Growing up in Big Spring, G. Brint Ryan ('88, '88 M.S.) never dreamed too big, especially since opportunity rarely meandered that far down Interstate 20. Views of a different life were obscured by the pump jacks that dotted the West Texas landscape, announcing the refinery that was the town's biggest employer. Anyone who didn't already work there assumed they one day would.
So Ryan was already bucking expectation when he decided to join the ranks of the university-bound students among his graduating class of 260, many of whom were headed 100 miles further west to Lubbock. Why not go all in, he figured, and get the hell out of West Texas?
In the fall of 1982, he slid behind the wheel of the 1979 tan Buick Regal his grandfather bought for him that summer and drove 291 miles to Denton. He arrived at North Texas State University with $300 in his pocket -- "a fortune to me at the time," he says -- and a plan to major in English, thanks to a high school teacher who had nourished his love of reading and writing.
Daily, new possibilities unfolded. He learned from ►professors like Horace Brock and Hershel Anderson -- experts in accounting whose classes ultimately inspired Ryan to choose a career in accounting -- and witnessed the thriving corporate culture of DFW, where polished businessmen strolled into glittering downtown skyscrapers and rode elevators to their penthouse offices. The boy who never conceived of living large now envisioned a future as bright and expansive as a West Texas sunrise.
"When I became cognizant of the opportunity, I was hungry," says Ryan, who as a kid spent sweltering summer days digging postholes on his grandfather's ranch -- and nothing, he likes to remind those unfamiliar with the arid climate, will turn you into a college boy faster. "I mean I was really hungry."
Nearly 37 years after he first stepped foot on campus, Ryan has established himself as one of UNT's most accomplished alumni. Though it's impossible to quickly list the roles and achievements he's racked up over the past three decades, the highlights say enough: founder, chairman and CEO of Dallas-based Ryan, a global tax services firm and software provider valued at $1.1 billion. Chairman of the UNT System Board of Regents. A Texas Monthly Top 25 Most Powerful People in Texas honoree.
"I'm a living example of the power that education has to transform lives," Ryan says.
He has an affinity for the word "transformation," and on an unseasonably warm February day, the term is omnipresent. As Ryan stands in the atrium of UNT's Business Leadership Building, he's surrounded by family, donors, university and UNT System administrators, faculty, staff and business students who, as he once was, are looking to unlock their potential.
He's here to provide a $30 million key.
"Fanfare, it's time to go," says UNT President Neal Smatresk, who stands parallel to a strategically concealed banner affixed to the atrium's brick wall. As the UNT brass quintet trails off, Smatresk relays what until now was unknown to most of those gathered.
"Today, it gives me incredible pleasure to announce the largest gift we have ever received in our university's history," he says. "Because of his generosity, Brint has agreed to present a gift of $30 million to the UNT College of Business."
Amidst loud applause and a smattering of "wows," the banner unfurls to drive home a second revelation: The College of Business will now be known as the G. Brint Ryan College of Business.
"To have someone step forward like the Ryans have is just amazing," says Marilyn Wiley, dean of the College of Business. "To name the college is associating it with a person, and the business success Brint Ryan has had, starting with his accounting degree at UNT, is so amazing. It tells our students, 'Look at the possibilities, look what you can become.' It's an opportunity that resonates."
The gift awarded by Ryan and his wife, Amanda, will create at least six endowed chairs and provide funding for strategic academic program initiatives over seven years. Among the areas of focus are taxation and tax research, entrepreneurship, finance, logistics, information technology, cybersecurity and behavioral accounting.
"Brint's passion for UNT is much like his passion for cars -- full speed ahead," says Amanda, who served as Ryan's chief financial officer before retiring to raise their five daughters. "Oftentimes, he will spout off some grandiose idea, and I'll think to myself, 'This will never happen.' But Brint's inspiring vision and persistent determination make the impossible possible, transforming his dreams into reality, which has resulted in some really great success stories."
The room is buzzing -- there are handshakes and congratulations and speculation as to what this kind of money will ultimately do for the College of Business' reputation and its nearly 5,800 students. Smatresk's first reaction to hearing about the gift, he says, was, "Hallelujah."
"One of the things I know from my years in higher education is the margin of excellence in a program is a gift -- a gift that changes lives, a gift that changes the trajectory of a college, a gift that keeps giving in the most positive way," he says.
One of the potential beneficiaries of Ryan's gift is Michael Babich, currently working on his master's in taxation, who sees Ryan as an example of what's possible for students in the College of Business.
"This is a person who everyone can look up to -- to achieve so much and then give back. It's something I've always wanted to do, to use my degree to give back," Babich says. "Our accounting department is already highly ranked against other universities in the state. Now that we can compete with universities with larger endowments, it's going to be fantastic."
Of course, no one knows better than an accountant what $30 million can buy. That's why Ryan has been crystal clear -- whether from the stage, at the VIP reception or in casual conversation -- as to what the gift is meant to accomplish.
"The legacy's nice, and I'm going to enjoy that with my family, but what's really important is giving others like me the opportunity to do what I've done," says Ryan, who at the end of the ceremony was handed a certificate of appreciation that also doubled as the first document bearing the G. Brint Ryan College of Business name. "I think this gift will be transformational, and I think it's going to give others an even better foundation to work from than what I had."
One could argue that as a 27-year-old who had the wild idea of starting his own business, Ryan was a gleeful dismantler of solid foundations -- a young man who traded in a steady paycheck as a senior associate at Coopers & Lybrand for the shaky proposition of ►launching a tax services firm no one was waiting for.
"The fact that Ryan exists, frankly, is remarkable because we built this business in an industry where there were very large, entrenched competitors in the public accounting firms," says Ryan, whose company focuses on corporate taxes. "We built it brick by brick, proving we were the better model."
The business opened its doors in July 1991 with two employees and a nondescript 800-square-foot office space off Midway Road. During those first few months, Ryan wondered nearly every day if he should ask for his old job back -- there was almost no revenue coming in, and he had to charge office supplies to his personal credit card. The team was, as he puts it, working without a net.
"We were barely keeping the lights on," Ryan says. "It wasn't until November of that year that we got our first big result for a client -- a $300,000 savings on a franchise tax case that netted us a $65,000 fee. It was more money than I had ever seen in my life."
After that, he never looked back.
"There's nothing more rewarding than being in the position where everybody's told you that you can't do it, and then, when you've succeeded, their heads are spinning trying to figure it out."
The Dallas cityscape -- visible from the floor-to-ceiling windows that enclose Ryan's penthouse office on the 26th floor of Three Galleria Tower -- serves as a picture-perfect backdrop for his message: Don't stop, and you'll eventually find a path forward.
After all, his is quite literally a ►view from the top, and it was a scramble to get there. One of the reasons he loves UNT so much, he says, is that he feels a kinship with its gritty persona: a university filled with determined bootstrappers who consistently find a way to defy expectations.
"UNT is a place where kids come who may not have had every advantage in life," Ryan says. "But we take that raw material and convert it into something that becomes successful and powerful and helps move our society forward."
As his company took off -- Ryan's more than 2,600 professionals and associates currently serve over 14,000 clients in more than 50 countries -- Ryan saw his clout significantly broaden. But his ►childhood taught him that money and power aren't the only markers of success, and certainly not of happiness. What he decided to do with his newfound influence -- now that would be the true measure of greatness.
The historic Hotel Settles in Big Spring -- which, for a brief time in the 1930s, stood as the tallest building between Fort Worth and El Paso -- closed its doors in 1980, two years before Ryan hightailed it to North Texas State. In 2006, he decided it was time to polish the once-sparkling West Texas gem, leading to a $31 million renovation. The hotel's return to grandeur garnered Big Spring some much-needed attention, including a feature about the town's history in a March 2013 issue of Texas Monthly.
"I got this crazy idea that we could restore the hotel as a gift to the city," says Ryan who, when the hotel officially reopened in late 2012, placed a portrait of his late mother, Virginia, above the landing of its grand staircase. "Now, downtown Big Spring is no longer dilapidated and abandoned with tumbleweeds blowing through it. We started out trying to do right, and it's worked out really well."
Closer to home, Ryan set his sights on providing up-and-coming accounting students with opportunities to learn the ropes. Ginny Kissling ('95, '95 M.S.) was a senior at UNT when she began her internship with Ryan in May of 1992, eventually signing on as the firm's seventh employee.
"Everybody always worked together for a common cause -- to help our clients and bring value to the organization," says Kissling, who is now the company's chief operating officer. "We're still the same company today, despite having many more people on a global scale. It's funny thinking about how far we've come, and how all of Brint's plans came true. He's always been someone who leads by example -- even today, he'll still roll up his sleeves and get in the trenches to help the team."
Ryan also wanted to encourage social responsibility among his employees, which led to The Ryan Foundation in 2011. The foundation addresses health, education needs and poverty, supporting key beneficiaries such as the American Heart Association, Habitat for Humanity and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, as well as providing assistance to employees in need at Ryan. Additionally, he and Amanda advocate for organizations such as Communities in Schools of the Dallas Region, Caring for Children Foundation of Texas, Friends of Wednesday's Child and Camp Sweeney for Juvenile Diabetes.
And then there's Ryan's unwavering dedication to UNT. He's donated to athletics, university galas and scholarship funds, including a $1 million gift to the Department of Accounting in 2007. His company also is a presenting sponsor of UNT's Kuehne Speaker Series, which raises money for student scholarships.
It's little wonder, then, that Ryan received UNT's Distinguished Alumni Award in 2009 and the Wings of Eagles Presidential Award in 2017. Not only has he made a difference through philanthropy, but also as chairman of the Board of Regents, a position to which he was named in 2013. Since that time, he's overseen the addition of a law school at UNT Dallas, the UNT Health Science Center's partnership with Texas Christian University, and new construction, programs and leadership at the flagship campus.
"We have taken UNT from being the best-kept secret in higher education to becoming a phenomenon in the region," Ryan says. "We're going to continue to be a force in this region and throughout the world."
Ryan's dad, George Alden Ryan, spent most of his career at the East Vealmoor Gas Plant, a job whose main joy consisted of putting food on the table. So when his son told him he might defer his start at North Texas State until his girlfriend graduated from Big Spring High, the elder Ryan's response was straight to the point: "Hell no."
"It was 'go to college or get a job at the refinery,'" Ryan says. "And that wasn't a hard choice."
Though he had no degree of his own, George clearly saw that a university education could alter the course of his ►son's future. Ryan takes his father's vision a step further: He believes in education as the great equalizer, a path to transforming not just individual lives but entire generations. His daughters have no interest in the tax business -- "They think all dad does is sit behind a computer and talk on the phone all day," he laughs -- but they will follow in his footsteps in one regard: pursuing a career not out of financial necessity, but because it's their calling.
"I can just hear him telling our daughters now, 'Girls, sometimes you have to fail in order to succeed,' which is what he also stresses to young professionals just beginning their careers," Amanda says. "Brint not only talks the talk, he walks the walk when it comes to supporting UNT. With this gift and the renaming of the College of Business, we want each student who walks through these doors to walk out with the knowledge, determination and grit to succeed in life -- just like Brint."
Ryan acknowledges the journey can seem impossible at times -- he's been there. But the important thing, he says, is to stick with it.
"When I first came to North Texas, I had no idea where I was going and no idea how to get there," he says. "I was wild and undisciplined, and frankly more suited for the ranches of West Texas than I was for the halls of academia. I came here with a lot of growing up to do, and it happened right here on this campus. The signal I want to come from this gift is 'Wow -- if he can do it, anybody can do it.'"
At far left: Ryan with his younger sister Natalie and their dog, Toby T. Tobias. Ryan is the oldest of his siblings, who also include Kris Ryan and Kory Ryan.
Middle: His mother Virginia and father George with Ryan after his UNT graduation ceremony in 1988. Ryan was inspired to pursue a career in accounting after taking classes from professors Horace Brock and Hershel Anderson.
At far right: Ryan, Amanda and three of their five daughters – Annabelle, Victoria and Mary Rae – stand next to the certificate of appreciation that was awarded to Ryan on Feb. 4. The couple's two oldest daughters are Beth, a freshman at Notre Dame, and Sarah, a high school senior.
The $30M gift will create at least six endowed chairs and provide funding for academic program initiatives over a seven-year schedule. The gift's initiatives will be aimed at increasing the reputation, prestige and ranking of the G. Brint Ryan College of Business. The areas of focus will include:
- Year 1: $6M
$6M for three $2M endowed chairs
- Taxation and Tax Research
- Year 2: $4M
$2M for one $2M endowed chair
- Year 3: $4M
$2M for one $2M endowed chair
- Information Technology and Cybersecurity
- Year 4: $4M
$2M for one $2M endowed chair
- Behavioral Accounting
- Years 5-7: $12M
$4M each year for strategic program initiatives