“My intention is to keep working and be a mentor at least another 10 years.”
The Story of Ray Ward’s Laboratory
Just 30 percent of family businesses make it to the next generation, and only 10 percent are passed to the third generation.* Ward Laboratories, Inc., is beating the odds, and the story of its success is closely tied to University of Nebraska’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture.
After graduating from Fairbury Junior College, Ray Ward, president of Ward Laboratories, Inc., continued his studies at the Nebraska, earning a bachelor’s in 1959 and a master’s in 1961.
According to Ward, three soil instructors—R. A. Olson, H. F. Rhodes and Robert L. Fox—influenced a lot of what he does today. “Those guys were excellent instructors, and I learned an awful lot.”
After graduation Ward went to work at South Dakota State University, where he attained a doctorate in 1972. When the dean of agriculture, Duane Acker, started a research extension center in Redfield, South Dakota, he sent Ward to get it going. Acker later became the first vice chancellor of the University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which was established April 1, 1974.
Ward then started two more labs: a research extension center for Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and a commercial soil testing laboratory for Servi-Tech in Dodge City, Kansas. For the latter project, Ward designed the building, put the lab equipment together, hired and trained the people and created the software to print results. “After developing that whole system, we started making money, and I began to think maybe I could do that myself,” he said.
Taking a Risk
At an irrigation convention in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Ed Curry of Curry Seeds joked that Ward should start a soil testing lab in Elk Point, South Dakota. The nine-hour drive back to Dodge City gave Ward and his wife Jolene plenty of time to give that idea some serious thought. “By the time we got home, I’d decided to try it,” he said. But not in Elk Point.
While the early 1980s were tough years for agriculture, Ward surmised that a laboratory in Kearney, Nebraska, might make it. “The farmers in the Platte River Valley were the only ones with any money,” he said, and “Nebraska guys were used to soil testing.” At the time there were already labs in Scottsbluff, Roscoe, Cozad, Fremont, Lincoln and Omaha.
With the help of Mark Kottmeyer, a Nebraska graduate and crop analyst for Central States Agronomics, Ward went into business for himself in 1983. The first few years were difficult, Ward said, and he struggled to keep the business afloat. By 1988, however, the farm economy began to square up and Ward’s laboratory had survived.
Skipping a Generation
When Ray Ward began to think about business succession planning in the late 1990s, none of his four children were interested, and the idea of selling didn’t feel right. “The laboratory had become another kid, and you just don’t sell kids,” he said.
His oldest grandson, who was 12 at the time, spoke up. “Grandpa, why don’t you keep it and let me run it.” And thus began the beginning of the handoff from grandfather to grandson.
After a few summers interning as an undergraduate, Nick Ward learned more about the family business and confirmed that his boyish dream was a viable career. He changed his major to agronomy and went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Kansas State University in 2007 and 2010. Nick finished his doctoral program at Nebraska in August of 2015, and he now has two years under his belt as the vice president of Ward Laboratories, Inc.
Even as Ward grooms his grandson to continue the family business, it’s clear that he is taking his time. “My intention is to keep working and be a mentor at least another 10 years.”
*George Stalk, Jr. and Henry Foley. Avoid the Traps That Can Destroy Family Businesses. Harvard Business Review, January-February 2012.