BY LINDA BAKER
Tom Kelly in the Neil Kelly showroom in North Portland, where the company has been headquartered since 1966.
// Photo by Christopher Barth
Tom Kelly is sitting in his North Portland office, waxing enthusiastic about his latest cause: juniper, an indigenous Eastern Oregon tree that is apparently running amok. Decades of fire suppression have left the state with a juniper surplus, and Kelly, president of the Neil Kelly Company, a design-build-remodeling firm, is incorporating the weed-like wood into a sustainable cabinet line, part of a larger effort to commercialize juniper as an industry. “What’s exciting is this could be a real job creator,” says Kelly, describing a logger in Harney County who harvested 9,000 acres last year. “He brings his equipment out to the site and cuts it down and mills it right there.”
The 60-year-old Kelly gets excited about a lot of things, most of all triple-bottom-line projects that use business to catalyze social and environmental change. The head of the largest residential remodeling firm in the Pacific Northwest, he boasts a lengthy civic resume that includes chairing the board of Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit that provides meals to homebound seniors, co-chairing a statewide Oregon Solutions effort to build a new state-of the art green school for flood-ravaged Vernonia, and serving on a Habitat for Humanity capital campaign committee.
Notable positions and accomplishments notwithstanding, Kelly, whose rumpled hair and low-key speaking style make him seem more handyman than executive, has remained mostly out of the spotlight in the 33 years he has run Neil Kelly. Gov. John Kitzhaber, who tapped Kelly as co-chair for the Vernonia project, calls him “an unsung community leader.”
But therein lies Kelly’s secret. Gregarious yet unassuming, Kelly is one of the state’s most respected businessmen, not because of charisma, cutthroat business practices or wildly innovative designs, but on account of decidedly less sexy qualities: hard work, respect for others, and enthusiasm for the task. A second-generation business owner — his father was company founder and industry pioneer Neil Kelly — Kelly is also part of an iconic Oregon company and family. For all those reasons, his story unfolds as a story of the Oregon everyman: a tale of a native son whose values, accomplishments, and, perhaps, weaknesses, parallel those of the state he loves.
Today, Kelly seems at the peak of his game. He received this year’s Hope and Liberty Award from the Oregon League of Minority Voters, and in 2011 the Fred Case Entrepreneur of the Year Award, a national industry honor. The company received the 2010 Dean’s Award for Family Business Leadership from Oregon State University’s Austin Family Business Program. Building on that momentum, Kelly is pushing ahead with ambitious new initiatives aimed at steering his company out of the recession and keeping it at the forefront of green construction trends. But if history is any judge, his core business philosophy is not going to change.
“Tom again and again reaches beyond his own immediate interests to take a broader interest in how we make business work ethically and environmentally,” says Dennis Wilde, chief sustainability officer at Gerding Edlen Development Company who has worked with Kelly for more than 30 years. “He has a passion for the future of the state and the economy and how we can continue to improve it.”