Russ saw challenge and opportunity there, a wide-open door to a future with unlimited possibilities for advancement. He worked nights and weekends, mastering the intricacies of auditing and learning the ins and outs of the big food chain's operation.
The stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Depression brought difficult times for ambitious young people. The early days with the A&P were characterized by frequent moves, but much to the frustration of a young man with plans and dreams, they were mostly lateral. During one year, Russ recalled, he worked under five different managers, doing much the same thing. Between 1928 and 1938, by dint of sheer hard work, his salary moved up from 35 to 55 dollars a week. That was a tidy sum during the Depression years and enough for a serious young Russ Kelly to marry Marian Hines in 1937.
Then, in 1938, with the economy showing signs of recovery and the company reorganizing to take advantage of it, Russ thought things might finally be opening up for him. And when he was called into his boss's office on his tenth anniversary with the A&P, Russ was prepared to receive a promotion, a raise, or at least a note of recognition for his decade of hard work. Instead, he was fired. The reorganization had eliminated his job and left him an early victim of what today would be identified as corporate "downsizing."
Although he was disappointed, Russ's ten years at the A&P had been a valuable experience. It had brought out his natural inquisitiveness, giving him the desire to thoroughly learn and understand every operation with which he was involved from both the human and the process point of view. He gained the experience of working with and understanding a large organization. And he learned to be flexible and persevering, qualities that would serve him well in future jobs, and even more when he started his own business.
To round out his business experience, Russ took a series of jobs, each of which prepared him for the responsibilities he took up during World War II, and ultimately for the establishment of Kelly Services.
He sold home-study courses with the International Accountants' Society to hone his skills in sales. Although Russ proved effective at sales, he jumped at an opportunity to put his knowledge of organizations and systems to work with the Frontier Fuel Company in Buffalo.
Even closer to the mark was his next move, to Pacific Transport, a Buffalo trucking company. Kelly had developed a keen interest in trucking through work with A&P suppliers. It was said that he could look at a stack of orders or a warehouse full of produce and know exactly how many trucks, drivers, and helpers were needed to get the job done with a minimum amount of spoilage and downtime.
With World War II on the horizon, Russ tried to enlist, but after taking a physical examination, was turned down for military duty. There was no problem with his ears, however, and when word trickled down from some old friends at the A&P that the Army Quartermaster Corps was looking for civilian specialists who were experienced in large-scale procurement, Russ found a way to serve. He joined a group of chain store specialists in Chicago. His job was to interpret Army regulations, to cut red tape and to help create a modern chain store food buying operation for the Army.
Another early challenge was to find ways to rush shipments of perishable goods. At that time, it was not unusual for suppliers to have to wait months for payment of their invoices, resulting in long delays in deliveries and choking off vital supplies to the troops. Kelly and others on his team of talented young auditors and expediters established a centralized payment system and gained a national reputation for getting the job done when they assured payment within eight days of deliveries made anywhere in the country.
The drive and ingenuity Russ brought to his wartime job did not pass without notice. One of his associates from those years remarked, "Russ pushed food the way General Patton rolled his tanks."
And while he was helping to fight a war, he was doing what he did best during those years of preparation -- learning. Russ became a master of office procedures and cultivated a keen understanding of business. He was also planning for better times, by beginning to save. As the Allies closed in on victory, Russ was able to look ahead to a postwar America.
The enormous energy of wartime production would soon need to be converted to peacetime products. But while other visionaries of the period saw their dreams in molten steel and manufactured products, Russ saw his in paperwork and services. He believed that in the postwar economy the needs of the office would be just as great as those on the factory floor. The importance of his insight would not be fully appreciated until the new "service economy" emerged in the 1980s.
When the war ended, Russ, now 40 years old and stationed in Chicago, decided it was time to do something about his long postponed ambition to own his own business. He joined a management consultant firm while he weighed his options. He decided to start a business service bureau, a place where customers would bring in their typing, duplicating, inventory calculations, addressing, mailing and other business projects and have them done by the bureau staff. It seemed to be an ingenious solution to the problem of processing those huge piles of paperwork.
But where to set up his business? Russ's wartime food procurement experience provided him an intimate knowledge of cities across the country. Although he had no particular ties to Detroit, he was familiar with the manufacturing companies operating out of the city called the "Arsenal of Democracy" during World War II. Now, the nation's automobile companies were prime candidates for the services he planned to offer.