Jane Burgess, the new CEO and manager of the Walter T. Kelley Company, is talking about the steep learning curve she's been grappling with since the company was bought in December from the local hospital foundation.
Burgess, a former manager of a Louisville 300-employee appliance plant, has spent the last month and a half gauging that expertise at Kelley's, and she says she's found plenty of it.
“People aren't going to see Kelley's making any big changes,” she said Monday, “except that we'd like to grow, to use all our buildings at capacity, and continue what Kelley's is known for - new, innovative products.”
“The Kelleys built the company on customer service,” she said. “A beekeeper or a supplier of products from Kelley's were friends, members of a family.
“We'll continue that kind of relationships with old friends and welcome new customers in the same way,” she said.
With her husband, Burgess has moved to Leitchfield. The couple has two grown children “who no longer live at home, but they call every day.”
The company was bought by two Grayson County entrepreneurs, Joe Papalia and Alan Bernard, who closed the deal December 14, 2007. Walter and Ida Kelley had willed the company to the hospital foundation in 1986, stipulating that it would remain in foundation ownership for 20 years. The sale price was not revealed Monday.
In a news release announcing the purchase, Papalia said the company “was founded on making a great product and selling it at a reasonable price.
“We will continue this tradition with the help of our customers, and we ask them to let us know what problems they have or ways to make our product better. We will try to make it happen,” he said. Burgess thinks the company can live up to that promise.
“Employees here have at an average been with the company over 15 years, with the longest employment being 40-plus years and the newest hire being within the last month,” she said.
She said Earl King would continue “to juggle operations, customer requests and traveling between shows.”
The customer service staff has a long relationship with Kelley's customers, she said, and with their years of experience are able to answer bee-related questions and concerns.
“We want to be a curious, forward-thinking operation that works for the benefit of the beekeeper. We want to stay rooted in the beekeeping industry,” she said.
For example, she continued, we have people like Kenny Day, one of the longest term employees, who can help customers in specialized needs in honey processing equipment, often designing and helping build equipment that fits their unique needs.
Burgess wants to keep the company's unique relationship with the community, too. “We'd be crazy not to.”
“Things were a little in flux during last year's Honeyfest when purchase negotiations were going on,” she said, “and people might have gotten the impression we weren't gung-ho about it, but we are gung-ho about this community, and we'll definitely have a presence at next year's festival.”
“And we're currently looking for more ideas and into ways we can be more visible in Grayson County and among our family of customers,” she said. “People will see us going the extra mile to introduce ourselves; we want to be visible.”
Burgess said the company will keep its wood, beeswax and stainless steel manufacturing at the local plant. She said she did not expect operations at other plants to be moved to Clarkson.
“We'll be what we have been,” she said, “just more of what we're already doing.”
“We're here,” she said, “and we're strong. There's not going to be any moves to China or Mexico for us, even though that might be happening with other plants.”
What worries Burgess?
“The colony collapse disorder that hit many commercial beekeepers is the big one,” she said.
“We don't yet know what the cause is, but a lot of experts are working hard to find out,” she said.
She said that early reports coming in are positive. “We're keeping our fingers crossed,” she said, “but beekeepers out there are reporting that this year's hives are looking good so far, but it is early in the new season, so we'll have to wait and see.”
Among beekeepers that Kelley's serves directly - about a 300-mile radius from the plant - there have been very few reports of colony collapse, she reports.
Equipment the company makes is sold to suppliers who re-sell the wares internationally, she said. And this has done a lot for Kelley's reputation.
“The most important thing is the trust that has been built between Kelley's and our customers,” she said. “That kind of thing is built over time, and it gets built by listening to customers, by saying you don't know if you don't know, and working hard to get answers.”
“I've been spending a lot of time over in our display room,” she said, “studying the history of Kelley's, and there's a lot of it, all of it very interesting to me.”
The first mini-crisis Burgess has had to deal with has been “believe it or not, honey candy!”
“The Peerless Candy Company, our past supplier, said they were going to quit making it,” she said, “but we've found a new company who says they can make it better.”
“The first shipment, which we've checked by tasting it, is good and will be here in two weeks!”
When asked what Kelley's is all about now, Burgess sums it up this way: “We're not here to make a fortune; we want to see this place work.”