As CEO, Kevin Kelly, 54, heads Emerald Packaging Inc. of Union City, Calif., acknowledged as the West Coast's largest flexible packaging manufacturer.
He grew up in Alameda, Calif., with one brother and one sister. Both are with the business, James M. Kelly as executive vice president for key accounts and Maura Kelly Koberlein as executive vice president for job estimating and scheduling.
“Having grown up in the industry, my first job was helping in the shipping department when I was 14,” Kevin Kelly recalled. “Back then there was less worry about teens in the factory. Admittedly, it took me time to catch on. Once I sent a shipment to Alaska that belonged in Oregon.”
Kelly received a bachelor's degree in political science and government from Santa Clara University in 1983 and a master's degree in economics from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1986.
He joined BusinessWeek magazine in March 1987 as a correspondent covering the economy, airlines and manufacturing from bureaus in Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago. “I got most stories right, some wrong,” he said.
On an assignment in 1988, he had a memorable moment in Belfast, Northern Ireland's capital. “I had a gun pointed at my head by a British officer while doing a story on the finances of the Irish Republican Army. Hard to forget that moment.”
Journalism was instructive. “Todd Mason, my bureau chief in Dallas, taught me to always check my facts and not rush to judgment. He also made sure we wrote stories from the perspective of ordinary people, which still informs my treatment of employees.”
Kelly left the magazine in 1996 to join Emerald, but he kept writing freelance articles about running a business for BusinessWeek, the former Fortune Small Business magazine and the Newsweek magazine website. He also writes a hard-hitting blog, “Musings of a CEO.”
At Emerald, Kelly held a series of positions and began to put his imprint on the business.
Kelly became chief executive in 2002 when Emerald had sales of $18 million.
“We had lost a couple of large customers the prior year so my main focus was replacing them. We fairly quickly landed more business at a current customer and then got somewhat lucky when a customer who had left came back to us because the new supplier failed.”
As CEO, he succeeded his mentor and father James P. Kelly, who helped found the company in 1963, technically retired in 2002 and sold the business to his three children in 2008.
“My father taught hard work and integrity, in other words keeping your word.”
At age 85, James P. Kelly, however, remains a presence at Emerald, coming into the facility often and, as requested, sharing his extensive industry knowledge.
“Being chief executive is undoubtedly the most interesting job I've ever had,” Kevin Kelly said. “Every day, it seems something new is thrown my way plus I have my hands in so many things including investment, finance, marketing and, to a lesser degree, operations. Days move fast, and very often they are fun.”
Emerald focuses “almost entirely on flexible packaging for the food industry, with a particular emphasis on produce,” Kelly said. “We do almost the entire range of converting activities including printing, bag and pouch making, laminating, slitting, laser perforating and Inno-Lok insertion into roll stock. Emerald is one of the few companies to encompass such capabilities under one roof, which sets us apart from most competitors.”
Emerald invests in people and capital equipment to match its capabilities with the needs of its customers.
Emerald says it was the first company to embrace digital printing for flexible packaging. In mid-2014, Emerald began using an Indigo WS20000 printing press from Hewlett Packard Co.
Also, Emerald operates seven color flexographic printing presses, makes bags on 28 lines and, on demand, can execute quick turnarounds.
Emerald's culture is “highly multi-ethnic, reflecting to some degree our location” in the San Francisco Bay area, he said.
“We have no issue promoting women into manufacturing management roles, including our chief operating officer, Pallavi Joyappa. We run a highly driven, fast-paced factory. Admittedly, that isn't for everyone.”
Emerald has professionalized its middle and upper management. Todd Somers joined Emerald as director of sales and marketing.
“We still retain elements of a family business, helping employees where we can and contributing significantly to charities focused on education,” he said.
Kelly encourages new employees to be inquisitive. “Learn everything you can about the company and the industry. Take outside classes, which we will pay for, to sharpen your business skills. And don't shy away from taking a position and arguing for it. That's the only way we will come to good decisions.”
Emerald employs 250, operates on a campus with 240,000 square feet and reported sales of more than $89.7 million for the fiscal year ended Aug. 31.
In March, the Flexible Packaging Association competition recognized Emerald with three awards: a printing and shelf-impact gold for a series of three PET/polyethylene Dole Food Co. fruit and veggie blend pouches; a packaging excellence silver for a PET/PE Organicgirl Produce LLC three-heart Romaine stand-up pouch with a Velcro fastener; and a sustainability silver for a 25-percent-potato-resin 75-percent-PE film blend developed with BiologiQ Inc. of Idaho Falls, Idaho, for potato bags.
Kelly received the Western Plastics Association's 2013 Leo Shluker Award in part for his advocacy of education and the industry. His father received Shluker awards in 1987 and 1996 from the organization then operating as the California Film Extruders and Converters Association. Kelly served two terms as CFECA president and multiple terms as CFECA and WPA vice president.
Kelly's interests include writing, parenting a son and two daughters with his wife Erin Jaeb, travel, politics, Civil War re-enacting and helping make Catholic school education available to those in need.
Kelly says he would like “to leave the company and my community in a better place than when I arrived. I don't think I'm unique in that way. We all hope to leave the world a better place than we found it.”