Robert Kelly got his start in the lumber and building material industry after seeing an ad in the Wall Street Journal headlined “Lumberyard for Sale in Seacoast Town.” “Immediately, I had a vision of a horse drawn wagon delivering rough-hewn beams to the docks and thought, ‘That’s for me.’” At the time he was working for the government during a period known as Watergate, and, as he tells it, absolutely nothing was happening.
Being an economist, Bob was trained how to run a country, not a company. After calling the seller of the lumberyard, Bob went to the library and got the Harvard MBA catalogue to find out what he needed to know. It took about a year to complete the sale, but since he was about the only person naïve enough to be interested in the going-bust seacoast company, the seller didn’t have a better alternative to him.
Ironically, Bob purchased Torno Lumber one month before the oil crisis of 1973. Since every penny he had, including the proceeds from the sale of his house in Virginia, went into the downpayment for the business, the beginning was a particularly interesting time for the company. The lines to the gas station next door were such that Bob had to post two employees on the street just to keep their entrance and exit open.
“After two years of struggling, I concluded that I couldn’t turn my seacoast lumberyard around. The exit strategy that I was contemplating was simply to leave the keys in the door at the end of the day and not return. Before I could execute my plan, sales suddenly jumped 20%, so I decided to keep the keys,” he says. “If there was any unearthly reason for this introduction to small business life, maybe it was something like my needing to be humbled before rewarded.”
Bob lists as one of his great achievements successfully defending himself in an age discrimination case. “Despite warnings to the contrary from both the State of Connecticut and the federal government, I chose to defend myself,” he says “Just about every night for almost three years I prepared written responses to the interrogatories sent by the EEOC. I was frequently up until 3 a.m. while facing 7:30 classes in the morning. Nonetheless, I ultimately prevailed against the law firm representing the plaintiff as the EEOC determined the suit to be without merit.”
After completing his Bachelor of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in 1963, as opposed to his classmates who sought employment in the federal government’s “people-to-people” programs, after a year of graduate school, the Marine Corps certified him as a lieutenant in its “people-to-pieces” program, as he describes it.
When Bob served in the U.S. Marine Corp. Reserve (USMCR), he was an Infantry Officer. While serving in Vietnam, he was wounded four times. His last wounds were so severe that he was in and out of the hospital for more than three years for his recovery. He was wounded on the last day of his tour and honorably discharged. When his Vietnam obligations were over in 1967, he returned to graduate school and earned his Ph.D in Economics from Georgetown University in 1970.
Born in Woonsocket, R.I., one of Bob’s first childhood memories was the raucous celebration that followed the surrender of the Japanese that ended World War II. He also has fond memories of skipping school on a regular basis, Boy Scout camping trips, the Civil Air Patrol, and being an altar boy with nothing but good things to say about the priest he assisted—particularly since Bob’s call to service frequently allowed him to arrive at school late.
“I had a mother who used her life to give me a chance for a better life,” he begins about his family life. “Have a wife who has tolerated me for 47 years, prays for my soul, which she considers to be her employment, and who dreams of someday living in an apartment over the grand ballroom of Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World. Have a son, who, unfortunately, I raised to think for himself, and a daughter who I think hung the moon. Also, have four grandchildren. My daughter, Erin and her husband, Matt, will take over my company, though she has shown little interest in hastening the arrival of that day. Having children 4 and 6, has put her training program on a slowly moving path. My son-law, Matt refers to himself as the company SLOB (son-in-law of the boss). Since Matt and Erin came on board just as the financial crises of 2008 began, maybe the crises was their version of needing to be humbled. If, in fact, they, and not our federal government, were responsible for the crisis, I apologize to all of my building materials vendors and fellow lumber dealers, I am truly sorry. I also have been blessed with some long-term employees who I would be proud to be known as the father of.
“When I began at Torno and knew so little (not much has changed), apparently, very few of the salesmen calling on us advised their bosses to cut their losses with us. Of those vendors who rationally chose to refuse us service, I admit to note with some measure of satisfaction that most have closed their doors. During my 40 years of dealing with the many vendors who support the NRLA and LDAC, I have had very few (not zero) negative experiences. For the most part I am saddened whenever I learn that we have lost the services of one of the salesmen who call upon us. The fact that they have chosen to cast their lot with the building materials industry, may not reflect well on their decision making abilities, but I am pleased to have cast my lot with them.”
In his spare time, Bob enjoys exercise because he finds physical exertion to be pleasurable. He also likes to end his day with a little reading for pleasure—history, philosophy, and mathematics are what capture his interest. Bob is also a self-described inveterate do-it-yourselfer, which he enjoys thoroughly “despite a lack of any particular talent,” as he puts it. However, Bob’s favorite pastime consists of exercising his dog and cutting brush on a piece of property that he owns in Newtown.
Bob spent 30 years in the Economics Department at Fairfield University trying to, “lift the veil of ignorance and to prevent young people from enjoying the college experience,” he says. He is also a member in good standing (i.e., I pay my dues on time) of the American Legion, the Purple Heart Society, the Second Marine Division Association, India 3-9 Association, and Leathernecks of Connecticut. “This latter organization exists for the sole purpose of celebrating the glorious birthday of the United States Marine Corps on Nov. 10 of each year,” he says. Bob has also been a member of NRLA and Lumber Dealers Association of Connecticut since 1973.
Bob’s philosophy of life is “to always do whatever my wife tells me to do,” he says. “I have also long considered the words of Ignatius Loyola, that a happy life is one that is lived in loving service to others, as an appropriate philosophy of life. Most recently, I have read that the key to happiness in life is to laugh a lot and to think dirty thoughts. I am considering this as my new philosophy of life. I also believe that there will be plenty of time to rest and catch up on sleep after death.”
The guiding principle of Bob’s life, and the one that he has tried to instill in the people he works with, has been the IIDUU (pronounced “I do”) principle. He describes it thusly, “If you are asked to do something by someone in authority over you that you cannot identify as immoral, illegal, dangerous, unfair, or unkind (IIDUU), then you are to do it. And otherwise stand your ground and be prepared to fight like hell.”
The Lumber Dealer’s of Connecticut wishes to Congratulate and honor Lumber Person of the Year Robert Kelly.