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Entrepreneur takes road less traveled in technology-driven business

Ken Kelly didn't plan on taking over his father's company. But a few classes in Microsoft Office paved the way to a multimillion-dollar small business.

For Ken Kelly, president of a roofing company in Naples, Fla., technology has always been the key to business success....

It's surprising in an industry known more for manual labor than mobile apps.

Kelly remembers the first time he turned to technology to solve a problem. It was 1992, and he was in high school. Hurricane Andrew had just struck the region, and his father, Joe Kelly Senior, the founder of Kelly Roofing, crossed the peninsula to Miami to see whether he could drum up business in the area, where homes had been decimated by the storm. But Joe was soon inundated by residents who wanted price quotes for a new roof. "When we rolled into a neighborhood, with 'Roofer' on the side of a vehicle, we were mobbed," Kelly recalled. "We could literally park the truck and do 100 estimates a day."

That wasn't realistic given the company's systems, though. Joe created pricing proposals in longhand, looking up costs for materials along the way, so generating an accurate one could take half an hour. With residents clamoring for quotes, the manual approach wasn 't going to cut it.

So Ken, who had taken classes in Microsoft Office applications in high school, set up a desktop computer and printer in his dad's truck and began generating proposals. He created an Excel application he called Cost Finder to price roofs in just a few minutes' time and used Access to create templates for customer roofing proposals. The father-and-son team made it work. "Here I am in the back seat of the truck with this crazy setup. I am pumping out estimates for him, and he's on the roof, calling out numbers on a two-way radio," Kelly said.

Kelly also devised a project management database in Access to manage jobs in process. That setup lasted until 2013, when the business had expanded enough that it had become unwieldy to use Microsoft Office to manage the back office. Kelly couldn't link proposal information to the Cost Finder application -- he had to manually re-enter it -- or the job tracker to information in a proposal.

So Kelly signed on to Microsoft's Dynamics Online, the cloud-based customer relationship management system, as well as Office 365 to link back-office processes. Today, he can not only automate processes like bringing customer information from the proposal into his job-tracking process but also use mobile technologies to serve customers on-site with all the information they need.

With satellite imagery that can show roof damage, mobile pricing and proposal templates, customers can select and buy a new roof in minutes and then sign up for mobile service alerts. Kelly looks forward to the day when Internet-connected devices will be part of roofing materials, and customers will receive automatic alerts about roof leaks and damage, without anyone ever having to climb up several stories to document the damage.

Kelly also envisions a world with more mobile options for customers and more customer self-service avenues.

"I'm a roofer," Kelly said jovially. "Roofers aren't supposed to be technology-savvy. We're usually supposed to be on parole, I think."

The road less traveled

Kelly seems like he has it all figured out. But he took an unconventional path to get where he is. In high school, for example, while he had big dreams of moving out of Florida and taking over the corporate world, circumstances would have it another way. After his father fell off a roof and broke his wrists, Kelly decided to join the family business, forgoing college. But Kelly was eager to hone his business chops, so he continued to take some night courses at a community college.

While the business has been expanding in recent years, Kelly said that success hasn't come without having to take some financial hits. In 2oo8, for example, Kelly experienced a true "tanking moment," when business came to a halt. That year followed devastating hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, and then the economic recession hit.

"I had to do a mass layoff, go into hibernation mode -- really constrict the company. We went from 100 employees down to 40," he said.

Roofers aren't supposed to be technology-savvy. We're usually supposed to be on parole, I think.
Ken Kelly, president, Kelly Roofing

But, as has been common for Kelly, he used lean times to develop new knowledge and new ventures.

Kelly launched a sister company to Kelly Roofing, Energy Saving Solutions, which got funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for its energy-efficient initiative. The effort focused on educating consumers about energy-efficient roofing practices, such as attic insulation, and it piloted new techniques, such as photovoltaic roofing tile that uses solar power and conserves energy.

"We installed test roofs and gathered our own data because none was available," Kelly recalled.

With the rebounding of the economy, Kelly has brought the energy-saving initiative into the core business, educating customers about cost-saving techniques, such as buying a lighter-color roof. "It can save a customer 25% on his bill," Kelly said. And after waiting out the recession, Kelly Roofing has emerged in growth mode. In the two years since January 2013, the company has doubled its sales from $6 million to $13.8 million without additional administrative hires.

The skies and stars align

Kelly doesn't like to rest on his laurels, though. He is a proponent of the Japanese principles of kaizen, a philosophy of personal and professional continual improvement. He takes the idea to heart. When he first implemented Dynamics CRM, he attended a weeklong boot camp to learn the platform's ins and outs. Now he's considering learning programming so he can better prepare for mobile apps to enhance customer service and business operations at Kelly Roofing.

With his penchant for the road less traveled, it might also seem unsurprising that Kelly got his piloting license several years ago. He was considering expanding the business and didn't want commuting to be prohibitive. He wanted to be able to set up camp in another region and just fly there, without missing his son's sporting activities, or being late to get home and make dinner.

Kelly began volunteering to fly patients with medical needs. He relayed a flight five years ago, as wing leader for the Southwest Florida Angel Flight organization. He transported Eric, a 15-year-old liver-transplant patient, to Miami International Airport on Christmas. The organ became available so quickly that the hospital hadn't even had time to deliver news to the recipient's family. So Kelly was the one to inform Eric that a donor had been found, and he contacted Eric's mother to arrange the pickup. He and the boy bonded further on the flight, with Eric sitting up front in the plane, then hitching a ride with Kelly to the hospital when ground transportation didn't arrive soon enough.

There may have been something in the skies -- and the stars -- as they flew. When Kelly arrived at the hospital and rode the elevator with Eric, he met a transplant surgeon, Jennifer Jebrock, and the two hit it off. They had their first date that night.

Five years later, Kelly and Jebrock are still together, though careers keep them on opposite sides of the state. "We always say we connected so fast because she was in her lab coat and I was in a pilot outfit."

Even for the unconventional, maybe there is something about a man -- or woman -- in uniform.

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