On July 31, 1947 – over 60 years ago... Although it doesn’t seem that long ago, to hear the Kellys tell the story.
The History of Your Northern Kentucky Home Improvement Company
It has been more than half a century since the Kelly family took over a Northern Kentucky lumber distribution center, renamed it Kelly Bros. Lumber Co., and began turning it into what today is a building materials business and Design Center serving builders, remodelers and homeowners throughout the entire Greater Cincinnati Area.
In the beginning, recall brothers Ed & Ken Kelly, there was only a small office building and some lumber. The property, located at Latonia Avenue and 35th Street in Covington was owned by the L&N Railroad and leased to Neely Brothers – a Manchester, GA lumber business.
Neeley Brothers cut and milled lumber at its Georgia mills and then sent it north by rail, with sales people calling on retail lumber yards along the way. Whatever lumber wasn’t sold by the time the railroad cars reached Covington was stored on the leased property and sold in the Greater Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky Area.
The Kelly family’s first connection with the Neeley Brothers was through Gene – the youngest of all three Kelly Brothers. Gene operated a general hauling business, and some of his customers were contractors who bought from the Neeley Brothers. With the end of World War II and its lumber allocation restrictions, Neeley Brothers no longer needed the Covington distribution center and asked the Kelly Brothers if they wanted to bid on it.
From a Northern Kentucky Lumber Company to a Northern Kentucky Home Center
Ed recalls that the center was being run at that time by a Neeley nephew, a 19-year-old young man who had a girlfriend back in Georgia and thus had an ulterior motive for wanting to get back home. The Kelly’s bought the business as a family, with brothers Ken, Ed and Gene and their father, Rev. George Kelly, each owning 25 percent. Negotiations were simple and the transfer swift.
Ken remembers how quickly the most significant purchase in the family’s history was made. Inventory, he says, was taken on Saturday. The Kelly’s first offer was made on the following Monday. The next day, Tuesday, the second offer was made and accepted, the check was cut, and, shortly after noon, the Kelly’s took possession. All of this was done before lease transfer arrangements were worked out with the L&N. But the railroad had no objection to the sale, and subsequently transferred the lease to Kelly Bros.
Actually, Ed, who was 21 at the time and an infantry veteran of World War II, opened the business, and ran it by himself until April of 1948, with Gene making the deliveries. “We had a telephone bell on the outside of our office,” Ed recalls, “and if I was unloading a rail car when the bell rang, I had to jump out of the car and run to the office and answer the phone. They didn’t have portables then.”
The initial Kelly Bros. inventory was limited to dimension lumber (2-by-4s through 2-by-12s) and 1-by-6 sheeting. In March of 1948, Ken resigned his position with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service so that he could become a working partner in the family business.
When Neeley Brothers became Kelly Bros., there were no buildings on the property except for the office, and the lumber was all stored outside. The first building for lumber storage went up in the fall of 1947.
One thing leads to another in business, and in 1949, Kelly Bros. got into the blacktopping business with Kelly Bros. Blacktopping. Gene ran the blacktopping business, which continued in operation until 1955.
For several years beginning in 1952, Kelly Bros. also sold lump and stoker coal. Sometime around 1957 Ken says, Kelly Bros. sold the coal business to Economy Coal Company. That was at the time when people were switching from coal to oil and natural gas.
One of the challenges Kelly Bros. faced in the early days was that of becoming a retail dealer recognized by the Lumber & Millwork Association of Greater Cincinnati, the organization that controlled the retail window, door and millwork business.
Sometime around 1950, Ken says, he went to association secretary-treasurer Ross Kuhlman and “explained that we had bought the Neeley Brothers distribution yard and that we were going to be retail lumber dealers. And after some questioning of what we intended to do and how we intended to operate, he agreed to have a committee come here and investigate and see if we could be legitimate dealers.”
In due time, the Kelly Bros. application was approved. Getting into the hard materials business was a somewhat different process.Kelly Bros. wanted to sell hard materials (like cement, steel, concrete blocks, bricks and plaster) as well as lumber. But, say the Kelly’s, the hard material dealers had a closed organization. So the Kelly’s tried the back door. “We kept edging into the hard material market, edging into it,” says Ed, “and we were always friendly with all our competitors and the hard material suppliers.”
Kelly Bros. purchased and sold hard materials in small amounts, and finally parlayed their nibbling strategy into the purchase of a full carload of cement. That broke the dam, and Kelly Bros. became a real player in the hard material business. Kelly Bros. has experienced two serious fires, in 1959 and again in 1987. Both times the losses of warehouse space and inventory were devastating, both times the business recovered.
Kelly Bros. has grown through the years from the original three-quarters of an acre leased from the L&N Railroad with its 20-by-22-foot office to a six-acre complex that includes 10 buildings with nearly 50,000 square feet of supply storage area under roof, not including the showroom. In 1987, Kelly Bros. purchased the property the business sits on from CSX, successor to L&N.
In 1947, customers dealt with Ed Kelly, period. Today, Kelly Bros. has an entire staff of knowledgeable and experienced individuals to serve its customers. The owners are 3rd and 4th generation and continue to focus on being the best building supply company in the industry with exceptional customer service, knowledgeable personnel and quality materials at competitive pricing. Kelly Bros. opened an 11,000 SF office and showroom in 1995. This replaced the original office building, which, with five additions, had grown over the years from 440 to 3,500 square feet.
Your Northern Kentucky Home Center
Along with this new office and showroom came an emphasis on Kelly Bros. as a Home and Design Center featuring kitchen and bath cabinetry, Andersen windows, exterior doors and interior doors and trim all displayed in the best showroom in the Greater Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky area.
Kelly Bros. expanded from 1 to 3 locations with the purchase of Dry Ridge Lumber in 2000 and the construction and opening of Owen County Building Supply in 2005. All three locations now operate under the Kelly Bros. Home and Design Center name and philosophy which continues to make them the #1 choice of custom homebuilders, top remodelers and homeowners.
Excerpts taken from an article appearing in the Northern Kentucky Enquirer Sept 17, 1997 by John Overbeck.