Inside Track: Tech business owner faces challenges head on
After suffering a grand mal seizure, Ryan Leestma made the decision to continue competing in triathlons.
As Ryan Leestma drifted back into consciousness, he had no idea how lucky he was to still be alive.
It was early October 2014. Leestma, the founder of Grand Rapids businesses ISI and Leestma Management LLC, was in what was probably the best shape of his life. A remarkable competitor, he has completed more triathlons than can be counted on both hands.
Five days earlier, he had competed in Ironman Chattanooga, in which he finished with a personal best time of 10 hours and 14 minutes. It’s a very good time, especially for a man in his mid-30s.
But the last thing Leestma remembered was that he’d been driving east toward Lansing on I-96. As he regained consciousness, he realized his vehicle was no longer on the road. He had drifted across the highway median into the oncoming traffic and finally came to a stop near the top of a wooded incline off the highway.
He had broken vertebrae and was bruised and scraped up from the impact of the crash. He had no idea what had happened.
In the hospital, the doctors ran several tests and made a life-changing and completely unexpected diagnosis: Leestma had epilepsy. His accident was caused by a powerful grand mal seizure while he’d been behind the wheel.
Nothing like this had ever happened to him before, he said, and the revelation that he had epilepsy was a shock.
But epilepsy wasn’t about to stop him from leading the life to which he was accustomed.
“I decided to myself, ‘I have had this condition my entire life and didn’t know it, and now that I do know about it, I can be proactive,” he said.
“I kept doing (triathlons), and there’s a risk. If you’re on the bike or swimming and you have a grand mal, you’re screwed. But I knew if I managed it properly, I could still do all the things I love doing. I just work with my doctors and take a few pills each day. …
“Risk equals reward. If you understand the dynamics and understand the risk, you can achieve the reward.”
Leestma grew up in DeMotte, Indiana, south of Gary. His father was “one of the first guys in the country to use micro PCs for medical billing,” he said, and it sparked an interest in computers in Leestma at a very young age.
“(My dad) used Apple and VisiCalc, which was the first spread program. And he used that to keep track of super bills. So, when my dad migrated from Apples to IBM computers, which was, I think, when I was 8 or 9 years old, I got the hand-me-downs and I started playing with computers and writing programs,” he said.
“I wasn’t afraid of screwing it up. I think that’s been a defining characteristic of my career. I’ve always looked at other people and said, ‘If they can do it, why can’t I do it?’
“I won’t say I’m the most creative guy on the planet, but my (motto) has always been ‘If they can do it, why can’t I do it — and do it more efficiently?’ And then you capture opportunity. That’s the way I operate.”
An early defining moment came when Leestma was about 11. Whenever he had problems with his computer, his dad would come upstairs and help him out. But one day, he said he was too tired, so Leestma took the computer apart himself and put it back together again. To his surprise, he’d actually fixed it on his own.
“I thought I was a genius. And then I started doing it (more), and then people from my church wanted to hire me. When I was 15, I started doing it more full blown,” he said.
When he was about 16, Leestma started his first business, Compufix, which he ran as a sole proprietorship. He sold PCs and servers and installed networks for people and companies that didn’t have any.
“I did a decent amount of residential and a decent amount of commercial. ... It basically turned into this: I’d get off the bus from high school, and then I’d jump in the car and do service calls until 7 or 8 p.m.,” he said.
“My last year in Compufix, I made 50 grand. I started thinking, ‘I’m a legitimate company.’
“DeMotte is a small town and my only reference to a successful company was retail. … I realized if I was going to do this for real, I needed to learn about real business.”
Leestma ended up not finishing his senior year of high school, instead going to Covenant College, a Christian liberal arts college in Georgia, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration.
Going off to college before he’d graduated high school wasn’t a big deal for him.
“I think ‘smart’ is relative,” he said. “It’s a combination of experience and work ethic, and the ability and willingness to learn.”
After graduating from college in 2000, he moved to Grand Rapids, where his brother lived. In 2002, he started a tech consulting company called ISI — Information Systems Intelligence LLC. His first major Grand Rapids client was William Kent Land Corp., he said.
“(We’re) a company that provides anything that has to do with data and communications — that includes phone systems, data centers, staffing servers, PCs …” he said. “We’ve got about 15 employees.”
In 2009, Leestma founded another business, Leestma Management LLC. Through that, he runs what he describes as a modest portfolio of commercial and residential properties that he actively manages.
“I’ve had, for a number of years, fantastic success with ISI. … I built the property company to diversify my family’s holdings,” he said.
Success has come naturally to Leestma. From his first computer business in high school to starting ISI, he described his career as something that grew organically “through muscle and work.”
His work ethic came in handy when he became interested in triathlons.
“I got started in it after my third child was born. My wife was working out, and I decided to get into it, as well,” he said.
After his accident last year, Leestma returned to training for triathlons and “competing with Team USA in the Triathlon World Championships in Sweden in June,” according to a release. And although he planned to compete in the Ironman 2015 World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, he was unable to make it due to a work-related event.
Aside from his determination to maintain his passion for triathlons, the accident also led Leestma to become more involved with charities for those who struggle with health issues.
He used his story to help bring attention to the Epilepsy Foundation of America. He also recently donated $50,000 to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. His website, swimbikerunforcharity.com, promotes support for these foundations.
Epilepsy may have slowed Leestma down, but only for a second.
“When life presents you with a challenge, it’s important to not let it take control,” he said.
“I found it imperative to move forward with my normal lifestyle — not only for myself but as an example for my four children and employees.”