Madness to his Method

How one man went from sailing the waters of Narragansett Bay to cleaning the dishes in your kitchen sink.

method[full disclosure:]
Eric Ryan ’96 was even less focused on housework than the average teen. He spent every minute he could sailing his boat across Michigan’s choppy Lake St. Clair, and later Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.

And yet, he has created one of the biggest eco-friendly cleaning supply companies in the world. He says that’s at least partly because of his love for sailing—a passion he pursued as an undergraduate at the University of Rhode Island. Sailing nurtured in him a reverence for the planet that meant, once he (finally) discovered cleaning products, he saw the need to go green.

Ryan and his business partner Adam Lowry call themselves the “proud brainparents’’ (translation: co-founders) of Method, an irreverent, environmentally minded San Francisco-based company that sells 130 products—hand wash, home care products, and laundry detergent—in 40,000 retail stores throughout the world, including Target, Lowe’s, Whole Foods, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Oh, and Ryan is only 41, Lowry a mere 40.

Method has been ranked No. 7 on the Inc. 500 list and No. 16 on Fast Company’s list of the world’s 50 most innovative companies. One of the fastest growing privately held companies in the United States, Method is building its first American manufacturing plant in the historic Pullman neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, a project expected to create hundreds of jobs.

Those accomplishments should be enough for a lifetime, but the accolades keep rolling in. Ryan has been named an “eco-revolutionary’’ by Time magazine and a person of the year by PETA for the company’s no-animal-testing policy. In 2013, Ryan and Lowry received the prestigious Clinton Global Citizen Award for using business as a force for social and environmental good.

“We never knew that making soap would lead to an international business humanitarian award,’’ says Ryan, who lives outside of San Francisco with his wife Ingrid and their three children, ages three to eight. “It was a nice recognition of the social side of our work.’’

Ryan’s life—and quest to make perfect soap—reads like a movie script about an ambitious guy from the Midwest with a knack for advertising who decides to revolutionize cleaning products, and have fun doing it.

Ryan and Lowry grew up only six blocks from each other in Grosse Pointe, Mich., where they attended the local high school and spent summers sailing together. Lowry went off to Stanford; Ryan headed in the opposite direction, lured by Narragansett Bay and URI’s renowned sailing team.

method2Sailing, he says, instilled an appreciation of the beauty and delicacy of the world’s waters and taught him how to think ahead and work independently. Cruising was too laid back; he raced as a skipper in double-handed divisions. “My best times at URI were definitely around the sailing team,’’ he says. “It was a great experience.’’ He graduated in 1996 with a degree in communications.

After working in marketing and design in London and Minneapolis, he moved in 1997 to San Francisco to work with Hal Riney advertising, the agency that created the Saturn brand and the Bartles & Jaymes ads for Gallo wine. One day, Ryan bumped into Lowry on a flight and discovered that the two were living on the same block in San Francisco.

A few months later, Ryan was strolling through a grocery aisle and opened a bottle of Snapple. He wondered why cleaning supplies didn’t smell as sweet. Ryan revealed his “aha’’ moment to Lowry, and a partnership was born. Lowry would use his background as an environmental chemist to create a non-toxic product derived from natural ingredients such as soy, coconut, and palm oils; Ryan would use his talent as a designer to make beautifully crafted bottles that he calls “recyclable plastic art,’’ worthy of a perch on kitchen and bathroom counters.

In 2001 they each invested $45,000 and their journey began, fueled by a cultural shift to green living. Bath, kitchen, shower and glass cleaners were the first products, blended in a lab and hand poured through funnels into bottles at Ryan’s delightfully squalid apartment. The team even applied its own labels. “I’m such a design geek I made sure every bottle looked perfect,’’ says Ryan.

After giving bottles to friends to test, the two started making the rounds of independent stores—in a beat-up truck, no less—talking up the cleaners to managers and anyone else who would listen. As interest grew, they raised money from investors and stepped up production. But there were sleepless nights. At one point, they had $16 in the bank. “It was nerve-racking,’’ says Ryan. “But we kept moving forward.’’

Consumers seeking healthier lives loved the line, and by 2002 Method products were in 700 stores, mostly on the West Coast. After enlisting international industrial designer Karim Rashid to help design packaging, Ryan and Lowry convinced Target to sign on in a deal that put Method on the national stage.

The products are ubiquitous, available in any Target or major grocery store in the country. Those teardrop-shaped bottles are flying off the shelves to the tune of more than $100 million a year, a considerable accomplishment considering that Method is up against some stiff competition from century-old giants SC Johnson and Procter & Gamble.

Ryan credits much of the company’s success to its unique culture, where creativity and quirkiness are appreciated—and encouraged. Consider the “Monday Huddle,’’ a weekly morning meeting where employees give “shout-outs of awesomeness’’ about the business or even their personal lives. Laughter fills the office, uh, gathering spot.

The company’s motto, “keep it weird,’’ is another way of saying “be different,’’ and employees appropriate the 1980s action hero MacGyver when facing challenges. During his decade-long reign on TV, MacGyver solved problems with ingenuity and resourcefulness, and a little help from his Swiss Army knife and a roll of duct tape.

“At Method we ask, ‘What would MacGyver do?’ ’’ says Ryan. “I mean, he took down an F16 with a paper clip and chewing gum.’’

Not only are Method products kind to Mother Earth, they also look good and are marketed in a clever way. The sea minerals hand and dish soap comes in a gray bottle made with plastic recovered from the ocean. The tagline: “That’s why I’m gray.’’ The “smarty dish plus dishwashing soap’’ brags that “oatmeal won’t know what hit it.’’ Body wash “leaves your birthday suit soft, clean, and party ready.’’

In 2012, Ryan and Lowry sold Method to the Belgian company Ecover Group, owner of the largest green cleaning company in Europe. Lowry is the “chief greenskeeper’’ for global operations; Ryan is the chief brand architect. Fans can rest easy. The brands will remain separate, as Method expands more aggressively in Europe, Asia, and Canada. Method is even advertising on TV now.

During the wild ride, Ryan has held to his belief that the company is about more than selling soap. He’s even written a book for other entrepreneurs, The Method Method: Seven Obsessions That Helped Our Scrappy Start-up Turn an Industry Upside Down.

“To be truly happy you have to be part of something bigger than yourself,’’ he says. “The higher mission of what we do is to create environmental and social change for good. These are shared values that connect us to our customers. We’re about more than making money. This is a social purpose.’’

—Elizabeth Rau