Kelly at the 2011 school wall raising in Vernonia with Columbia County commissioner Tony Hyde (left) and school superintendent Ken Cox (center). Kelly and Hyde were co-chairs of the Oregon Solutions Vernonia project.
// Photo by Justin Tunis
Neil Kelly may have been the pioneer, but the son didn’t try to be the father. Instead, Kelly carved out his own niche by being the better businessman. “Tom took the company leaps and bounds beyond what our father built,” says Jim Kelly, who has been a director on Kelly’s advisory board and vice versa. “He professionalized it; managed it.” Kelly “is more strategic, more systems oriented,” agrees Julia Spence, Neil Kelly’s Human Resources vice president who also worked for Neil Kelly when he was in charge.
One example of Kelly’s systematic approach is the series of green building initiatives he introduced in the 1990s, initiatives that parallel the development of Oregon’s green building sector. The firm was among the first cabinet manufacturer in the industry to use Forest Stewardship Council certified wood products and to adopt principles of Natural Step, where Kelly was a board member. Kelly also developed the first LEED-rated commercial building on the West Coast — the company’s Southwest Portland showroom. Then he followed up with his Parkdale vacation home, the first LEED-rated residence on the West Coast.
During the condo boom, the company strayed a bit from its green roots, Kelly says. Today, in an effort to revive flagging business units, Kelly has launched a new Naturally Northwest line of sustainable cabinets — juniper is the flagship — and ramped up the company’s fledgling energy retrofit unit, Home Performance. Fueled by Clean Energy Works, a nonprofit that was seeded by federal stimulus money, Home Performance harkens back to the 1980s, when federal tax credits for insulation generated steady weatherization work for Neil Kelly. “It makes Jimmy Carter look like a brilliant man,” says Kelly, referring to the 38th president’s failed attempt to implement a national energy policy. “Had we done what he wanted we wouldn’t have had to fight a few wars.”
A classic Portland liberal, Kelly has a long record of supporting and spearheading progressive causes. In support of gay rights, he helped lead the Vote No on Nine campaign in 1992. The original Oregonian press plate for the ad, signed by dozens of businesses, adorns his office wall. Four years later he joined Susan Sokol Blosser, Ron Buel, brother Jim, and several others to found the Oregon Business Association, a lobbying group aimed at providing “representation in the Legislature for businesses that have more moderate to progressive views.” Kelly was motivated to take on the Vernonia project, he says, as a way of bridging the state’s urban rural divide. “There’s this resentment carried by Portland about rural communities and vice versa. I think we are all Oregonians and should help each other.”
Such declarations can make Kelly sound a bit disingenuous and at odds with his obvious strategic flair. But that’s Tom Kelly, friends, family and colleagues say. “Tom is instinctively guileless,” says his brother, John. “His idea of a quid pro quo relationship is that he does you a favor and in return he expects you to give him an opportunity to do him another favor.” That description is almost identical to the one provided by Kitzhaber. “Tom has devoted himself to making Oregon a better place while asking nothing in return,” says Kitzhaber, adding that Kelly’s collaborative leadership style was the reason he appointed Kelly to the Oregon Solutions steering committee, to help train other community leaders to be conveners.
From brothers to governors, interviewing people about Kelly can be a challenge, if only because the collective accolades tend to blur into an endless love fest. (For a guy who flies under the radar, Kelly has a formidable Rolodex). “Tom motivates people by being so soft-spoken and genuine that you can’t help but think it’s the right thing to do,” says Joan Smith, executive director of Loaves & Fishes in yet another testimonial. “Neil Kelly is such an icon in the industry,” says Carolyn Boardman, who sold her company, Seattle Design Build, to Kelly last year. Kelly and his company “are leaders in publicizing the importance of ethics in business, having a heart and giving back to the community.”
Finding someone who will say something critical about Kelly requires going back about 50 years, when a young Kelly and his twin allegedly tormented their younger brother, Jim. “One would hold me and the other beat me,” recalls Jim Kelly cheerfully. Another font of negativity is Portland businessman Sho Dozono, who took Kelly on his post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding trips to New Orleans. Kelly attended the University of Oregon; Dozono hails from the University of Washington.
“Can I say something bad about Tom?” Dozono asks, and then offers: “For a Duck, he’s OK.”