NEW YORK -- On his way to becoming a congressman from his hometown of Janesville, Wis., Paul Ryan worked in a small business -- a construction company with roots that reach back to the firm that his great-grandfather started in 1884.
Although the future GOP vice presidential candidate worked at Ryan Inc. Central doing marketing for just a short time -- from 1997-98 -- that experience may help the Romney-Ryan ticket. The obstacles that small businesses face hiring more workers are among the biggest issues in this presidential election. The perception that Ryan understands their problems could bring in votes -- even though he was chosen largely because of his conservative stance on federal spending.
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"I always appreciate folks who have spent time in the real world," says Nick Balletta, CEO of TalkPoint, a New York firm that runs online broadcasts for businesses. "In the real world, there's payroll that needs to be made, bills that need to be paid and customers that need to be satisfied."
The GOP might convince business owners that despite the brevity of Ryan's time at the company that "it was a valid experience and he would be more likely to understand their situation," says Trey Grayson, director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics. He also may appeal to independent voters including small business owners in parts of states like Wisconsin, Florida, Nevada, Illinois and Michigan that have struggled more than other areas of the country, says David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.
"Ryan helps at some level in certain states," he says. "It's an open question of whether he helps in the big picture."
Both Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden have spent almost all their working lives in politics. Biden was elected to the New Castle, Del., City Council shortly before he turned 27 and to the Senate when he was nearly 30. Ryan was 28 when he was elected to Congress. Biden's resume doesn't include time at a small business, but he talks about the financial struggles of his father, who lost money in business ventures, had to move in with Biden's grandfather and had jobs that included cleaning boilers and managing a car dealership. That has helped voters identify with his middle-class childhood, McCuan says.
"Biden does a really good job of connecting with the common working person" and that appeals to small business owners, he says.
Ryan has that quality as well, and "brings that everyman kind of pitch" to the GOP ticket, McCuan says. That can mitigate the feeling among voters that Romney can't connect with people, he says. But, he adds, both candidates look like a regular guy, someone you'd want to have a beer with.
Biden's experience as vice president is more relevant than his resume. "No matter what the background of Joe Biden was before, that trumps everything else," Grayson says.
Nonetheless, Ryan's small business ties will likely come up during the campaign.
Ryan Inc.'s operations include excavation and building site preparation for commercial and residential construction. It also builds golf courses and creates wetlands. Although it's based in Janesville, much of its work is done elsewhere -- it has offices in Elgin, Ill., and Hagerstown, Md., and has worked on projects across the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast.
"What we do is move piles of dirt from one place to another" using equipment like bulldozers, says Adam Ryan, company president and Paul Ryan's cousin. Their grandfathers were brothers.
The company has between 100 and 125 full-time employees at its three locations and during the construction season, that number rises to between 300 and 500 workers, Adam Ryan says. Ryan Inc. is small enough that it doesn't make the list of the 40 biggest employers in Rock County, where Janesville is located. But the business is highly regarded in the city of nearly 64,000 because of the connection to the Ryan family, says Vic Grassman, Janesville's director of economic development.
The cousins went to high school together but didn't work together at Ryan Inc. Adam joined the firm after Paul was elected to Congress. Paul Ryan, who earned less than $30,000 at Ryan Inc., helped the company "figure out what kind of work we should be pursuing," Adam says.
"My recollection is that it did lead to projects for us," Adam says. Neither he nor the Romney campaign could provide specifics. Paul Ryan doesn't have an ownership stake in the company, according to his cousin and the campaign.
Like other Republican lawmakers, Paul Ryan has called for the repeal of the health care law that the Supreme Court upheld in June. He's critical of government spending and regulations created under the Obama administration. Although Ryan and Romney have campaigned on issues like health care and regulations that affect small companies, Adam Ryan says his biggest concern as a small business owner is getting more sales in a construction environment that remains weak following the recession.
"The biggest challenge for us is a lack of (real estate) development -- people not doing things that require our services," he says.
He says of other issues, "all of that really does pale in comparison to getting more business."
Being part of a big, prominent family in Janesville helped Ryan win his first election to Congress in 1998. The family gained its status from the construction company and today, Ryans are known in the city for being involved in a variety of businesses including concrete and excavation, says Stan Milam, a reporter for the Janesville Gazette. Paul Ryan's father, an attorney, wasn't involved in the construction firm.
Neither campaign would directly address whether they think Ryan's background will boost Romney's chances. The Romney campaign says Ryan understands that the national debt is a drag on job creation and hurts small business. The Obama campaign says Ryan is leaving small business owners in the dust to favor tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.
Groups that lobby on behalf of small businesses say Ryan's ties to small business will help Romney.
"Growing up around a family business provides a firsthand account of the challenges and opportunities facing entrepreneurs. This will be an asset for Ryan out on the campaign trail," says Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council. "What matters most is whether the policies Ryan espouses are the priorities of small business owners, and in this regard he is spot on. Tax simplification, a competitive and affordable health care system, regulatory sanity and sound fiscal policies -- these are the priorities of entrepreneurs."
His specific role at the company may sway some small business owners.
"Having worked in the marketing department, I think he would have learned very quickly that there is no place that a small business can go inexpensively to market themselves," says Ricky Eisen, owner of Between the Bread, a New York caterer. When someone has worked in a small business, "you get a sense of where the angst is," says Eisen.
Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, cautions against putting too much weight on Ryan's small business ties as an election issue. He has followed Ryan since his first congressional election campaign.
"You can overstate the degree to which people need to feel that connection" with Ryan as a small business owner, he says. "This campaign is not going to be won or lost based on the vice president selection."
There's little data on how important a vice presidential nominee is to voters, says Joe Lenski, a cofounder of Edison Research, which conducts voter polls for news organizations including The Associated Press. But, he says, "everyone has pretty much assumed that the running mate does not make much difference in the grand scheme of things."
Still, Harvard's Grayson says, "how do you get small business moving again" is a growing theme this election year -- as are issues like regulation, health care and taxes.
"On the campaign trail, it'll be interesting to see how big a role (Ryan's small business connection) plays," says Grayson. "It's one way to bring some of these issues closer to voters."