Post-graduate life is a series of left-hand turns. At least, that’s how Tom Ryan describes it.
After completing three degrees in food science (BA, 1979; MS, 1982; PhD, 1985) from Michigan State University, Ryan ventured out to work in the packaged goods industry, working with such brands as Duncan Hines and Pillsbury. He had known early on that a career in academia was not something he was interested in, and had planned his academic programs accordingly. Working with his adviser, Dr. Ian Gray, he was able to develop a uniquely flexible program, including business management, marketing, and organizational communications classes to complement his technical coursework focused on flavor and fragrance chemistry. This “avant-garde” program, as he describes it, would serve him well in his first jobs after graduation.
“I was able to be personally multi-dimensional, but really cross-functional in all the jobs I did,” says Ryan. He could slip in to conversations with the marketing team just as easily as the product development team.
Ryan views those first jobs in his career as educational in their own right, each teaching him a little bit more about himself and what he wanted from a job and a career. They helped him identify where what he knew how to do and what he loved to do overlapped.
“I wanted to spend my time doing things that were highly rewarding, highly motivating, highly impactful – and so, those early jobs helped me figure out post-school what those things were for me, personally.”
One of those lessons came from research Ryan worked on while focused on microwavable goods for Pillsbury. In an effort to try to predict up-and-coming food trends, Ryan was researching the latest trends in the restaurant industry. He enjoyed the work and thought he’d like being on the other side of the food industry. In what he refers to as a “magic moment,” he was approached by Pizza Hut and offered a position creating new food concepts for the restaurant chain. He took the chance, even though he saw the change in career paths as a risk.
“It’s what I call one of the left-hand turns in my life. It wasn’t the easiest turn to make, but it turned out to take me someplace really great,” Ryan says.
Where did that first left-hand turn lead?
Ryan's path has led him to work with Pizza Hut, where he developed the stuffed crust and meat lover’s pizzas, among other menu items. He later created the Dollar Menu, McGriddles, the Fruit & Yogurt Parfait, and more for McDonalds. He’s also worked in product development at the executive level at Quiznos and Long John Silvers.
His more recent left-hand turns led him down the road to his current life as a serial restaurateur. Ryan is the founder of Smashburger, Tom’s Urban, and Live Basil Pizza, all under the umbrella of Consumer Capital Partners, of which he is Chief Concept Officer. He’s involved with everything from developing concepts, products and designing the customer experience, to developing branding and marketing.
Ryan sees more change on the horizon for his industry, as new customers enter the scene. He’s already seeing the market adjust to meet the needs of the Millennials, who are much more focused on shared experiences and the stories behind the food they order than were past generations. In an effort to stay ahead of the curve, Ryan spends a lot of his free time looking for inspiration from others. He reads about the restaurant industry, visits other restaurants, and reads a massive collection of cookbooks. He also finds inspiration in music, which he says proves that no matter what has already been done, there is always something new that can be created.
Ryan is always “keeping aware, keeping modern, keeping up, and keeping inspired by the fact that there is always the next blank page, no matter what.” By taking in a lot of information and making observations, you’re prepared to make connections when you need to develop a solution. This habit of making connections is what leads to success in careers.
“Impactful solutions require lots of collaboration, lots of connectivity, and the ability to sell and manage people to a fixed point on the horizon,” Ryan says. When he was in school, these interdisciplinary approaches were unusual. He says he was pleased to see that this is changing during a recent visit to campus. Whereas he had to wait until after his graduate work to learn the importance of cross-functionality, diversity, talent and perspective in making things happen, he’s hopeful that now students are aware of these needs before setting out on their career journeys.
As for Ryan, his path away from academia has been full of turns and changes, but they’ve all led him to where he is now and he is grateful for the people and events that shaped him.
“Kind of in hind sight, the left-hand turns tend to be the best ones.”