Leading Ladies: Suzy Kelly
By Leona Baker
Susan “Suzy” Kelly
CEO of Jo-Kell Inc.; Member of Chesapeake City Council
A maze of color-coded electrical wires stares back at Suzy Kelly from inside a large, gray fiberglass box created by her engineering team at Jo-Kell, a locally based electrical distribution and engineering company. The guys are showing off their work at the end of the day.
A custom-built system like this one may not be the prettiest to the untrained eye, but it is a thing of beauty to the military or industrial customer who needs it to run large, complex equipment including on docks, ships, even floating underwater rescue platforms.
Thirty years ago, Suzy Kelly was more likely to be staring at a maze of molars than wires. She got her master’s degree in dental hygiene at ODU before working for her father-in-law, Jo-Kell founder Joseph Kelly, who she refers to as the “human Internet” because he made a business of tracking down equipment others couldn’t find.
“They would call and say, ‘My motor blew up; I need a motor,’” says Suzy Kelly, who serves as CEO of Jo-Kell alongside her husband and company president, Marty Kelly. “Joe Kelly would teach me the right questions to ask—the horsepower, the RPMs, whether it was enclosed. I just learned as I went.”
At the time, Jo-Kell was a tiny wholesale operation. Today, they have about 65 employees and locations in Richmond, Jacksonville, Atlanta, San Diego and Chesapeake, where they are “bursting at the seams” and will soon break ground on a larger facility.
“I discovered I loved doing it,” Suzy Kelly says. “I still love the challenge, making money, making a profit, employing people. I love seeing our families here grow. I love seeing our employees become successful. I found out you could have fun and make money.”
And, yes, they have fun at Jo-Kell. Humor is listed as one of the company’s core values alongside their mission. Kelly says she hopes her employees would say she “feeds them well” with regular office breakfasts, lunches and employee appreciation events like “Beat the Heat with a Liquid Treat” in August, when her office is filled with liquid refreshments of all kinds, emphasis on “all.”
“The bottom line is I hire people that are experts in the field. I don’t need to know everything. I need to know the science of people. I need to know people work. I need to know how to keep them happy and what makes them tick.”
As a wife and mother, Kelly sees herself as a nurturing person. Her kind, soft-spoken demeaner belies a passion for her work, not only at Jo-Kell but in her role as member of Chesapeake City Council and as a devout Catholic. She is currently serving a second term on council and runs Catholic Passion Ministries along with one of her Jo-Kell colleagues.
“I love politics and religion, the two things that you’re not supposed to talk about. If you don’t like that kind of conversation, you don’t want to corner me at a cocktail party,” she laughs. “It’s a matter of a dialogue. I like to find out where people are coming from and why. It helps us get along.”
A thick stack of papers on Kelly’s desk is a collection of written versions of “Ponderful Moments,” 45-second inspirational, Catholic-based messages she records for a local radio show and Radio Maria, an international Catholic program. She hopes to publish them in a book.
“I am driven by my faith, so everything I do, I do for God. That’s the way I look at people. Everybody here has the dignity of being created by God, so they deserve to be treated with dignity.”
Kelly and her colleagues also see giving back as paramount. Among other efforts, they collect almost three tons of food in an annual charity drive.
“Once you start looking at how you can help others and how it impacts the community,” Kelly explains, “it’s very contagious.”