The son of an Irish-American Ford dealer in a Milwaukee suburb, Patrick Ryan has made Chicago his residence since graduating from Northwestern University in 1959 and is now one of the city’s leading business people, philanthropists, and champions. “Chicago accepts people for the kind of person they are, not where they come from,” he says. But for Ryan, where he comes from is immensely important, because the role his father’s Ford dealership and his mother’s plea for him to return home shortly after college played in Ryan’s 50 years of success cannot be overstated.
In the early 60s, Ryan was working for Penn Mutual in Chicago selling life insurance when his mother asked him to return to Milwaukee to help run the family business. He couldn’t say no. Family has always been important to Ryan, who traces his roots to Tipperary. He soon came up with a way to improve the business and turn a profit himself. Dealers often tried to sell insurance along with a new car, but generally did not make good brokers. So in 1964, Ryan founded Pat Ryan & Associates to corner that market. Through a series of seemingly never-ending, delicately handled, and precisely executed acquisitions, the company continued to grow, and expand their offerings. They soon relocated to Chicago and went public in 1971.
In 1982, Ryan’s company was purchased by a struggling Consolidated Insurance, one of the largest brokerage firms in the Midwest, and Ryan was named CEO and chairman of the board, a rare “upstream takeover,” in industry parlance. Five years later, Ryan had continued his streak of expansions and takeovers and renamed the new company Aon, the Gaelic word for “one” or “unity.” In an article published in the company’s internal magazine on the occasion of his retirement in 2008, Ryan remembered the poignancy of choosing the Irish word. “At that time we were bringing several companies together through organic growth coupled with strategic acquisition into one entity. Therefore, the name Aon was a perfect fit.” When Patrick retired in 2008, Aon had over 500 offices in 120 countries, including Ireland.
The values of unity and family extend beyond the entrepreneurial realm as well. After Aon lost 176 employees in the September 11th World Trade Center attacks, the company established a $10 million college fund for the victims’ children. In Chicago, Patrick has been recognized for his numerous philanthropic contributions to the city, including purchasing 20 percent of the Chicago Bears when they were in need of financial support, and backing the Modern Wing of the Chicago Art Institute, which opened in 2009. In 1989 he and his wife Shirley (née Walsh) co-founded the Pathways Center for Children and the Pathways Awareness Foundation, which promotes early detection and treatment for movement disorders such as cerebral palsy. He recently stepped down as chairman of the board of trustees for his alma mater, Northwestern, after 14 years at its head, though he still serves as a trustee. For more than half a century, Patrick has been a Chicago fixture and a global pioneer for the values he inherited from his Irish American childhood, and it’s clear that he won’t stop being those any time soon.
Patrick Shirley have three adult children.