Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Tom Kelly
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Tom Kelly
Portland's mayor has been bragging to the White House about Tom Kelly.
The remodeling business owner, who's found a solid niche in the green market, just hired 22 new workers as part of a federal clean energy stimulus program.

It's just like Kelly, 60, to develop a multi-layered strategy in which many people win. Dubbed the "Dean of Green" by one national magazine, he's also a stalwart backer of commerce. Kelly was among the first to see that businesses and environmentalists can be partners to mutual benefit.

Fewer people know that Kelly also supports Catholic education. This graduate of Jesuit High was lead fundraiser for a history-making classroom building at Holy Redeemer School in North Portland. Built in 2005, it was the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified Catholic school construction project.

He's the son of Neil Kelly, who began the Portland business that bears his name in 1947 with $100. Neil Kelly and wife Arlene worked out of their basement while raising eight children. Soon, the family became zealous in support of causes in North and Northeast Portland. In the 1970s, they entered the home weatherizing business. By the 1980s, Neil Kelly was first president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry and his firm was the largest of its kind in the Northwest. He was the first member of the Portland Development Commission not from downtown.

Under Tom's leadership starting in the 1990s, the remodeling company became a pioneer in green design and building. It built the first LEED-certified building in Oregon — its own Southwest Portland showroom. 

The firm pioneered environmentally-sustainable cabinets and now is developing cabinets made of juniper, a tree that grows weed-like in central and eastern Oregon, frustrating ranchers. Environmentalists also dislike juniper, because it bowls over high desert habitat and depletes the water table. Another win-win for Kelly.   

He tries to stay ahead of the curve in green building. The company sponsors fairs at which local suppliers can show off their latest invention, from soy-based insulation to high-efficiency heat pumps. Kelly predicts that within a decade, his workers will make homes that need no outside energy source.

He has signed on as one of the contractors for Clean Energy Works Oregon, which channels stimulus dollars to promote energy efficiency in houses.
"You've got to reinvent yourself constantly or, in this economic environment, you'll just fall apart," he explains.

Times got tough when the building boom sputtered. Kelly's company won contracts for building ecologically-sound cabinets in hundreds of condominiums in Portland's Pearl District and South Waterfront. But the expansion halted abruptly.

For the past few years, he's been trying to keep the business above water. He has avoided bankruptcy, unlike other large locally-owned home builders. As remodeling prices have dropped, more people are taking advantage and business is even picking up. Incentives from utility companies and government are making green remodels more affordable.

More good news: Kelly is in on the $40 million public-private plan to rebuild Vernonia's schools out of a flood plain. 

He grew up in All Saints Parish in Northeast Portland before attending Jesuit and the University of Oregon. He says Catholic education and Catholic values shaped his life. He and wife Barbara put their own children through Holy Redeemer. He told the principal then, Holy Names Sister Jane Hibbard, that he could not stand to see the nickel-and-dime ways of bingo fundraising. So she put him in charge of an annual fund and he went along willingly.

"Tom Kelly and his wife Barbara are great friends of Catholic schools," says Sister Jane. "Like his father, Tom honors all people as equals and promotes diversity in the North Portland Community."

Because of Tom Kelly, she says, "many children received scholarships and a good education."

Recently, Kelly was honorary co-chair of a project to renovate the community center at St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland. He is chair of Loaves and Fishes, which delivers meals to homebound seniors and people with disabilities. He has been president of Rotary Club and chair of Volunteers of America.

In addition to the Catholic values, he credits his mother's Quaker background for sparking his passion for ethics in business. He sees business as one way to improve the world.

"We are real strong believers in the leverage business has in carrying these things out," he says. "You can be an agent of change."

He helped start the Oregon Business Association to organize industry leaders who believe in strong schools, transportation and social programs. Business prospers when those institutions are strong and industrialists should not simply "gripe about taxes," he says. 

Though it may ding him financially at first, Kelly approves of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which wants large businesses and wealthy Americans to pay more for public programs. Kelly favors tax rates that predate President George W. Bush.

"We have a wealth distribution in this country that has gone too far," Kelly says. "We need to bring back the middle class. As it is now, collective happiness is suffering. If we don't live more harmoniously, that is bad for business."