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Kelly Benefits CEO Frank Kelly III Discusses Faith and 45 Years of Success

According to Kelly Benefits CEO, Frank Kelly III, there are two things that his family loves dearly: lacrosse and the Lord God Almighty.

The Kellys’ faith serves as the heart and soul of their successful business and is well represented in the company’s mission statement and culture guide.

Their sport provides them with an overarching sense of camaraderie, teamwork, and healthy competition that funnels into every business relationship they’ve ever fostered, from employees to clients to vendors and beyond.

In case you’re wondering how that all worked out, Kelly Benefits has grown to become one of the largest providers of benefits administration and technology, brokerage and consulting services, and comprehensive payroll solutions in the state of Maryland, and in the nation.

And it all started in the small Timonium home of former Maryland State Senator Francis X. Kelly, Jr., and his wife Janet, back in 1976.

“My mom and dad started it alone in an extra bedroom,” says Frank, the eldest of the four Kelly boys. He and his brothers – John, David, and Bryan – now oversee the company, its subsidiaries, and divisions.

“After about six months, my parents wood-paneled the basement and moved the office downstairs.”

That was six headquarters ago, he explains.

In the interim, the business operated out of multiple spaces – from the attic of another modest house in Cockeysville to a little Victorian property in Hunt Valley. It has also been known by several names: Francis X. Kelly Associates, Kelly-Chick & Associates (with former partner Gary Chick), and Kelly and Associates Insurance Group.

Today, Kelly Benefits operates out of a 103,000 square-foot facility with over of 450 employees in Sparks, Maryland, and satellites in Rockville and Wilmington, Delaware.

“This is our 45th year in business,” Frank says.

 

The Lord Builds the House

“We’re a faith-based family,” says Frank, who joined Kelly Benefits in 1986 after graduating from Cornell University. “In our opinion, the number one reason Kelly Benefits has grown is God’s blessing.”

He points to scripture prominently referenced in the Kelly Benefits mission statement, Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.

Another guiding passage hails from Colossians 3:23-24: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.

“It’s the people of Kelly Benefits that make the unique difference,” Frank says. “We’ve been blessed to have great people who work very hard and do things the right way.”

Technology, too, has been a Godsend, particularly the growth and development of Kelly Benefits’ proprietary benefits administration platform.

“It’s a very sophisticated, cutting edge [system] that has evolved over 45 years,” he says. “My mom first did the bills handwritten on carbon paper. It was a big day when she did the bills with an electronic typewriter on carbon paper. Then we went to a Wang mini mainframe, to a PC network, to 65 people on our technology team – engineers, designers, and developers.”

“So, yeah,” Frank says regarding the secret to the business’s good standing. “God’s blessing, hard work, great people, and our technology.”

 

Doing Things ‘The Kelly Way’

 Neither Frank nor his brothers had an inclination of joining the family business. John graduated from Washington College, while David and Bryan were national lacrosse champions at the University of North Carolina.

But the family crest’s inspiration was calling, and their father was persuasive. Today, Frank functions as the CEO for all of the Kelly Benefits entities. John functions as Chief Innovation Officer and heads up the direct sales division, Kelly Benefits Strategies; David serves as Chief Organizational Officer and leads Kelly Benefits Advantage and Kelly Benefits Payroll; and Bryan is the vice president of broker sales for Kelly Benefits Advantage.

They all follow and impart a core set of values that inspires their teams to be the best they can be for their many clients.

The Kelly Way Culture Guide, Frank explains, outlines the company’s vision, mission, values, action statements, pillars, and cornerstones.

“Our cornerstone, by the way, is love,” he continues. “It comes from Deuteronomy 6 and the gospel of Mark. When Jesus is asked what the most important commandment is, he says, ‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Without that love – love for the Creator, love for one another, and love for one’s fellow man – Kelly Benefits would not be the powerhouse it is today. In fact, all-encompassing love fuels the company’s vision statement, which the family refers to as “The Business of Better.”

“It’s the vision that we want to make businesses better to help make a better world,” Frank says. And that starts with enriching a company’s greatest assets: it’s people. “Better people make better businesses, which can help make a better community and world.”

“That’s what we appreciate about the Maryland Free Enterprise Foundation,” he says about the nonpartisan political research organization in which he serves on the board of directors. “Maryland Free is helping businesses be the best they can be, so that those businesses can help people and help communities. Our vision aligns with that goal of making businesses better in the state of Maryland.”

The Kelly Family is not blind to the challenges inherent in building, operating, and growing a successful business in the state of Maryland. But fostering a negative outlook is not part of The Kelly Way.

“We love the state, and we’ve been blessed with great people – many of whom come from Maryland… Our biggest concern is regulatory challenges in the state that make it more and more difficult to do business efficiently and effectively. But we try to focus on the positive and the opportunities to serve others.”

“We provide group insurance benefits and payroll to thousands of businesses throughout Maryland, and we’re very honored to work with every one of them, and every client,” he continues. “Our goal is just to help them to be the very best they can be by providing great benefits to their people, and to make sure their payroll is processed efficiently and accurately.”

 

Shelter from the Storm

Kelly Benefits’ annual corporate meeting had been scheduled for Thursday, March 12, 2020. There were 500 people on the guest list.

On Wednesday evening, March 11, the company pulled the plug on the gathering.

The world changed overnight.

“It’s been different ever since,” Frank says. “We went from more than 450 people in the office to 25 essential employees on site.”

Fortunately, the Kelly team had previously participated in hours upon hours of disaster preparation, which allowed them to quickly transition.

“We didn’t think we’d ever have to do this,” Frank says. “But 90 percent of our people are working from home or remotely – and doing it effectively… We’ve asked our directors, leaders, and managers to do what’s best for their teams, and to manage specific situations.”

The company was not without its casualties, however.

“We’ve lost clients and we’ve had clients shrink because they’ve done what was necessary to survive… But we’ve been able to maintain the vast majority of our staff and do what we can to weather the storm.”

As the world, and the nation, finally reopens on a broad scale, people remain the utmost concern among Kelly Benefits’ leadership. 

“We realize some of our people have health conditions, or family members with health conditions that would keep them from being able to come in,” Frank says. “But, in general, we’re encouraging people to come back under their supervisors’ direction.”

Starting in June, Kelly Benefits will begin a multi-day hybrid rotation in an effort to get employees back into the office on occasion, while still getting the job done whether they’re working from the office or remotely.

“The multi-day hybrid rotation is in part to support the economy and in part to support each other,” says Frank. “We know that there are synergies that happen when we’re in the office together, but we’re trying to manage it all wisely.”

Frank sees a future in which a third of his staff is on-site, full time, while a third rotates, and a third remains working from home.

“It needs to be done in a way that serves our clients and our vendors with integrity and excellence,” he says.

 

A Many-Colored Tapestry

Between Frank, his brothers, and their parents, the family is active on approximately 40 nonprofit boards.

His father, Francis X. Kelly Jr., remains heavily involved in multiple causes.

He previously worked closely with Dr. R Adams Cowley, the father of shock trauma, and was instrumental in the law that created the R Adams Crowley Shock Trauma Center. In 2000, the nation’s first chair in trauma surgery – The Honorable Francis X. Kelly Distinguished Professorship in Trauma Surgery – was named after him. The professorship is held by Dr. Thomas M. Scalea, who is widely regarded as the finest trauma surgeon in the world.

The company’s patriarch is also busy celebrating the Cal Ripkin Sr. Foundation’s 20th anniversary. Immediate past chair of the board, he remains active with the organization, which is finishing construction on its 100th multi-use, synthetic turf park in South Baltimore. It will be christened Kelly Field at Constellation Park.

Among many other worthy causes, Frank III and his wife Gayle are currently chairing a $61-million campaign for Helping Up Mission in Baltimore City. Groundbreaking for the facility took place two years ago. It will house up to 200 women dealing with addiction, homelessness, and mental health issues – and up to 50 of their children.

“We raised over $57 million of our goal, so far,” Frank says. “We’re hoping to cut a ribbon and have a grand opening in early November.”

The Kellys’ community efforts do not stop there. Far from it. Their dedication to helping improve the lives of others is comprehensively documented on the Kelly Benefits website. It is a proud legacy – for a sizeable family.

“Between me and my brothers, we have 21 children,” Frank says. “Fifteen boys and 6 girls.”

And almost all have played lacrosse at one time or another.

 

Getting Ahead in the Game

Twelve of the Kelly family’s 15 boys have played or are currently playing lacrosse at Calvert Hall College High School, where brother Bryan Kelly has served as the head coach of the varsity team since 1996. Under his watch, the team won an unprecedented three straight championships – and Calvert Hall’s fifth MIAA title – between 2017-2019.

The brothers are no strangers to championships, though – Bryan was an Honorable Mention All-American defenseman on the University of North Carolina’s undefeated 1991 National Championship lacrosse team, and David played on the 1986 NCAA National Championship lacrosse team. Frank’s son Stephen, and David’s sons Patrick and Timmy helped lead UNC to another National Championship in 2016. And John’s son, Johnny, was a captain for the Ohio State team that lost to Maryland in the 2017 National Championship game.  

“The game of lacrosse is commonly known as the Creator’s game,” Frank says. “It was fist played by the North American Indians.” French missionaries who encountered them at play would later adapt it.

While obviously quite different from today’s iteration, the sport was nonetheless played with a long stick with netting, and a round stone. And it began as a sort of war game.

“Instead of fighting to death over water rights, they would play a lacrosse game for it,” Frank explains. “Apparently, the games would last for days.”

Today’s games last only four quarters – a bit speedier than its origins. In fact, another nickname for the Kellys’ favorite pastime is “the fastest game on two feet.”

“There’s a lot of action on the field,” Frank says. “It’s not like baseball, which can last hours. You know when it’s going to start and when it’s going to end. And everybody’s involved. It’s good exercise.”

Lacrosse, he adds, blends elements of football, basketball, and ice hockey into one dynamic sport.

“It’s physical, but there’s finesse,” he says. And, of course, as with anything worth doing – there are lessons that can be learned from lacrosse and applied to one’s own life.

And business.

“There’s just something about athletic competition that helps shape a competitive spirit in a positive way,” Frank says. “You learn to overcome obstacles. You learn to persevere. You learn to win. You learn to lose. You learn you like winning a lot better than losing… You learn to respect authority and to honor your teammates. All of those things … they carry over.”