The consummate Oregonian

The consummate Oregonian

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Tom Kelly, an avid sailor, and his crew aboard the Anam Cara during the 2011 Van Isle race around Vancouver Island.
// Photo courtesy of Sean Trew

On a slushy January morning in the Pearl District’s Bridgeport Pub, Kelly is participating in a panel on family business, sponsored by OSU’s Austin Family Business program. “There’s a word — entropy; if you don’t grow, you fall in on yourself,” Kelly told the audience. “If you don’t have vitality, you don’t have opportunity for your employees.” Growth, he concluded, “is one of our core values.”

Even in good years, 30% of all contractors go out of business. In bad times, such as the Great Recession, the industry “gets slammed,” says Kelly, whose own low point came in 2010 when Neil Kelly had 118 employees, down from 170 in 2008.  Fueled by the condo boom, the company’s downtown cabinet business, which drove the $4 million division, “almost totally went away.”

As bad as things got, the Great Recession was not the worst downturn Kelly had experienced. That honor goes to the severe economic malaise that gripped the country in the early ’80s, a few years after Kelly took over the company at age 29. The succession coincided with what John Kelly, Tom’s fraternal twin and a Portland urban planner, describes as a “double whammy” on the company: the withdrawal of a line of credit from U.S. Bank and the elimination of a veterans home loan program that had also been a major source of financing. Kelly managed to pull the company through, and along the way learned about more than the harsh realities of the business cycle.

In a highly personalized sector like remodeling, most contractors are small, one-office operations, with a geographical reach that is often limited to the neighborhoods in which they are located. An anomaly in the industry, Neil Kelly has five locations, more than any other residential remodeler in the country. It’s an expansion- and acquisition-based business model that Kelly, who has a tendency to hedge when referring to his accomplishments, describes as “kind of pioneering, kind of groundbreaking.”

His first buyout, of Portland’s Kitchen Kitchens, occurred in 1988 as the country was climbing out of that first recession, followed by acquisitions in Eugene (2005), Bend (2008), and most recently Seattle (2011). “There’s no better time to expand than in an economic contraction,” says Kelly, citing as a key reason the availability of good employees. The company’s team-based management model, in which the same group of employees work together on projects, allows Neil Kelly to retain the feel of a small firm while enabling it to grow, Kelly adds.

Kelly’s management style has played a critical role in the company’s growth, says Tony Leineweber, a Neil Kelly board member and executive director of the Portland State University Foundation. “He has a very participatory approach that builds the confidence of his employees. So when he embarks on new initiatives, there’s a spirit of camaraderie that this is something we are all in together. In my view, Tom is one of the best performing managers around.”