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Innovating to Thrive, and Giving Back (with Larry J. Rybka)

November 10th, 2020

Listen to the Bigger Than Business Podcast’s interview with Larry J. Rybka on your favorite podcast providers!

How do you continually innovate to keep your company relevant and thriving? How do you assemble a team capable of taking what you’ve built into the future?  How can the Golden Rule shape your business and affect change throughout the world?

After taking over the family business unexpectedly with only three years’ executive experience under his belt, Larry J. Rybka able to help grow Valmark Financial Group into an industry leader by constantly adapting to change, and building a team, second-to-none, that maintains the high standards and values his family established from the start.  Listen as Larry shares the importance of why companies must be constantly innovating, making sure they have the right team in place, and then giving back to communities to grow relationships.


Larry is a second-generation owner, Chairman, and CEO of Valmark Financial Group, the premier Broker Dealer of Choice for High Integrity Financial Firms.  Valmark Financial Group was founded in 1963 by Larry’s father, Larry S. Rybka and has become an esteemed national powerhouse.   Larry is a published author, has written numerous industry articles and White Papers, is often interviewed and quoted in publications like the Wall Street Journal, and has testified before the Ohio legislature on industry matters. Larry received a Distinguished Business Alumni Award, Outstanding Financial Executive Award, and the Lincoln Financial American Award, as well as awards for his authoring of journals and articles. Larry is an active contributor to several organizations including the Association for Advanced Underwriting, the Million Dollar Roundtable, the Institute for Certified Financial Planning, the University of Akron, and as a Board Member of Arise Rwanda Ministries.  Larry earned a BS in Finance from the University of Akron and his Juris Doctorate from Wake Forest University.  Larry, his wife Wendy, and their four children live in the Akron, Ohio area.

Formula for Success: Innovation + The Golden Rule

By Jeff Holler

What’s the secret to taking the reins of a family business and earning the respect of employees and your industry? Instead of reacting to change, how do you embrace it as a catalyst for growth? And what can be done to ensure a pipeline of capable leaders to succeed you, even if they may not arise from within your own family?

Larry J. Rybka was thrust into a position of leadership unexpectedly, forcing him to rely upon and collaborate with others. This profoundly shaped his leadership style, which in turn propelled his company forward and eventually helped revolutionize their corner of the financial services industry.

His story began after law school when Larry, a second-generation member of the ownership family, joined what is now Valmark Financial Group. Following in his father’s footsteps, the plan was to become familiar with various aspects of the business and work his way up. That changed overnight.

“Just three years into the business, my dad was diagnosed with a very serious case of colon cancer. I immediately got thrown in the deep end of the pool and had to take over leadership. The next 18 months for me was the equivalent of five years of growth in normal times.”

Fortunately, members of the company already had some confidence in Larry thanks to a strategic approach for vetting his skills.

When Larry joined the company, “we used an Organizational Psychologist to help navigate the shift from a father-son relationship to a business partner relationship. Dr Wilson impressed on us the importance that I not just be my father’s helper. I had to take responsibility for something that would measure whether I was making a difference and validate – for both me and the people I worked with – that I was contributing value.”

This is the same guidance Larry echoes to young people today.

“You’re not going to know everything about everything when you start off. But learn almost everything there is to know in one area you can master. Then you gain credibility.”

Allowing Larry to first master one aspect of the business helped him earn the respect of key employees. The question was, would their support continue as he took the helm?

Upon taking over, his responsibilities instantly multiplied, shifting from an internal product manager, to running the overall business, keeping employees and existing advisors happy, and trying to grow the firm.

The key to winning trust was how he involved others in decision-making.

“You can sometimes feel when you’re under pressure that you have to make decisions right away. Sure, if it really is an important decision, then you need to be decisive. But if you don’t know the answer, it’s always okay to say, ‘I don’t know and I need to think or get more information.’ In Proverbs it says ‘there is wisdom in many counselors.’ Having a group of people you can run things by is vital.”

Involving others in the company not only produced better answers, it forced everyone around Larry to be proactive, think of solutions for themselves, and in turn become more collaborative with the company’s independent financial advisors, or member firms. This would end up becoming the secret to Valmark’s unique adaptability and industry-leading innovations.

“A lot of times, in bigger companies, they get some wonderful idea and after it’s all baked and done they serve it up and nobody wants it.”

Instead, Valmark listens to the issues its member firms are trying to solve and then involves them to develop and pilot new programs.

“We ask them, ‘this problem you’re trying to solve – is there a way we could try this together and then get some scale before rolling it out?’ If we wait until we get it to 100% it will never come off the factory line. So, we use the 80% solution Dan Sullivan (of Strategic Coach) talks about. Can you get it to 80% and try it? Then improve it by another 80% and you’re up to 96%.”

This source of innovation – collaborating with financial advisors who are closest to the needs of clients – has also become the key to growing revenue.

“If I look at our revenue today, I’d say 75% to 80% of it comes from products and services that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago. You have to keep reinventing whatever you’re doing to keep it relevant because things change, and if you’re not changing with it, you’re losing market share or you’re in a business that’s just declining.”

As many industries have demonstrated, the race to constantly innovate can result in sacrificing quality. But since its founding, one principle has guided all interactions and everything the company creates and sells: The Golden Rule.

“We just ask ourselves, ‘Would I buy this product if my own financial future depended on it?’ That’s a pretty good baseline question. Then you don’t need an eight-page disclosure telling the client all the things that will go wrong. If you wouldn’t buy it yourself, you just don’t sell it.”

In our interview we also dive into how that simple rule became the bedrock of the company and why it has made Valmark “The Broker-Dealer of Choice for High Integrity Financial Firms.” It also led to the creation of their Global Gift Fund, which donates 10% of all company profits, totaling $4 million and counting.

I also asked Larry about a truly innovative approach they pioneered to ensure a reliable pipeline of bright employees and leaders. That was important, because recruiting top talent to move to the harsh winters of Akron was not an easy sell.

“We decided to build our own ‘farm team.’ We partnered with the University of Akron to create a CFP Program.”

The program ensures that graduates can sit for the Certified Financial Planner exam by supplementing their Finance degree with courses in tax, estate planning and other key skills.

“We started hiring interns out of that program, often those working to put themselves through college, so we know they have a work ethic. Twenty years later, we have 38 employees that came out of that program, including our President and COO, our Chief Financial Officer, and Director of Operations and HR. These people already live in Akron so it’s the lowest-risk hire we ever make, and they stick.”

The program has been so successful that it was the model for what has become arguably the finest CFP program in the country, at Texas Tech University.

To learn more about how Valmark created a robust internal culture, developed processes and products that revolutionized its industry, and established an impact around the globe that is Bigger Than Business, I invite you to listen to this full and fascinating interview with Larry J. Rybka.