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An Interview with Russell Kelly & Terry Adderley

Russell Kelly and Terry Adderley

In an interview conducted for the Company's 50th anniversary celebration, Russell Kelly and Terry Adderley discussed the history of Kelly Services.

We've heard the story about the first office and two employees. But what motivated you to start your own business?

Russell Kelly: I think entrepreneurship was in my blood. My father was an oil pioneer at the turn of the century. The first oil strike he made outside of the United States was from a well he drilled in Colombia, South America. I have really tried to emulate him, and his pioneering spirit. One piece of advice Dad always told me was, "Whatever you do, try to be the best at it."

I came to Detroit right after the second World War. I selected Detroit because it was home to the booming automotive industry. There were ample opportunities for individuals with drive, experience and an entrepreneurial spirit. That was me. I used my savings to buy some calculating machines and go into the inventory business.

How did that evolve into temporary help?

Russell Kelly: When I started it was the end of World War II. Office equipment was still in short supply. Because I owned modern office equipment, and knew how to operate it efficiently, our service bureau business boomed. Soon customers requested us to send an employee, as well as the equipment, to the customer location. Over time, as my customers acquired new equipment, they began asking for an employee without the equipment. She would go to the customer's office and perform the necessary work while still on my payroll, leaving when the task was completed.

How did you sell this new concept to businesses?

Russell Kelly: It is hard to start a new business from scratch, and especially a new business that is based on a new concept. Not only did I have to sell my services, I had to explain what they were. I had to explain to every customer the difference between a temporary service company and an employment agency. Customers would say, "What do you mean, 'on your payroll'"? They had never heard of that with office people before. I would explain that we send in people who were on our payroll to do anything they wanted done in an office.

No one had a name for what we did. That's why I called it temporary help, so it wouldn't be confused with part-time work. Our intention was to do project work and replace vacationing employees. We were just there to fill in when the permanent employees weren't at work.

To sell this idea, I worked hard. I was always in a hurry. I had to be everybody -- salesman, bookkeeper, even delivery boy -- because at first we delivered business machines with our employees.

I wanted to sell to the automotive companies, but I didn't know who to call, or how to do it. So I started by calling on smaller businesses. And I used every sales technique I knew. I was always looking for ideas. When you're selling, you have to be innovative. Finally, I called on Chrysler, Ford and GM. Soon I was working with all three companies.

There were plenty of obstacles in those early days. Things we don't even think about now. I remember we had our employees view a film strip to help them explain to their husbands or fathers why it was all right for a woman to be working.

Where did the term "Kelly Girl" come from?

Russell Kelly: When employees arrived at a customer's office, they would identify themselves by saying, "I'm your Russell Kelly Office Service girl." But, they soon tired of that long phrase and started to say "I'm your Kelly Girl." That short version caught on. As the company grew and became recognized as a leader, "Kelly Girl" became a popular term for temporary help. So, I guess you could say our employees actually came up with the name "Kelly Girls."

After you established your business in Detroit, what was your expansion strategy?

Russell Kelly: As we became more successful, we had many imitators. We decided that if we didn't want one of these competitors to knock us off, we'd better go nationwide. We undertook a very aggressive expansion plan. At one point we opened 13 offices in 13 days.

You can't stand still in an industry like this, because the competition is always trying to copy you and undercut everything you do. Being the largest has never been our goal. But quality and leadership have been. I would suggest that we are the best. All through the years, we have set the standards for the industry.

Terry Adderley: As Russ pioneered this industry, he introduced many "firsts," such as the Kelly guarantee. He told customers that our employees were "Insured, Tested, Bonded and Guaranteed." Obviously, innovation has been a core value of this company for 50 years. It was present when Russ started the company, and it is still very much a part of the company's values today. Russ's sound values and ideas provided a solid foundation for the company.

How have these values contributed to Kelly's success?

Terry Adderley: When customers recognize you as a quality company and trust you, they stay with you. Of the 12 customers that Russ did business with in 1946, 10 are still in business. What makes us proud is that all 10 are still our customers. That is a wonderful testimony.

When you decided to stop running day-to-day operations, was it difficult?

Russell Kelly: You can't have two captains running a ship. Somebody has to be in charge. I retired to make room for Terry, and gave him free rein to do what he thought necessary. I think our values and beliefs have been very important to our success. But I also believe our success can be attributed to Terry joining the organization. He straightened out difficult situations and has brought in good, strong people.

How is the business different today?

Russell Kelly: The business world has changed. The times, the methods and the equipment are different, but after 50 years the fundamentals are the same. We're still trying to do a better job servicing our customers. We're still taking orders and filling them with wonderful people. That's our business.

Terry Adderley: Through the years, the company has evolved to meet the changing needs of our customers. Yes, we are still getting orders and filling them with qualified people. But today we are being called upon to provide people with a broad range of skills -- everything from receptionists to marketing professionals, computer programmers to engineers, office professionals to lawyers, data entry people to geologists, graphic designers to biochemists and many more.

Russell Kelly: It still amazes me to see the wonderful organization that grew out of our little company. I spend a great deal of time telling people how proud I am. I am very proud of the success we have achieved, and of our employees, who have persevered over the years, and have done a splendid job to keep this company growing.

You must feel good about all you've accomplished. How do you want to be remembered?

Russell Kelly: Everybody told me I wouldn't succeed. They told me not to do it. But trying new things was in my blood. I just want to be remembered like my father. I want to be remembered as a pioneer.