Despite his enormous success, Brint Ryan has remained largely under the radar in his industry. Courtesy of UNT

Business

Brint Ryan: The Tax Man Cometh

After a hardscrabble upbringing, the Ryan LLC CEO built a fortune by saving companies big bucks on their taxes. Here’s how he battled his way to the top.

Brint Ryan and his bandmates were grooving at Big Spring High’s senior talent contest. But near the end of their five-song set, the amplifiers suddenly quit, and the music died. Maybe the hard rock was too raucous or the lyrics too suggestive for the Bible Belt community—“We’re gettin’ funny in the back of my car; I’m sorry, honey, if I took you just a little too far… By morning you’ll be mine, yes, all mine…” Whatever the case, a government teacher named Tommy Adams cut power to the mics and Ryan’s rhythm guitar, as the class president and his garage band covered Van Halen’s 1978 hit, “Feel Your Love Tonight.”

It’s hard to silence Ryan now.

The Washington Post calls Ryan a Republican mega-donor with outsized influence. He made a news-grabbing run for the Dallas City Council and built his Ryan LLC into a thriving tax consulting firm with nearly 3,000 employees in 50 countries, generating an estimated $630 million in revenue for 2020. In one notable case, the firm clawed back more than $100 million in taxes overpaid by Texas Instruments. The goal is to make Ryan LLC globally branded “as the Amazon of tax,” the company’s founder says over iced tea at his 20,000-square-foot home, an estate on Strait Lane that’s tax-appraised at $17.9 million.

A young Ryan with his younger sister, Natalie, and their puppy.
Courtesy of Brint Ryan
A young Ryan with boxing gloves he received for Christmas.
Courtesy of Brint Ryan

Last year, Ryan was the recipient of the prestigious Horatio Alger Award, which recognizes “personal initiative and perseverance, leadership, commitment to excellence, belief in the free-enterprise system and the importance of higher education, community service, and the vision and determination to achieve a better future.” Cited was Ryan’s overcoming a difficult, working-class upbringing.

His teenage parents had eloped to Mexico to marry. Both abused alcohol, which led to arguments and physical violence, states a remarkably frank company biography. Ryan and his sister picked up the drinking habit, too. A DWI accident would leave her wheelchair-bound—a wake-up call for Ryan that was tragically reinforced when his mother was run over and killed by a drunk driver. Sober since November 1990, Ryan says, “I felt I was headed down the same path.”

A seventh-generation Irish-American, George Brinton “Brint” Ryan was the eldest of four children. His mother sold insurance. His father, a gas plant worker, had played on a state champion basketball team and pushed Ryan into sports. But he was never the athlete his dad wanted. He loved music, and when he asked for a $145 eight-track stereo, Ryan was told to get a job, sparking a tireless work ethic. He threw papers for the Big Spring Herald, then sacked groceries at Safeway. He worked 20 hours a week at a Piggly Wiggly in college, getting hired as a bag boy and ending as an assistant manager.

Ryan attended North Texas State (now the University of North Texas), which would change his life trajectory. But it wasn’t an easy transition. “I was scared to death, I mean absolutely scared to death,” he says of arriving in Denton as the first in his immediate family to attend college. “It was 1982, and I didn’t know a soul. I was sitting there, a kid from Big Spring in this new world, looking at the backgrounds of other people.” Not until then did Ryan realize where his family stood on the socio-economic ladder. “It was truly intimidating,” he says. “I was so focused; I poured myself into my work. When I got a 3.9 my very first semester at North Texas, I was so upset because—you know what?—I made a B in Phys. Ed. That blew my 4.0. I got a four-point my next semester.”

When he left for college, Ryan couldn’t wait to put Big Spring in the rearview mirror of his secondhand Buick. (“I wanted to get out of there; I wanted to get away from my dad,” he says.) But the prodigal son returned decades later to restore the Hotel Settles, a 1930s, 15-story edifice that towers over the city. (See sidebar on page 35.)

At UNT, Brint Ryan took advantage of a five-year program that earned him both a bachelor of science degree and a master’s in accounting. And he has repaid the school for what it gave him, perhaps more than anyone. A regent appointed by former Gov. Rick Perry, he pledged $30 million in 2019, a record gift for the state school. As a result, the department where he once studied is now the G. Brint Ryan College of Business.

Brint Ryan with parents at college graduation
With his proud parents, Virginia and George, after graduating in 1988 with dual B.S. and mater’s degrees in accounting.
Courtesy of Brint Ryan

David Wolf, UNT’s vice president of university advancement, recalls the time he approached Ryan for support. “I did not intend to solicit a naming gift that day,” Wolf says. “We did always know that Brint would be the first we would ask.” Nonetheless, he let the idea slip, saying, “The College of Business should have G. Brint Ryan as its name … let’s dream about that.”

Ryan was “super-enthusiastic,” Wolf recalls, quoting him as saying: “Let’s talk about that; let’s focus on that.” They spoke several times a week over two months, and the gift evolved in such a way that it would provide funds to be matched by research grants over the years, creating a multiplier effect.

Mystery Man

“Who the hell is this Ryan LLC?” Peter Reilly, a Forbes tax blogger, recalls asking himself last year. “If they were a CPA firm, they’d be in the top 20, and I would have heard of them.” A PR company had pestered Reilly to cover an acquisition by the firm, but the reporter found Brint Ryan himself more intriguing. “He built one of the biggest accounting firms without being an accounting firm by doing arcane state and local tax things. Lots of money involved, but no one understands them.”

“If you prepare well and don’t give up, and you just fight until it goes all the way to the end, you can have real success.”

It was not a direct path for the hard-charging West Texan. At UNT, Ryan enjoyed tax work and was recruited by Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC). Involuntarily transferred from a federal tax position with the firm to its new state tax section, Ryan was dispatched with scant preparation to Waco to reduce taxes for a food processor. He succeeded, largely by getting in the face of a veteran auditor with the Texas Comptroller’s Office for eight weeks. Ryan convinced the auditor, Joe Tom Black, that a conveyor belt should be exempt because it creates a hexagonal pattern on the bottom of chocolate bars as they traveled from a molding machine to a packager, making it part of the untaxed “manufacturing” process. In the end, the company’s $102,000 tax assessment was reduced to practically zero. “I think Black had had enough of being in front of this snotty-nosed kid who wouldn’t give up, who would argue every single transaction,” Ryan says.

The young accountant found his calling in reverse audits. “I kept tossing bean bags—every argument I could think of. If you prepare well and don’t give up, and you just fight until it goes all the way to the end, you can have real success. You can bring real value to clients.”

When his supervisor, Chris Collis, left C&L, and other senior staff were transferred, Ryan was left in charge of 600 employees—but without the title or the commensurate salary. He also found himself “nurse-maiding,” a new boss. Meanwhile, Collis had opened a small CPA firm and signed up clients, “but had no one to do the actual work.” At 27, Ryan joined Collis. It was 1991, and they scored early by saving a client $350,000 in taxes, earning the new partners a $60,000 fee. “It was the biggest check I had ever seen in my life,” Ryan says.

By the end of 1993, the renamed Collis & Ryan had scaled up to 15 employees, but Collis wanted to spend weekends on the fairway rather than at the office. “I was fed up, tired of doing all the work,” Ryan says, and finally told Collis: “If you don’t want to be part of this anymore, I’ll buy your interest out.” A profanity-infused confrontation erupted when Ryan handed him a dollar figure scribbled on a Post-it. “You little son of a—I’ll fire you,” Collis responded, Ryan says. But the following Monday, Collis smilingly accepted a revised offer. The 29-year-old Ryan and his partners had cobbled together $250,000 to buy the firm and create Ryan & Co. (renamed Ryan LLC in 2007).

Brint Ryan
Ryan was presented with UNT’s Wings of Eagles Presidential Award in 2017 for his longtime and robust support of the university.
Courtesy of Brint Ryan

The year 1993 was a milestone for another reason. Smitten by an SMU graduate hired on a temporary basis, Ryan invited her to lunch. Amanda Sutton hardly said a word, but let it slip that her longtime boyfriend was backpacking in Europe that summer. “The only thought that went through my mind was, ‘I’ve got three months,’” Ryan recalls. “I was seven years older. She probably thought I was an old man.” Using “every persuasive skill I possessed,” Ryan won her over by summer’s end. The couple married and went on to have five daughters. Years later, Ryan asked his wife if she was glad she accepted that lunch invitation. “As I recall it,” she replied, “you weren’t all that successful until we met.”

Global Expansion

Ryan LLC shed its CPA practice and set itself apart by brazenly approaching clients of major accounting firms, offering to ferret out hefty tax refunds on a contingency basis of about 30 percent, not the usual hourly fee. “The interesting thing about the business is, it does well when times are good,” Ryan says. “It does extraordinarily well when times are bad.”

But it hasn’t been all home runs. While expanding around the world, Ryan LLC pulled out of Latin America because of myriad difficulties. In Mexico, for example, it found vast overpayments of value-added tax at one company. “But it has this crazy rule that if you file a refund claim, they can audit your books, and can go back 10 years,” Ryan says. Then there was a bizarre standoff with a prospective U.S client. Ryan LLC sued Advanced Micro Devices for refusing to try to recoup $30 million in overpaid taxes identified by the Dallas firm, thereby depriving it of a huge fee, according to a 2012 article in The New York Times. The two parties settled out of court.

Like attorneys able to finance a judge’s election campaign, little stops Ryan LLC from pouring millions into war chests of successive Texas state comptrollers and gubernatorial candidates, among others. Or from hiring former comptroller John Sharp and the deputy executive director of Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund, which benefited many Ryan clients. And the firm hasn’t been shy about touting its clout. “At Ryan & Co., we don’t just react to Texas tax changes. We engineer them,” reads a company brochure, quoted by The Dallas Morning News in 2005. 

Ryan entered the political arena himself in 2009 with an astonishingly brutal run for Dallas’ District 13 seat. By far the city’s costliest council race, Ryan spent more than $1 million of his own money—$170 per vote received. At one point, he sued his opponent, businesswoman Ann Margolin, for slander, libel, and defamation, and asked a court to gag her with a restraining order.  He wasn’t enraged over Margolin digging up Ryan’s 16 speeding tickets, including one for hitting 104 mph in a 60-mph zone. It was her citing a $482,000 tax lien on his home. Ryan said it was an IRS error—and a year later, the agency issued an apology for the mistake. The sparring candidates settled out of court during the race, with Margolin agreeing not to bring up the lien again. Ryan got 43 percent of votes; Margolin, who spent less than $200,000, won with 57 percent.

Having set politics aside, Ryan continued to drive exponential growth at his company. The firm’s end-to-end tax services platform includes tax recovery, consulting, advocacy, compliance, and technology. It serves clients in all major industries, from blockchain and cryptocurrency to utilities. It also has a group that works on credits, incentives, and site selection, and in October 2018, hired Maher Maso, the former mayor who helped engineer Frisco’s remarkable growth, as principal.

That same month, Toronto-based Onex Corp. acquired a 42 percent stake in Ryan LLC for $317 million; at the time of the transaction, the firm’s valuation was set at $1.1 billion. Ryan said in a statement, “In recent years, we’ve significantly expanded our business, adding new service lines and growing our premium client roster. With the backing of Onex, we’ll continue this momentum.”

Ryan LLC also has grown its reputation as a culture pioneer in the financial services industry. The movement was sparked when Kristi Bryant handed in her resignation at the firm a dozen years ago. At the time, she had no idea she was triggering a radical makeover of the company. Planning to wed in March 2008, she and her fiancé had decided that her long hours at work would not a compatible marriage make. Sixty to 80-hour workweeks were not uncommon. “I was overwhelmed and overworked,” she says. “Things were coming to a head.”

In Brint Ryan’s own words, the firm had gained a reputation as a “sweatshop,” where 50-55 hours a week were mandatory, and anything more was worn by employees as a “badge of honor.” But not Bryant.

To Ryan’s credit, he asked if they could discuss her decision, telling her, “Hey, if you want to stick around, let’s tackle this together.” After some coaxing, she laid it out; it was a stunning blow for the CEO. “The moment caused me to take inventory of what was changing,” Ryan says. “It pushed us to think big, to challenge our way of doing work.”

G. Brint Ryan College of Business at UNT
The G. Brint Ryan College of Business at UNT, so named in 2019 after Ryan made a record-breaking $30 million gift to his alma mater.
Courtesy of UNT

What evolved was myRyan—a system-wide flex-time platform. The move was at least five years ahead of competitors. “What we didn’t fully appreciate was just how revolutionary the idea was,” Ryan says. Bryant agrees. “It was a major shift,” she says. MyRyan is a system built on trust, where people can work from home, as long as they meet goals and connect on Zoom meetings, she explains.

If Ryan LLC’s Glassdoor rating is any indication, the approach is working. It currently polls 4.6 out of 5 overall, with Brint Ryan given a 98 percent approval rating as CEO. Bryant, now a principal who will mark her 19th year at the firm in 2021, is not surprised. “Brint’s draw is his transparency, his ability to bring the firm together, to have us aligned with the same goals.” After all, destinations are reached much easier and faster when everyone is rowing in the same direction.

Hometown Hero

Decades after leaving Big Spring, Brint Ryan returned to invest in and reinvigorate its downtown.

After reconnecting with old friends at a 20-year high school reunion in 2002, prodigal son Brint Ryan decided to help his hometown by saving the historic Hotel Settles. Acquired by the city in foreclosure, the iconic property had been left derelict for three decades. Several deals to revive it had failed, and it was continually raided by teenaged vandals, including the police chief’s son, once tracked down by Brint’s brother, Kris. Ryan snapped up the property for $75,000. As the renovation went along, its budget mushroomed from $9 million to $31 million, with Ryan deciding to create a first-class, destination hotel, with a restaurant, cocktail lounge, landscaped pool area, and a posh penthouse suite designed for his family’s needs. Soon, a plaza next door, Reunion Park, will be graced by bronze sculptures of Ryan, his wife Amanda, their five daughters, and a dozen other relatives. Big Spring covered $3 million of the restoration, and various tax incentives added $15 million, Ryan says.

After Ryan gave the iconic Hotel Settles in Big Spring a massive, $31 million renovation, the property reopened in 2012.
Courtesy of Hotel Settles
Brint Ryan is making real estate investments in his hometown of Big Spring, including a dramatic redo of the historic Hotel Settles.
Courtesy of Hotel Settles

Still, skepticism in town was rife that he’d finish the four-year project, let alone ever make a profit. But, fortuitously, the hotel reopened in 2012, when West Texas crude was $94 a barrel—a boon to the region, says Jeff Trigger, who served as a project consultant. Even Trigger thought it would be lucky for Hotel Settles to break even, says architect Norman Alston. But the property has been profitable every year until 2020 when COVID-19 and oil prices proved a double whammy, Ryan says. Kris Ryan, who was selected by Brint to manage the complicated restoration, despite having no relevant experience, proved more than up to the task, Trigger says. And now, the quietly competent brother is restoring a slew of other crumbling landmark properties Ryan has since acquired.

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