Kelly, William Russell

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Kelly, William Russell

Kelly Services, Inc.


William Russell Kelly capitalized on businesses' needs for temporary clerical and office support, and turned the idea into the billion dollar Kelly Services, Inc. The company evolved as industry needs changed, and temporary services were expanded to include marketing, labor, and technical support.

Personal Life

William Russell Kelly was born in British Columbia, Canada, in 1905. As a teen he attended the Gulfcoast Military Academy and graduated in 1922 at the age of 16. Kelly continued his education, at Vanderbilt University and then graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. He went on to hold a number of jobs including auto salesman and accountant, and was a fiscal management analyst during service in World War II. He married Margaret Adderley and adopted one son, Terrence Adderley. Kelly died of cancer at the age of 92 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1998.

Career Details

When World War II ended and Kelly returned to civilian life, he envisioned reams of paperwork being generated as people returned to business. He decided to start his own business in Detroit, Michigan, reasoning that the after-war demand for automobiles would bolster the industry, increase paperwork, and create a need for typing, filing, duplicating, and mailing.

Using $10,000 in personal savings and hiring two employees, Kelly started Russell Kelly's Office Service in 1946. The business got off to a slow start. While it was true that post-war life had created an abundance of new paperwork, companies preferred to handle the paperwork internally and set up in-house offices to do so. But Kelly had a breakthrough in his take on the trend when a frantic client asked him to send one of his employees over to help out in a pinch. Kelly glimpsed the possibilities of a new slant on his business—providing temporary personnel that would go into companies and provide administrative or clerical support in-house.

The concept worked. Not only did companies want the service, but women were ready and willing to work as temporary employees. Women had been encouraged immediately after the war to stay at home and save jobs for the returning men, though they had entered all sorts of professions while the male workforce was off fighting. Many women maintained the desire to work in some sort of professional capacity after the war, even though it was frowned upon. For these women, working as a Kelly temporary worker was a way for them to occupy the roles of housewife and career woman simultaneously. As a "Kelly Girl", a worker could always decline an assignment if pressing needs, such as a sick child, made leaving the house difficult.

Kelly Services continued to grow. In 1952, Kelly added another office in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1955, the company had branch offices in 29 cities. At this time, Kelly changed the name of his company to Kelly Girl Services, Inc. In the 1950s, the company had annual gross revenues of $7 million annually and placed up to 20,000 women annually in temporary positions.

By the 1960s, the company employed about 84,000 "Kelly Girls". Kelly intentionally pitched the company to attract his profile of a typical Kelly Girl: a housewife in her late 30s or older, with two to three children. He appealed to these women's desire to enter the workforce. Kelly suggested that a job as a temporary would give these women the experience they needed to function in the work world. Women who had never worked, or who had not been employed outside the home for the years their children were young, were encouraged to sharpen their skills through temporary work before going on to look for a permanent job. The pitch was successful, and Kelly's workforce grew.

The company expanded its focus in the 1960s and added temporary placement services for marketing, labor, and technical workers. This new emphasis drew more male applicants and revenues jumped to $46 million. By 1965, the company had placed 15,000 men in temporary positions. As more males joined the Kelly workforce, the name Kelly Girl was no longer appropriate, and in 1966 the company changed its name to Kelly Services, Inc.

In the 1980s, Kelly Services had more than 750 offices around the world. Kelly's success also attracted competitors, which in 1970 included more than 1,000 other firms that cumulatively placed more than 1 million personnel annually and had total revenues of $1.5 billion.

In the years since its inception, Kelly Services refined its selection and placement process. Kelly staff interviewed prospects for temporary work and evaluated them on appearance, demeanor and skills to find the best match for employment. The company guaranteed its services 100 percent, a unique feature in the industry. In the 1980s, the company established a video training network, which standardized training and saved the company money. The company went on to develop other training programs for their temporary workers, including the Dexterity Indexer System (which evaluated light industrial workers) and the PC-Pro System (which trained temporary employees in the use of computer software). The company also began the Encore program, in 1987, which recruited retired workers into temporary service.

Chronology: William Russell Kelly

1905: Born.

1925: Graduated University of Pittsburgh.

1946: Started Russell Kelly Office Service in Detroit, Michigan.

1952: Added first branch office in Louisville, Kentucky.

1955: Changed company name to Kelly Girl Services, Inc.

1962: Took company public.

1962: Introduced marketing, labor, and technical temporary services.

1966: Changed company name to Kelly Services, Inc.

1985: Developed Dexterity Indexer System to evaluate temporary light industrial workers.

1987: Developed PC-Pro System to train temporary employees on computer software.

1998: Died.

Social and Economic Impact

Kelly's concept of offering temporary employment services was, in hindsight, perfectly timed. Between 1940 and 1945, the number of working women in the United States increased by more than 50 percent. And 75 percent of these women were married. Kelly's business venture initially employed mainly women, and capitalized on the desire of women to work in a way that would not disrupt their obligations at home.

Aiding the company's rapid growth was an explosion in the need for clerical services from the 1950s well into the 1970s. Between 1950 and 1974, the number of female clerical workers increased 250 percent in the United States. Although male clerical workers also increased during this time, the numbers were hardly as drastic, from 3 million in 1950 to 3.4 million by 1974. Many of the new female clerical workers in the years after the war were married and had children, and the number of working mothers in general increased 400 percent in the decades after World War II.

Opinion on the concept of temporary workers—both from experts in the industry and from the workers themselves—remained mixed. One expert found the concept demeaning, commenting that "a temporary worker in many situations seems to be merely another type of moveable office equipment. When work is characterized by such alienating qualities, what place does it have in the lives of the workers?" Industry analysts suggested that temporary work demeaned women and gave them less leverage than they already had in the workplace. But while some women agreed, others enjoyed the freedom that temporary work brought to employment. These women were able to say no to a job with less risk than a permanent employee might incur. And some workers have commented that as long as the work itself was not particularly interesting or challenging, it was better to do it on a temporary basis.

Kelly Services' financial figures also reflected the exponential growth in the industry. In 1986 the company was the first temporary services agency to pass the $1 billion mark in revenue. By 1987, revenue had increased to $1.6 billion and the company maintained a list of 525,000 temporary employees. Kelly Services, though surrounded by competitors, captured almost 10 percent of the market for temporary services and remained one of the largest players in the industry. By 1996, the company achieved sales in excess of $3 billion. With an estimated net worth of $540 million, Kelly was named as 1 of America's 4 richest men from 1985 to 1997, by Forbes magazine. He served as chairman of the board for Kelly Services, Inc. until his death in 1998.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Kelly Services, Inc.
999 W. Big Beaver Rd.
Troy, MI 48084
Business Phone: (248)362–4444


Ingham, John N., and Lynne B. Feldman, eds. Contemporary American Business Leaders. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

"Kelly Services Founder William Russell Kelly Dies at Age 92." Dallas Morning News, 5 January 1998.

Who's Who in America. New Providence, NJ: Marquis Who's Who, 1996.

"William Kelly; Temporary Jobs Pioneer." Los Angeles Times, 3 January 1998.