William Kelly & Sons:
An Irish Success Story
BILL AND MARGARET KELLY
BILL AND LIAM KELLY outside the front door of the offices of William Kelly and Sons Plumbing Contractors.
"I don't believe in bailouts to the big automobile companies, absolutely not! Why are we bailing out incompetent companies. Let them put together a game plan and show us what they're going to do with the money and run the company as a proper business like we do. I can tell you that they won't bail us out if we go broke." - Bill Kelly
By CATHOLINE BUTLER
The stories that we like to hear about are the rags to riches tales, the ones where the immigrant arrives in North America near destitute and through sheer hard work and determination becomes a success while never forgetting his humble beginnings.
I was reminded of this scenario when I recently spoke to Bill Kelly who founded William Kelly & Sons after immigrating to Canada. I spoke with Bill and his son Liam at their offices where Liam is now president and Bill is vice-president.
Bill arrived in Canada in 1956 and after many years of hardship finally built up the family business to become one of the top ranked mechanical companies for the greater Vancouver area.
William Kelly & Sons specializes in commercial, light industrial, residential high rises and all aspects of mechanical plumbing work of the business. Their trucks and signage are easily identified on building sites because of the distinctive green shamrocks.
Bill was born in Dublin and emigrated to Canada along with his wife Margaret who was born in London to Irish-born parents.
He recalls, "We arrived in Calgary and at that time things were very tough. I was a plumber by trade but there were no construction jobs available, so I took a job on a farm and worked 12 to 14 hours a day for five dollars a day.
"We had a religious falling out with the farmer, who was a Presbyterian. I am a Catholic, and he didn't want me to take time off work to go to Mass on Sunday. We left Ireland to get away from that kind of discrimination only to find it in Canada.
"So we left the farm and moved into Calgary where we were very fortunate to meet a Mrs. Montgomery (rest her soul) from the North of Ireland. She took in every stray dog and cat that happened to be Irish and she gave us a room. We also met a lot of other Irish people in Calgary who were in the same boat that we were in."
Margaret was highly skilled as a secretary shorthand typist and she got a job with an English company who recognized her skills.
But it was a tough time for Bill. He recalls, "I walked the streets of Calgary for a whole winter looking for work, couldn't even afford the bus fare. I was eventually able to get seasonal work at $1.75 an hour and that was a raise for me.
"Finally, through another friend, I was able to get work at Canada Packers and it turned out that the general manager of the plant was an Irishman named 'Spud' Murphy.
"I got a job on the killing floor and in that job, you are the first guy that gets the beef once it has been killed and it's basically pulling the insides out of the cow. All you wore was a vest because there was blood everywhere, but I'll tell you I was glad to get a job...any kind of a job. Then, I was promoted to the shipping department and was able to work lots of overtime and made more money than I'd ever seen in my life."
Bill also sold Fuller Brush products and encyclopedias. He said, "I laugh today when I hear people saying, 'I'd never do that, I'm more highly skilled than that,'. So was I, but really, you do whatever you have to do to put food on the table."
Still unable to get work as a plumber, Bill heard that there was more construction work in Toronto, so he and Margaret and their three young children packed up and drove to Toronto, only to find that there was less work there than in Calgary.
However, he was able to get a job with Wimpey Construction driving a truck. Margaret's father was very ill in England, so she and the children went back to London and Bill stayed on in Toronto for the next nine months in order to make some money and pay bills before he would be able to join the family.
"I was able to get work right away as a plumber in London," said Bill. "I was a good worker and not afraid of hard work. I worked my way up the ladder and in no time we got a council flat but one day I took a look at the whole situation and I said to Margaret, 'this is not for me, we're going to go back to Canada'.
"Margaret didn't really want to leave but eventually she agreed to return to Canada. By this time we had four children, Ann Marie, Liam, Anthony and Andrew.
"So, we arrived back in Calgary in 1966 and through a friend I was able to get a job right away at Sterling Plumbing. I was making $1.76 an hour, supply all your own tools and transportation, you had to do everything yourself. I worked my way up the ladder from roughing in to doing all the ground work and finishing the house.
"By this time I was getting to know a lot of the Irish in Calgary and a fellow by the name of John Glynn told me about a plumbing company that did both residential and commercial plumbing and they were looking for plumbers.
"I really had gone as far as I could in the residential plumbing so when I applied for the job, I said that I was only interested in the commercial end, so they hired me in commercial."
In 1970 Bill decided it was time to go out on his own and started to bid on smaller contracts. He formed Wilmar Plumbing, which is a combination of his and Margaret's names. They worked under that name for a number of years until the sons started to come into the business and then the name was changed to William Kelly & Sons.
The Kellys are not a family to rest on their laurels. In 1989 they opened an office in Vancouver and started off relatively slowly but before they knew it, they were doing multiple high-rise towers and the business was growing in leaps and bounds.
As an offshoot of the work that the company was doing for Bosa Development who also had construction interests in San Diego, California, William Kelly & Sons started doing work for Bosa in San Diego. Before long the Kellys were doing their own work in California and the company is now firmly established in the area.
When I asked Bill Kelly if he might be taking life a bit easier at work now, he looked incredulous and said, "what are you talking about, when they carry me down the road feet first to the cemetery, then I'm out of the business."
Son Anthony Kelly recently left William Kelly & Sons to pursue his own interests with the blessings of the family, and sadly son Andrew passed away seven years ago. Liam has now taken over the reins of the day-to-day operation and his son Sean is now working with the family business with more Kellys in the wings.
It was refreshing and inspiring to speak with Liam and Bill about the present economic downturn. While many companies see the glass as half empty, William Kelly & Sons see the glass as half full and an opportunity for expansion.
Liam said, "we have the capabilities within our company and we are looking at expanding into a couple of new markets.
"We're always looking for another viable market since we have the infrastructure to be strong in a couple of areas at the same time. So, yes we are looking to expand into other markets within the next few months."
He said, "We've had a very strong past 10 years with steady growth and we're really excited to be involved in the 2010 Athletes Olympic Village project, which is a big project for us. We have the capability of running anywhere from four to five major projects at one time.
"Like everyone else we have been hit with the economic crisis and certainly it has presented new challenges but we're fortunate to have strong relations with existing clients and are cultivating a lot of new clients.
"The United States economy has effected us much more greatly than the economy in Canada and as a result there is really not much happening in the San Diego market at the moment, which is certainly much more challenging.
"The Olympics have certainly helped, even though there are the naysayers. Having been in Calgary and experienced first-hand the 1988 Winter Olympics, I can tell you it was a tremendous boost for the economy.
"It was interesting to see so many who were against the Olympics at the beginning realize the benefits afterwards, and I believe it will be much the same here."
Bill Kelly said, "the most successful companies expand in downturns. When you are properly structured that's the time to expand because the market is there and good and successful companies expand during a downturn.
"Actually, we're treating the downturn in the economy as a good thing and saying, 'what downturn?' It has not affected us and we won't let it. The economy is headed in the right direction."
He said, "I don't believe in bailouts to the big automobile companies, absolutely not! Why are we bailing out incompetent companies. Let them put together a game plan and show us what they're going to do with the money and run the company as a proper business like we do. I can tell you that they won't bail us out if we go broke."
The Kellys are very proud of their Irish roots and highly supportive and involved with the Irish community in Vancouver and equally as quick to extend a hand of welcome to a fellow emigrant from the old sod.