The consummate Oregonian

The consummate Oregonian

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Kelly with his father, Neil, in 1983. The photo on the wall is of Tom and his twin brother John, which long served as the advertising logo for the company.
// Photo courtesy of The Oregonian

Kelly’s cooperative ethos springs in part from his father, a larger-than-life figure whose story, as relayed by Kelly, sounds like founding myth. A Minnesota farm boy, Neil Kelly in the Great Depression “rode the rails” to the Pacific Northwest to work in the Kaiser shipyards, then in 1947 purchased a weatherization company for $100. He and his wife, Arlene, a Quaker converted to Catholic peace activist, worked out of their basement while raising eight children. At once entrepreneurial and socially conscious, Kelly was the first president of the National Association of Remodelers, and the first member of the Portland Development Commission to hail from a neighborhood outside downtown.

The senior Kelly’s business and social responsibility ethic trickled down to their children, six of whom stayed in Portland and collectively form a kind of Kelly dynasty. Kelly’s sister Anne was the former director of Loaves & Fishes; sister Susan was a staffer to Charlie Hales; brother Jim was the founder of Rejuvenation, the lighting fixtures manufacturer now owned by Williams & Sonoma. (A nephew-in law, Bryan Steelman, owns the popular Portland Mexican chain, ¿Por Qué No?) As for Kelly, he says he was expected early on to take over the family business. Of all the siblings, he was “the most enthralled” by the carpenters going in and out of the family home. “I’m not going to tell you that it was all straightforward with no stress,” says Kelly of the succession. “But it was fairly minimal.”

Like many second-generation business owners, Kelly retained something of an Oedipal relationship with his father, who died in 1995. (His mother passed in 2008). “When you are the son of a guy like my dad, everybody who surrounds you wants you to be him, said or unsaid,” Kelly says. “I came to peace with that many years ago, that I wasn’t going to try and be my dad. I think it was one of my better life decisions.”

On a late winter Wednesday evening, Kelly and his wife, Barbara Woodford, are on their houseboat on the Columbia River (remodeled, naturally, in 1994). An avid sailboat racer, Kelly last year won the premier long-distance yacht race on the West Coast, the Swiftsure, which starts and ends in Victoria, B.C. “We kind of took home all the marbles,” he says.

Kelly met Woodford, an attorney at Liberty Mutual Group, while both worked in Washington, D.C., for former Oregon Congressman Les AuCoin. (Kelly was an intern; Woodford, a secretary). Sharper edged than her husband, Woodford seems a perfect foil for Kelly, a man whose greatest strength and greatest weakness, she says, is that he’s “too trusting.” Woodford provides Kelly with “steadfast support,” says family friend and Hood River commissioner Maui Meyer, adding: “If Tom wasn’t married to Barbara, he couldn’t do half the things he does.”

Back on the houseboat, Woodford doesn’t mince words about the challenges of living up to Neil Kelly. “Tom’s dad was an exciting person:  he put women into high profile managerial spots when that was very unusual,” she says. Kelly’s father was a groundbreaker in other respects, hiring minority contractors when that, too, was uncommon. “Tom’s done all that, too,” Woodford says. “But now it’s not so special.”