Ditchdigger of the Year: Ryan Kinning, Penro Construction

penro construction co

Reflecting on his career path to date, Ryan Kinning, vice president at Penro Construction Co., points to his involvement with NUCA as being instrumental in his professional and personal development. And, fortunately for NUCA, that involvement has helped expand the association’s chapter footprint and member benefits.

In recognition of Kinning’s tireless efforts to strengthen and promote the association, he was named the 2017 Ditchdigger of the Year Award during NUCA’s Convention, March 9, 2018, in San Antonio. Presented annually to a contractor member who has made a significant contribution to NUCA and the underground utility construction and excavation industry, the Ditchdigger of the Year is NUCA’s most prestigious award.

Kinning acknowledges that he isn’t a typical candidate for an award like this considering that Penro is an 18-person company based in Pender, Nebraska – population of just over 1,000. The fact that Kinning was able to make a difference on the national stage comes down to one word: involvement.

“You don’t have to be from a $100 million company to make a difference,” Kinning said. “By getting involved in committees and local chapters, you can make a difference in the industry. And you can make a difference right away. I encourage everyone to pick a committee that they are interested in and participate.”

A Leap of Faith

Kinning is a second-generation contractor whose father, Arlis (Bud) Kinning Jr., was a founding partner in Penro Construction. The company was incorporated in 1971 by three original partners in northeastern Nebraska. Christiansen Construction Co. of Pender, Kinning of Rosalie, and Cliff Albin of Oakland, joined together to form an underground utility construction company. The three partners combined the names of their home towns to come up with the name “Penro.”

Albin sold his shares to the other two partners in the mid-1970s, and Christiansen sold all of its shares to Kinning in 1986, making him the sole owner. Kinning would remain the sole owner until his son, Mark, started buying into the company in 1997. Upon Bud’s retirement in January 2000, brothers Mark and Ryan purchased all stocks of Penro from their father and remain equal partners in the business today.

Ryan grew up in the construction industry but wasn’t always sure that construction would be his career path. “I was exposed to construction at an early age and I knew the opportunity was there, but it wasn’t something that I was planning on,” he said. “Then I started working for the company during the summers as I got older, and I found that I liked it a lot better than I thought I would and decided to make a career out of it.”

Ryan began his career as a laborer and served in several capacities in the field before returning to the office. The pivotal moment came in 2000, when Ryan and Mark bought out their father’s shares to become company co-owners. “That was a leap of faith, and I jumped in head first,” said Ryan, who was 23 years old at the time.

The 2000s proved to be a challenging time for utility contractors in the area, as well as nationally. “After we bought the company in 2000, we were able to grow the business steadily, even though we faced a very difficult market,” Ryan said. “There were times that there were 15 bidders for every job and the margins were very tight. You had to bid just about every job that came out to make sure you had work. Now we are starting to see better margins and contractors are able to be more selective on the jobs they bid.”

Penro’s bread-and-butter is competitively bid municipal projects that involve pipe installation or replacement. “We build treatment plants, well houses, and lift stations but there has to be pipe on the job to get us interested.”

As he approaches his 20th anniversary as co-owner, and the business’ 50th anniversary, Ryan says his outlook has evolved along with the company. “When I first started, I thought owning a construction business would be a good way to provide for my family,” said Ryan, who has two children, Max and Corinne, with his wife, Holly. “But the more time you put into the company and the bigger it gets, your perspective changes. You are no longer providing for just your family, but you are helping your employees provide for theirs as well. There’s a lot of responsibility with that and your decisions affect a lot of people. Construction gives you a chance to make a difference in the community also.”

Workforce development is key for the future of the industry. “Hiring employees is the No. 1 challenge we face,” Ryan said. “It is especially difficult for us being in a rural area with a limited pool of prospects and the task of attracting people not only to the industry but to a town of 1,000 people. We have been fortunate to have a great core group of employees, but finding enough people to take us to the next level is difficult. And once you get those employees you have to work hard to retain them.”

NUCA Connection

Ryan attended his first NUCA Convention as a fourth-grader, as Bud and his wife, Charlene, regularly attended the event, occasionally bringing family along. “The thing we really enjoyed about NUCA was the Annual Convention,” Bud said. “My wife and I went nearly every year through the 80s and mid 90s. The classes and the equipment shows were great but we really enjoyed the networking with other contractors from around the country the most. I learned a lot talking to them.”

While Penro has been a NUCA member for 40 years, Ryan didn’t begin his association involvement until relatively recently.

In 2009, Ryan, believing there was adequate interest, called NUCA to inquire about starting a Nebraska State Chapter. He was a vital member of the initial contractor champions group in Nebraska. Due to their efforts, NUCA of Nebraska was presented a NUCA chapter charter in 2010. Ryan was the chapter’s second president and his vision and early leadership laid the foundation that has guided the chapter through growth and change. He continues to serve and actively participate in the chapter, which has grown to become a strong, active, and effective NUCA-affiliated chapter.

Ryan credits his involvement with the association in helping shape him professionally as well. “Getting involved with NUCA as an officer was an eye opener,” he said. “You learn the difference between being a leader and being a boss pretty quickly when you are in a room full of bosses. You have to take a different approach, and that has impacted how I do things within my own company. “

Another benefit is interacting with peers who you would otherwise only see sitting across the table at bid lettings. “When the only time you see your competitors is in a competitive environment you tend to not make an effort to get to know them. Once you do you are surprised just how much we are all alike. I’ve met some of my best friends through working within NUCA and our chapter.”

kinning family
(L-r) Holly, Ryan, Bud and Charlene Kinning after the awards presentation.

Serving three terms on NUCA National’s Board of Directors, Ryan readily shared ideas, asked tough questions and challenged the status quo. He naturally fell into the Chairmanship of NUCA’s Chapter Development Subcommittee and has strategically worked to widen and strengthen NUCA’s reach by using a bordering states model that uses existing chapters to help develop neighboring regions. The accelerated formation of NUCA of Greater Kansas City Region was largely the result of Ryan visiting or calling prospective members in neighboring Missouri and Kansas developing a group of contractor champions, who now comprise one of NUCA’s largest chapters.

Ryan’s most recent work has been in North Dakota, where in just a few days he garnered enough contractor interest to hold a successful “kickoff” meeting this past January. Ryan continues to advise, encourage and help NUCA National develop chapters in other states, including Arkansas, Arizona and Maryland. And he shows no signs of slowing down.

Ryan is a top-notch recruiter and believes that solid member benefits help him recruit. He believes more members means a stronger organization, which makes a stronger industry, which helps everyone. You will often hear Ryan say, “a high tide raises all boats.”

Ryan was instrumental in developing the new NUCA Advantage benefit for members. This program works with members to find their best alternatives in health insurance, life insurance, and 401k retirement plans, and uses creative tools to help members retain their key employees. “We rolled out the health insurance last fall and there has been an overwhelming response to that. We are rolling out the rest of the program now and we expect that to be well received also. Our members are saving money on the products that they need and this program will serve as a source of much needed non-dues revenue for NUCA and its chapters. It’s really a win-win for everyone.”

“Ryan Kinning is not just an ambassador for NUCA, he is a soldier,” said NUCA past chair Kara Habrock. “His boots are on the ground and he keeps charging. He plants the NUCA flag wherever he goes—representing our industry with pride and passion, while truly relating the contractor experience to the advantages of NUCA membership. He is a true believer in ‘NUCA first.’ ”

RELATED: Associate of the Year: Gary Lawson

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