Fostering a new mindset

July 3, 2011

Bulletin Staff Writer

Larry Ryder and his wife, Elaine, were the first in their families to go to college. He became a Certified Public Accountant; she became a teacher.

So when their two sons were growing up, there was no question that they would go on to college.

Ryder hopes that will become the norm here.

 “It is no longer acceptable just to have a high school degree; not even just an associate degree. Until we can change the mindset in the community” so that people understand the need for higher education, “we never are going to really turn the corner and be as successful as we can,” Ryder said.

One key to changing that mindset is the New College Institute, which offers the final two years of bachelor’s degree programs and some master’s degrees in Martinsville. And that is why Ryder, as chairman of The Harvest Foundation board, is working 20 to 30 hours a week on the effort to make NCI a branch of a state university.

Three universities are courting NCI, and all three have said that if they become its partner, they would come into the community and work with schools, churches and families and “try to talk about why they should be striving for their children to go to their university and get a bachelor’s degree,” Ryder said, who is a retired Hooker Furniture Corp. vice president and CFO.

“Education begets education. Not everybody needs to have a college education,” he said. But “the more education you have, the better off you will be.”

The Harvest Foundation is a key player in the New College negotiations. In January 2004, the foundation put up $50 million to match state funding for the college in Martinsville.  

Harvest was created in 2002 with the $182 million in proceeds of the sale of Memorial Hospital in Martinsville. It invests those proceeds and uses the earnings on local initiatives in the areas of health and welfare, education and community vitality (economic development).

“We feel a university branch here in Martinsville can bring all three of those to the table,” Ryder said.

For instance, all three of the universities — Virginia Commonwealth, Radford and Virginia State — have nursing programs, and VCU has a medical school, he pointed out.

“All bring to the table exceptional educational opportunities for us,” Ryder said. “We believe the fact that we would have a branch here will be a tremendous stimulus” for the local economy through development uptown, more employers coming in, and a better educated work force and training options to attract new employers.

Speaking personally, Ryder said while all three tenants are important, “for me, the overriding necessity is a better educated work force. Better education is a salve for a lot of issues. A better educated population is healthier. A better educated population does better economically. … So, education, for me, is a real linchpin for the whole thing.”

The three universities have submitted proposals for NCI, which has reviewed them and is getting its questions answered, Ryder said. Contractual negotiations will follow, he said, and the hope is that by late August or mid-September, an announcement on a partnership will be made.

“I expect before it’s over, someone will emerge that we think would be better than anyone else. We are fortunate to have three solid choices. … We could be very excited to have any of the three,” he said.

There are many factors to be considered, Ryder said, including the future of Harvest’s $50 million commitment to NCI. Ryder said the foundation expects higher expenses at the start of any partnership as the branch college’s infrastruture is built.

For the first few years, the cost of creating the branch, when calculated per student, will be enormous because of those expenses, he said. “That is not sustainable. … (But) as enrollment grows, we expect the state to pick up more and more funding.”

Harvest wants “to make sure that once we spend that money, we’ve got something that will be here forever,” Ryder said, so performance metrics or expectations likely would be put in place for things such as faculty, staff, ancillary services, student services, enrollment projects and more.

He added that he hopes eventually, NCI will become self-sustaining.

“I hope 10 years from now we will have a branch up and running with state support like any other institution. Harvest could look at other areas that could be beneficial,” such as research, he said.

Harvest also is continuing to work on health care and education initiatives. “We’ve made some good strides there (in area schools). I like to think we had a hand in some of the successes in achievement we’ve had. I think the schools would say we have,” Ryder said.

Harvest will mark its 10th anniversary in 2012, and Ryder said it will evaluate its past and its future. For instance, he wondered, “do we need to re-evaluate what folks said 10 years ago we should be doing?”

Ryder has been on the Harvest board more than two years and its chairman since January. That is a one-year term, and he would not say if he would want to serve another. But as chairman or not, he plans to stay active in Harvest as long as possible.

Ryder said he likes to think of himself as a thoughtful person. “I think things through, think through the consequences, think through the repercussions. If people do that, anybody will start to get a reputation over time for making informed decisions. Hopefully I have made more good ones than bad ones. I take my time and think things through and then be decisive. … That’s the way I’ve lived my life,” he said.

Three decades at Hooker Furniture

That also is the way Ryder worked at Hooker Furniture, where he retired at the end of January as executive vice president, finance and administration, and chief financial officer. He joined Hooker in 1977 after seven years as a CPA with Ernst & Ernst in Richmond. 

That job required a lot of travel, and he and his wife wanted to start a family, so Hooker Furniture and Martinsville seemed like a good choice.

The area was bustling at the time, with thriving furniture and textile industries. “Hooker was doing really well as a manufacturer” of wood furniture, he said.

In 1988, Hooker started importing pieces — small items such as umbrella and plant stands and magazine racks — to supplement what it produced domestically, Ryder said. It still was growing as a manufacturer in the mid-1990s when it bought its last plant, in North Carolina, he said.

After that, however, things started changing quickly. Between 2002 and 2007, Hooker closed its plants in Roanoke, Kernersville, Pleasant Garden and Maiden, N.C., and finally Martinsville, Ryder said.

While those were tough times for the community, they were worse inside the plants, Ryder said.

“We worked as hard as we could to try and keep jobs, but the writing was on the wall. It was so difficult to compete. By that time, imports were approaching if not exceeding some of the quality of what was coming out of the U.S.” and at a lower cost, he said.

Managing these changes was eased by the fact that Hooker’s employees understood what was happening. “They knew we fought hard to keep jobs” but they saw what was happening with textiles and other industries and knew change was coming, he said.

Hooker reinvented itself as an importer, he said. “We’re not the employer we were in those days, but we’re a strong company. We have a good balance sheet, and we made money during the most recent recession. It was not as much as we would have liked, but we made money,” Ryder said.

Hooker now has about 850 employees, including about 200 in distribution and administration in Martinsville. It has an upholstery operation in Hickory, N.C.

The company imports products form China as well as some from Vietnam, Mexico and Honduras. It also exports furniture to China and Russia, which “is one of Hooker’s biggest accounts in recent years,” Ryder said.

To help ensure the quality of imported furniture, Hooker has learned to make sure its suppliers know what the company expects and that dialogue is kept open, he said.

 “Hooker has a lot of people on the ground in China and other countries, making sure the quality is as high as we expect and the flow of products is coming as we expect. It’s a different situation than when you own the property and you’re the employer,” he added.

Ryder said he expects imports to dominate the market for a while. But he said wages are starting to rise in China, and eventually that may help level the competition. Also, China does not have to contend with environmental laws such as those in the U.S. but it will have the same problems and eventually will have the same issues to deal with, he said.

He also expects some consumers will return to buying furniture that will serve a generation, or maybe two, as they find that some of the “disposable” furniture on the market now has to be replaced.

When talking about Hooker, Ryder caught himself saying “we,” despite the fact that he retired from the company at the end of January. He remains on its board of directors.

Ryder’s influence on the company was marked in its 2010 annual report.

“He (Ryder) has the ability to bring consensus and cast a vision for the best of what is possible in our company. ... He has helped perpetuate the culture and values originated by Clyde Hooker,” according to comments in the report in connection with Ryder’s retirement.

Ryder called those kind words, and said he thought a lot of Clyde Hooker, who was the company’s long-time president and chairman. He died in 2010.

Hooker “generally liked people. He felt everyone had a real value. He looked for the best in people. I always told my supervisors when I was employed (that) their job was to look at their employees, find their strengths and hold them up. … Minimize their weaknesses. Always look for the best,” Ryder said.


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