to do it well otherwise you’re going to redo it. Then when the next sibling got to that point, you kind of get kicked out and then you had to actually load the truck.
So you had this kind of order of how things happened. We learned pretty quickly to bring all our friends with us and make it into this big party. So you made the work as fast and as easy as possible and fun. So there’s things like that, bring in wood, they were rights of passage I guess, if you will. Being a part of living there that you had to contribute. But we also got to ride horses and do a lot of fun things. It wasn’t all work.
Lisa Belisle: How did the University of Maine prepare you academically to do what you’re doing now?
Melissa Smith: That’s a great question. My mother went to the University of Maine, my grandmother went to the University of Maine. Ironically they went about the same time. So when it came for me to go to school, my first economic lesson was my mother sitting down and saying, “Honey you can go to school anywhere you want in the world and lets do the math or you can go to the University of Maine.” My mom worked there so I could go relatively inexpensively.
I think at that time that I was interested in spreading my wings a little bit more but it became more of a financial consideration, but I feel like I got a really great education. I think for me when I first went there, I knew I wanted to study business but I didn’t know really what that meant. Because you don’t really get a lot of exposure when you grow up in a small town of what the options even are.
My first year I was taking some accounting classes and I used to get these notes back from the accounting professor that would say, “You should consider this to be your major.” And I thought, “How boring is that!” You know, like, accounting really? Then he started talking to me and he started talking to me about what public accounting was like and how that’s different. You actually get to go and travel and see how different companies work. He kind of led me there in many ways in a series of a few years.
So even though I went to a school that has a large number of students, it didn’t feel that way in many ways. I think that I was really lucky he became one of my first mentors and really had a lot to do with what I chose to do and really set me into going into public accounting, which I felt like was a really good experience.
And I would advocate that for any child growing up, because almost immediately you learn how to deal with people because you have to deal with customers. You’re sent out into the field and you work with customers. You work with different peers constantly and you almost immediately start supervising within the first couple of years. So then you learn how to actually understand that not everybody is the same and their ability to learn and how they’re going to succeed is very different and in order for you to be successful you have to be able really adapt to their individual needs. So I feel like that was a really good experience for me just out of school.
But I think University of Maine actually heavily prepared me for that and I felt like some of that was the experience I had with one of my professors.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been a big proponent of early and well done STEM education within the state of Maine, and education in general. Is this because you just generally have a love of the state of Maine? Is this because you have more considered interest in getting people to be highly educated so that you could get them to WEX? Or both?
Melissa Smith: It’s both. STEM related fields are interesting to me because I understand how much more earnings capacity you create if you go into one of those fields. And there’s a practicality associated with going into those fields that sometimes feels like it’s missing and at the same time WEX as an employer is heavily dependent on our ability to track talent in those fields. So the jobs that we’re adding, we’ll add over a hundred in Maine this year, will be largely STEM related. So they’re either going to be in the technology areas, some of them in the finance areas. So I think it’s important.
I also think that as we compete for talent globally that Maine has to really think about how we transform our ability to really develop talent, which starts with education and then retain talent. I think it’s a big issue for us and it’s something that we see as we’re out into the market place. So there’s a little bit that’s a passion point for me around making sure that the state is thriving, it’s really important to me. It’s been a great state to grow up in. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of benefit from living here and I want to make sure I give back to that.
But also there’s the more practical part of it, as an employer headquartered here, there’s certain disadvantages and I want to make sure that we really do something about that. And I feel like we have so much opportunity there. We are located central to one of the largest economies in the world with the whole Boston Hub. We have a great quality of life.
When I go out into the marketplace and recruit people to come live here, people are increasingly interested in what we have to offer. When they come and live here, they never go back. I have yet to have someone come and relocate here and say, “I’ve made a mistake. I want to move my family away from here.” It’s the opposite, it’s “I really have roots here.” Often what I’ll hear, almost universally, when they bring children, they talk about how it just creates a settling feeling. Not that they’re not going to have high expectations in their school but they lose a little bit of the social pressure that they’re having in some other regions. At WEX I feel like we work just as hard as if they were some place else but they spend less time commuting. So they have a higher quality of life as a result. So there’s a lot to offer in the state and I think Portland in particular has really just blossomed in the period of time that I’ve lived in this area.
Lisa Belisle: So, the issue of children is interesting, because you just came back, or are transitioning back….
Melissa Smith: I’m back.
Lisa Belisle: You’re back.
Melissa Smith: I’m back.
Lisa Belisle: You’re back. You’re here…. from the birth of your twins.
Melissa Smith: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: And your son, Baxter, is now two?
Melissa Smith: Two and a half.
Lisa Belisle: Two and half.
Melissa Smith: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: So you have, currently, eleven week old twins.
Melissa Smith: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: And Baxter.
Melissa Smith: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: So, the idea of family and raising a family in a family friendly atmosphere is very important to you.
Melissa Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lisa Belisle: Do you think it’s easier to have the type of partnership that you have with your husband in the state of Maine, or in this part of the world, than it might be in other places?
Melissa Smith: Well, definitely when you broaden it to the world, then I think that we’re lucky in many ways to live in the United States. I feel like as a woman to live in the United States, and actually in Maine, to have the career that I have, I feel like that’s a piece of it.
I think that Brian is a great partner and he enables me to do what I need to do and vice versa. We really think of this as a partnership and how we’re going to help each other out and at the same time we rely pretty heavily on our extended family. We’re very lucky, my mother, as an example, stayed here for the winter. She would normally go to Arizona for the winter. So she’s been forefront, working with us, his parents are very actively involved.
So we are relying on the nucleus of our family and that’s been important, but I don’t know if I were to say Maine versus some other part of the country, I don’t know that that’s different. I do think that there’s a little bit of benefit as a woman in my career being in Maine and I think that there’s a little bit of that independence thing that we have here that I think plays well into that. But I certainly do think if I compare other places in the world I could be living, this is a much more beneficial place. I also think Maine is one of those places that allow independence, which helps Brian with his business and so I think that there’s probably a whole series of things coming together that are helpful to us.
Lisa Belisle: I understand that you just instituted a family leave for eight weeks, paid, after the birth of a child, within WEX. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Melissa Smith: Six weeks.
Lisa Belisle: Six weeks.
Melissa Smith: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Okay.
Melissa Smith: Yes. Yep.
Lisa Belisle: Still very generous.
Melissa Smith: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Exactly. So, what prompted that?
Melissa Smith: I feel like it’s in the category to do the right thing. When I started looking at the ways that leave is considered around the world, it’s a place that the United States is largely lagging compared to the rest of the developed world. So it felt like a trend that was coming to us and I’d rather be on the front part of that trend because again I feel like it’s the right thing to do.
And for us, the fact that we’re giving leave out and that we’re agnostic if it’s the male or the female partner in whatever it happens to be that we wanted to make sure that we’re thoughtful about that. That I felt strong about too is that I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t really designed to think about things in a an old fashioned way, it was really more representative of the way things work now. It’s been actually great. That’s one of those fun parts of my job, when you do something like that and you get notes back from people that give you personal stories about how that decision affected their lives. It’s incredibly satisfying. I think, again, we’ll see more businesses make that trend over time in the United States, because I think that we’re just lagging with how people think about this on a more global basis.
Lisa Belisle: For people who are thinking about what their next career step might be, what do you think WEX has to offer?
Melissa Smith: Oh WEX has so much to offer. You know, I start with the things that the former CEO, who actually had recruited me, the things he said to me I think are still true. He said it’s the type of place that an individual can make a difference, which was incredibly appealing to me, and that your performance affects your trajectory.
I think we’re at these great stages as a business where we’re not so small that we’re worried about whether or not we’re going to make payroll, but we’re not so big, even at a billion dollars of revenue, that it’s hard to move. So I like the phase that we’re in, I like the global interaction. The jobs that we have, you can really see this coming through our employee satisfaction surveys, they’re interesting work that people are doing, they feel like they’re making a difference.
We have a great culture, our culture is really founded on the idea of not just what you do but how you do it, and we reward people with what we call a President’s Club trip every year. This year we picked 45 people, so highly selective, think 2,700 employees but 45 people went. Anybody in the company can nominate anybody else and we pick it based on what they do and how they do it, which means it can’t all be about sharp elbows, they actually have to do things in a more collaborative way. Then we take them and whoever they choose to go with them onto a trip someplace, this year we announced we’re going to Portugal. I feel like that’s embedded in who the company is in a cultural perspective and it’s been true before I started and it’s part of what I want to make sure that we continue to foster. There really is a relationship-orientation in the company that I think is really great.
Lisa Belisle: Well it’s been a pleasure. I think we can probably fill a few different hours talking about this, because I think you’re doing really interesting things.
Melissa Smith: Well thank you.
Lisa Belisle: I really appreciate the time that you’re taking to come and talk to me today and anybody who is listening. I encourage people to look into WEX if that’s something that you think would be a good fit in your life.
Melissa Smith:
Lisa Belisle: I love it. That’s great. And also we will be featuring Melissa in an upcoming issue of Old Port Magazine, so you can also read the profile there. I’ve been speaking with Melissa Smith who is the President and CEO of WEX, Inc., located in South Portland. Keep up the good work. Thank you.
Melissa Smith: Thank you. Thank you.
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Lisa Belisle: My next guest is William J. Ryan, Jr., who is the principal owner and chairman of the Maine Red Claws. I believe it’s okay that we call you Bill.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Bill is great.
Lisa Belisle: Bill is great. Which held their inaugural season in the fall of 2009. Ryan also has investments in real estate, restaurants, and early stage technology companies, and I believe you also once owned the Oxford Plains Speedway.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: I did for fourteen years.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. So, you’ve been out and about for quite a while.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: I guess I have a short attention span maybe and I move from thing to thing, I guess.
Lisa Belisle: Well that’s alright because we like talking to people who have had many lives here. You’ve actually been an attorney as well.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah, so I was in college and my parents kept calling me and saying, “What are you going to do with your life?” So one day they woke me up and I said, “I’m going to be a lawyer.” And that got smile and approval and they didn’t bother me for the rest of my senior year. So that was my well thought out process of what my career was going to be. But I actually liked law school and then when I got out and found out what lawyers actually did, I was kind of puzzled that anybody would actually want to do it. So I hated it, but I think when I started, my wife was pregnant. We had four kids in five years when I was doing it so I kind of needed a job so I stuck with it until I could figure out what else to do and moved on from there.
But it was a good experience. It’s good training, it’s good background for business. It’s great for some people, it just wasn’t for me, I wish I had thought about that a little bit better before I just made a snap decision to be a lawyer.
Lisa Belisle: Well so what was it about being a lawyer that you thought was good training and maybe just didn’t work for you?
William J. Ryan, Jr.: I think the good training part is you get to spot a lot of potential problems in business before they get to be problems. You can tell going into something, jeez this contract is not going to work or there’s a risk here that could be covered by insurance or what happens if XYZ happens, you know, how do we handle that as a business relationship. Kind of take care of it beforehand so it doesn’t become acrimonious later so if something goes wrong you want to make sure you figure out how to fix that before it becomes a problem. That’s the good training part.
What I didn’t like is most of it you’re not in a court room arguing and it’s not very glorious. You’re mostly in your office selling your time, is what you’re selling. It really takes away from interaction with your fellow human beings to some extent, because if your office mate comes by and says, “Hey, how you doing? You watch the ball game last night?” All you’re doing is looking at your watch and going, “Aww man, now I got to stay at work five minutes later,” because you’re selling your time.
So, you know, I ate lunch at my desk and never really left, because I had little kids at home and I was already working enough that my wife wasn’t super psyched to have me be there ‘til eight at night or something. So that was the hardest part for me is that my natural inclination was to care about the people around me and what their lives were, but I was selling my time so you’d have to kind of ferret yourself into your little office and do your work and try to do it as quickly as you could and get it done. A lot of people like it, it just wasn’t for me.
Lisa Belisle: I think that’s an interesting point that you make that something can be really worthwhile and worth doing and maybe just not the right thing for an individual person.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Sure.
Lisa Belisle: But sometimes it’s difficult to get to that place and get to the place where you say, “Alright so what is right for me?” So how did you… you know, you still have those children, right?
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Still have the wife. So, how did you get to that place?
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah. So, it was interesting. The firm I was with represented a guy by the name of Bob Bahre, and Bob owned New Hampshire International Speedway at that point, which was a NASCAR track. I knew Bob a little bit, I didn’t work on his stuff, but I knew him through a couple different ways and from the firm doing work for him. I became fascinated with that business, the racing business, and it wasn’t anything I really knew about. Prior to that, I grew up outside of Boston, you know, car racing wasn’t big outside of Boston. But I became fascinated with it as a business. This is the early 90’s, kind of before, NASCAR has kind of risen and now it’s kind of fallen back a little bit.
So I decided that I wanted to be in that business somehow. Long story short, I was able to find a guy in Massachusetts who had a sports marketing company and had been heavily involved in racing. If you’ve ever seen a race car, they have 28 different names all over them, it’s everything from Budweiser to on and on and on. That was his business, he would act as a middle man between race teams and big companies out there and say, like, “You should be on this car because you will get this much notice and you could have your clients come to races.”
So I talked my way into a job with him. The legal training was something that was attractive to him because it’s a heavily contractual work. It was a revelation for me because I came from that highly regulated, highly strict world of law where everything was, you know, you put on a belt, and then you put on another belt, and then you put on suspenders, and then, you know, the third belt just for extra safety and support.
I went with him and he was a real sales guy and we could do anything. A potential client would say, “Can you do XYZ, ABC…” And his answer was always yes ‘cause he would figure out how to do it. Whereas, my answer was, “Jeez, can we do that? How are we going to do that?” He kind of introduced me to the world of “yeah you’ll figure it out” and he wasn’t being deceptive in any way. He was just much more open to making things happen, whereas I was in that world, like, “jeez, let’s check the 92 things that could happen that would be wrong with that plan.” Whereas, he was like, “Yeah, there might be 92 things wrong but there’s 120 things that are right.” A guy by the name of Paul, he was probably the most influential person in my life really in terms of, or business life.
Lisa Belisle: So, you owned Oxford Plains for 14 years.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: And then what happened?
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Well, during that timeframe, I was approached by somebody, because I was in the sports business, was approached by somebody, just a cold call, a guy that had worked for the Celtics years before, and said that he wanted to start a professional basketball team someplace in New England that was going to be in the NBA Development League. To be honest, I was a huge Celtics fan and always had been from growing up outside of Boston, but I wasn’t really in tune with what the NBA Development League is. What I did know was that two professional basketball teams had failed in Maine before.
So I returned the call anyway and went to a meeting. I thought it was an interesting idea the more I learned about it and the lawyer in me said, “What’s the downside risk and can we eliminate that and how do we eliminate it? And if we can’t eliminate it…. you can never eliminate it all, but how do you mitigate it and make it so it’s not going to kill you.” And on the other side was like, “Alright, what’s the upside here, what can we do?”
So after kind of doing that analysis for a bit, I thought it was a good idea. My father was retiring at that point, he’s the ex-CEO of TD Bank here in Portland, so he was retiring and he liked the idea, as a basketball fan. He said, “alright, you call five of your friends, I’ll call five of my friends, we’ll put together an ownership group,” and so that’s what we did. My father and I are the majority owners of the team and we have partners that are people from across- probably people that you’ve interviewed, you know, people from Maine that are influential in the community and it’s been great. It’s been a great experience. We just are finishing our eighth season and starting playoffs tonight, which is fun. But it’s been good.
Lisa Belisle: Sports is an interesting thing because it really…. there’s really such a significant community around it so whether you’re a part of the Red Sox Nation or you’re a Patriots fan or a Red Claws fan, really, you’ve automatically got this group of people that you can talk to and you can interact with and that you can have conversations with. Is that part of what attracted you to becoming an owner of the Red Claws?
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah, I agree with that. It’s that built in, you know, when you’re at a game, the person next to you, they’re a fan, they’re probably a fan of the team that you’re a fan of and you have that natural ability to talk to them. I think even when I was in the racing business, there’s a wide demographic for racing and it’s interesting because I could talk to anybody from the guy fixing my car, I know nothing about fixing cars, but a lot of guys that fix cars are into cars and stuff so they’d maybe recognize me from the speedway or something and I’d get into a long conversation with them about racing, right, and you have that in common. And I still bump into people all the time that I know from racing, that are just all walks of life, but often something, you know, a delivery driver, or something like that, or an occupation that has to do with maybe cars or something. It’s always funny because we’ll go back to talking about racing.
And basketball is the same too. It has a different kind of demographic, I would say, but you have that universal language that you can talk about, you know, like, “did you see that game last night? What do you think of the Celtics?” So it is, it’s a community in a lot of good ways and can be in bad ways too. I think when you have- when you’re a fan of the Patriots and you hate the fans of whoever it is. To me, that’s ridiculous, I always kind of…. my family is from New York and they’re all Yankee fans. I grew up in Boston and it would be one of those things where it’s like, “Oh you’re supposed to hate Yankee fans.” And I’m like, “I can’t hate me grandmother! My grandmother is a Yankee fan.” So I never had that, like, oh you got to hate Yankee fans or something, you know. So there’s a lot of good to it but it could be destructive too.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, so how do you handle that? I have an unawareness of sports, my kids are all….
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Sure.
Lisa Belisle: They all follow sports.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Their dad follows sports. I never had that, sort of, same passion.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: So when they would say, you know, “Oh Yankees suck.”
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Okay.
Lisa Belisle: I’d be like, “Oh, do they?”
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Right, right. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Like, do you have to be…. and I’m sorry to anybody who is listening who feels strongly that Yankees do suck.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: But how do you negotiate that?
William J. Ryan, Jr.: I just, you know, it’s silly to me. I think that you just have to realize that it’s just a game at the end of the day. Trust me, I’ve been caught up in games, you know, whether it’s my kid’s games or Red Claws games or Patriots games. If my kids listen to this, they’ll laugh at me saying that “oh don’t overreact to it,” because they’ve seen me certainly overreact to a lot of games.
But I think maybe as you get older and you get a little bit wiser and you realize that, hey that if the Red Claws lose tonight I’m still going to be here tomorrow and get up and do all the things that I do and sure I want them to win, but life goes on. And I’m much more that way, you know, I was happy when the Patriots won the super bowl, really happy. I’m sure I jumped up and down for a while, but if they had lost, I would’ve been unhappy for 15 minutes and got up the next day and moved on. So I think you just have to recognize that it’s not life and death. It’s just fun.
Talking to people that I’ve worked with over the years in sports, my line to them always is, like, “We’re not curing cancer, we’re just hopefully giving people a night out where they can smile and laugh and have fun and watch a good game or a good race or whatever it is.” I don’t think it’s unimportant, but it’s not serious. If the Red Sox don’t play today or do or whatever, it really doesn’t affect anybody’s life. It’s not a life and death thing, it’s just sports.
Lisa Belisle: Well some people might argue.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah. No, I know they….
Lisa Belisle: I won’t, but some people might.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: No, they do. It’s funny, you know, and then people expect me to maybe to be more passionate about sports than I am, because I’ve been involved in it. I think maybe through being involved in it, you kind of recognize that maybe its importance can be overstated somewhat. Not that it’s important to me, but there’s a lot of things that are much more important than whether or not the Patriots win or the Red Claws win or the Red Sox win.
Lisa Belisle: Was there something about the fact that your father was so high up at TD Bank and that banking is very similar to law that it’s kind of structured and lots of regulations.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Was there something about that that you needed to almost kind of break free of in order to get into these other businesses?
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, that was all I was ever exposed to. You know, the rest of the adults in my life, my uncles and aunts and stuff, were firefighters and cops and that kind of thing. And I kind of knew I didn’t want to go that direction, probably too lazy to be out there doing any kind of heavy duty work like that. So my father was the only one that I looked to, he’s a banker my whole life. It is a very ordered thing and I’ve said to him a million times, “I don’t know how you do it.” And I say that to the corporate people that I know all the time, like, I just couldn’t. The meetings and the hierarchy and the- I don’t know, that’s not me and maybe it’s because I’d been, kind of out on my own for so long.
On the other side, since I left my law firm I was with in 1997, there’s been no paycheck waiting for me at the end of the week. So that’s the downside to it. I don’t have a boss and I don’t have meetings, even if I don’t want them. But again, there’s not that benevolent corporation over my head that’s going to be there at the end of the week whether or not I did my job well that week or didn’t do it, you still get that paycheck. There’s something to be said for that, but, for me anyways, there’s more to be said about the freedom to do a lot of different things. Luckily, I’m knocking on wood here, it’s worked out so far. But, yeah, it is a challenge.
When I had the racetrack, you get three weeks of rain, you can’t race in the rain. So, if you have 40 events scheduled for summer and it rains three weekends in a row, you could lose 10 percent of your opportunity to make money for the year. It’s like a retail store that’s open 365 days losing 36 days, where they make zero money. It’s a challenge to try to figure that out in our world. The Red Claws have, we have 24 home games so we have 24 opportunities to sell tickets. If it’s a blizzard in the middle of February, which we had one this year, and people don’t want to go out. It was fine, but the weather report, everybody at the storm center, they’ve all got their sweaters on and all that stuff, so everybody is kind of scared. So, you know, those are tough days because we probably sold half the amount of tickets that we would’ve had it been a nicer day.
There’s challenges to both sides of things, but I say to my father all the time, “I don’t know how you did it.” Even the getting up to the top is hard, but even being at the top of a big company, there’s a lot of responsibility. You have thousands and thousands of people, like, you make a bad decision, it can really harm a lot of people. There’s a lot of pressure there that I don’t think people that haven’t seen somebody up close in that position recognize. I think people at that level, they really feel like, “If I make a wrong decision, it doesn’t just affect me, it affects all those thousands of people.”
There’s pluses and minuses to both sides. I like that steady pay check if I could get it, but I kind of like not having to answer anybody either.
Lisa Belisle: Given the background of the failure of teams.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Sure.
Lisa Belisle: Basketball teams in this area. I’m assuming that Red Claws has done better than that.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: ‘Cause they’re still around.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Absolutely, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: So what have you learned in this process?
William J. Ryan, Jr.: You know, I think it was interesting when we first started it, the natural inclination for everybody, when we were talking was, “well you’re going to play at the Civic Center, right?” That seems like the natural place to play, but we figured out pretty quickly that teams in our league, you know, average attendance is probably 3,000, maybe 3,500. Well that’s going to feel and look horrible in the Civic Center, which is 7,200 for basketball, I think. So that was a decision to move to The Expo that was maybe a little bit challenging, would challenge people’s preconceptions at the beginning. But we did a lot of improvements there and it’s a great place and now people love watching the team play there.
That’s, I think, an example of kind of what we learned and what we did was to maybe not jump at the obvious thing. Where it was, you know, “you got to play here” or “you got to do this, you got to do that.” We kind of looked at it and said, “Well wait a second, how do we mitigate that downside risk? How do we make sure that if we go to a place that’s too big for us and it doesn’t look right and fans don’t love it, you know, how do we mitigate that risk?” We’ll play at a smaller place where even if you have 1,500 people in The Expo, which is half full-ish, it still feels great. It’s got a good atmosphere. Kids love it. And you’ve got Crusher, our mascot, running around and all that.
I think what we learned was just look at things a little bit differently and try to figure out why have teams failed here and other places and how do you make sure that you don’t fail in the same way. You can fail in a different way but don’t fail in the same way. I think the big difference for us was having the NBA attached to our league. The other leagues have been independent. Those three letters are hugely important, the NBA has a huge fan base, not only here in Maine, but around the world really. So having that attachment to the NBA and then the affiliation with the Boston Celtics.
People love the Celtics here, which is great. And the fact that the Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge will come up three or four times a year and sit at center court and watch the games. People love seeing him and we had Brian Scalabrine, who is an ex-Celtic, who does announcing now, he was here a week or two ago again sitting court side and watching. People love that stuff. They feel that connection and everybody feels like they know them. Those guys usually sit with me and somebody will walk by and say, “Danny, I saw you play in that game!” And it’s really personal and really important to that person to express to the athlete or ex-athlete how much they love watching them play.
And people love that our players come from all the big time colleges, so if you’re a Michigan grad, eventually we’ve had guys from Michigan, and people love that too. They’ll come up to them before the game or after the game and say, “Oh I went to University of Michigan and I saw this game or that game.” It’s interesting. So I think the biggest thing we learned was, like, figure out how to mitigate all our downside risk to avoid failing in some of the ways that other teams had before.
Lisa Belisle: So the way you’re describing this is that there’s this really significant emotional component to sports, which, of course, we all know.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: That sports can make you feel passionate. But, you know, as you’re describing, you know, Danny Ainge, I remember watching him play.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Sure.
Lisa Belisle: A million years ago.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: You know, there’s an, it’s like a….
William J. Ryan, Jr.: He doesn’t appreciate that when you say a million years ago.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I feel like I’m old enough now that it probably was million years ago. Sorry Danny, but it’s almost like having a song that you knew when you were in seventh grade that you danced to at the junior high dance.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: You know, it becomes locked into you.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Sure.
Lisa Belisle: In a way that where, you know, remembering who you watched during the Winter Olympics.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: So you’re providing people, not only with this community of the present, but you’re connecting them to kind of, like, themselves in the past.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Does that come up for you?
William J. Ryan, Jr.: No, absolutely, you’re right. I think that when people come up to Danny and talk about watching him play or this game or that game, it’s funny ‘cause you can see grown men or grown women who revert back to being 10 years old, right? Because that was when they saw Tommy Heinsohn, another former Celtic and Hall of Famer and announcer, and you get people that are 60 years old and saw him play or maybe even older than that ‘cause he’s in his 80’s and they get, like, all emotional and almost like kids and revert back. There is a lot of that looking back towards the past so it’s interesting. Again, I’m not the guy who could tell you who the back up point guard for the University of Iowa was last year, but we have people that can and that are fans and when they see the backup point guard for the University of Iowa somehow make a team in our league, they’ll say, “I remember that!” They get very enthusiastic about it. So, yeah, there is a lot of emotion attached to it.
Lisa Belisle: You have four children, all you said 18 to 23.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Eighteen to twenty-three, yeah, exactly.
Lisa Belisle: So they’re right in that interesting range where you could theoretically call them, wake them up, and say, “Hey, what are you going to do with your life?”
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: So, what would you like to see happen with them?
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Because of kind of the life that I’ve led where I did something that I thought I was supposed to do, initially, it seemed like, well you got to do something like law, right? And I was really unhappy, and I don’t know if I expressed that, but when I say unhappy, like, my headaches started the second I got to the office like everyday and 12 hours later, it didn’t go away. So I’ve always told them, it’s kind of one of these cliché things, but I actually really feel strongly that I want them to be able to support themselves, but have fun and enjoy what they’re doing, you know, life is too short to do something you don’t want to do. Now, we all obviously have to do things we don’t want to do, you know, it’s not all happiness every day at whatever your job is.
I’ll give you an example, my son is the only one out of college, and he got very interested in the whole craft beer world a couple years ago. So I’m like, great, put him in touch with some people and he wound up working for a couple local places here and now he’s down in Boston and works for a place called Trillium Brewing and he’s in production. So he’s up every morning at four or five AM to get there to make the beer, basically, is what he’s doing. So he just graduated from Colby in May of last year and my joke to him is like, “Well, you know, spent about 260 or so thousand dollars on your education and you work at a factory.” But I’m happy for him, like that’s cool. In the education, he was a philosophy major so nothing goes better with philosophy than a couple of beers. You sound smarter after a couple of beers and every philosophy sounds better. But I think that’s- he loves it, he’s supporting himself.
So I think that’s been my message to them is, don’t think you have to do, you know, don’t think you have to be a lawyer because that’s the only way you can be successful. There’s a lot of paths to success and if you can be happy along the way, that’s a much better thing than just to be a cog in some kind of wheel that you don’t want to be a cog in.
Lisa Belisle: Well I think that’s fair. It’s okay to be a cog in the wheel as long as you want to be a cog in the wheel.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah, if you want to be a cog, you’re right, like I said, there’s a lot of people that, when I was practicing law, that loved it and loved it for good reasons. They could just leave it at the end of the day. That’s the other downside. I’ve been in a lot of different businesses in addition to the sports business, but I’ve had my phone in my pocket from the time I get up until the time I go to bed for the last 20 years and get calls at 11 o’clock at night saying, not so much now, but still now.
Even with the Red Claws, like, we had a travel issue where the team is stuck in Iowa and we got to figure what do you want us to do? We can get this one flight out of here, but it’s, you know, an extra 500 bucks a person kind of thing and we’re flying 15 guys around. So I still get those calls and I’ve had businesses like that for a long time. So there is something to be said for if you can leave work at work at 6 ‘O’ clock and I think that’s how a lot of people that I worked with at the law firm felt like, you weren’t going to get that call. But it’s interesting, makes life interesting, I guess.
Lisa Belisle: Well I know that you are a very busy person so I really appreciate your coming in and having this conversation with me today. I learned something about the Red Claws, probably a little bit of something about racing.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Which honestly I didn’t know anything about. I’ve been speaking with William J. Ryan Jr., also known as Bill, the Principal Owner and Chairman of the Maine Red Claws and also generally involved in many other different industries. So, I really appreciate you having this conversation with me.
William J. Ryan, Jr.: Thanks. It was a lot of fun.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, Show Number 294: Building Maine Businesses. Our guests have included Melissa Smith and William J. Ryan Jr. For more information about Melissa Smith, read this month’s issue of Old Port Magazine. For more information on our guests and extended interviews visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Doctor Lisa, and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. We’d love to hear from you, so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows, also let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, I hope that you have enjoyed our Building Maine Businesses show. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day, and you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is made possible with the support of Berlin City Honda, The Rooms by Harding Lee Smith, Maine Magazine, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music have been provided by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producer is Paul Koenig. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy. Our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Lisa Belisle. For more information on our host production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here, today, please visit us at