Kells think out of the box
Tom and John Kell go beyond the ordinary in working with corrugated paper -- and in working with the community.
By Rod Stetzer
It's noisy at the plant, but Tom Kell's voice can be heard clearly.
"You can hear the kicker going. It's picking up one sheet. We have three ink stations here so we can print out three colors of ink at one time, using a rubber-based print plate," he says while giving a tour of Kell Container, a Chippewa Falls company with 200 employees and over 1,200 customers.
Kell Container keeps in business by turning an everyday material other people call cardboard into containers that can be shipped around the world, and sales devices that convince people to buy Ninetendo games and game systems.
It's a company that was started April 1, 1964 by Kell's parents, Paul and Carey Kell, in Eau Claire 40 years ago, and migrated to 421 Palmer Street in Chippewa Falls four years later.
Kell Container's sales, when combined with the sales of Kell Specialty Products and Kell Fulfillment Center, are in excess of $35 million today. The company has about 200 employees and 1,200 customers. By those measures alone, the company is a success.
"Probably 70 percent of our boxes are all corrugate shipping containers," said Kell, 55, who is president of the company. His brother, John, 53, is co-owner and CEO of the company.
For Tom Kell, it's a simple business. "We're no different than the machine shop down the street. We're a job shop. So everything we make is to someone's specifications," he said.
But the company's impact on Chippewa Falls and the Chippewa Valley goes beyond the walls that hold its eight-color offset press, five-color Cuir Rotalfexo Printer and the two-color Langston Flexo Folder Gluer. The Kells' enthusiasm for the company's successs is matched only by their enthusiasm for the community's success.
"They've helped us in about everything we've done," said Bill Faherty, director of the Park and Recreation Department in Chippewa Falls.
Tom Kell has been very supportive of the city's soccer fields, helping the city with the irrigation system that keeps the fields green. Faherty said Kell will help with just about anything when asked.
Tom Kell served on the board of directors for the St. Joseph's Hospital Foundation for nine years, said Jim Docksey, a stockbroker for Edward Jones and a member of the Chippewa Falls Rotary Club. Kell is a past president of the Chippewa Falls United Way, and served on the board for Central Lutheran Church in Chippewa Falls for several years.
"Tom is what I consider a center of influence in the community," Docksey said. "He's one of those people you meet right away and you realize how generous he is."
Docksey remembers the time hard and dirty work was needed to remove a floor at the Chippewa Valley Family YMCA in Chippewa Falls. The old flooring had to be chiseled and the glue scraped off to get the job done. "And there was Tom Kell," doing the grunt work, Docksey said.
Kell Container has made a difference at the YMCA at 611 Jefferson Ave., said Jennifer Sherbinow, the Y's program director.
"They've been a business that's always been there," she said. "They've helped donated equipment in the past and have always given to our major campaigns."
When the Chippewa Youth Hockey Association needed help buying a new Zamboni to refinish the ice surface or to build a new hockey rink, it turned to Kell Container for help.
"Kell was one of the constant and most generous businesses," said Dean White, who served as the association's president for six years.
The company sponsors youth hockey teams and donated $15,000 toward a new hockey rink, White said. "Every time something happens, Tom thinks of the non-profits and the youths," he said.
CEO John Kell has also done much for the community.
The 1973 University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduate in business administration in May received the University's President's Award. John Kell is secretary of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation board and served on the board since 1996. And he serves on the university's Football Advisory Committee.
In 1997, the company started the Kell Container Scholarship for faculty-student collaborative research at the university. And the corporation contributed money to create the Kell Container Blugold Football Opportunity Endowment.
And a retired company officer, Mike Kell -- a brother of John and Tom -- is a past member of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation investment committee. Along with Tom, Mike Kell was recently honored with the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association's Honorary Alumnus Award.
"You've got to help those who are less fortunate than you are or I am," Tom Kell said. "This community is fantastic for giving . . . Those who give are way above the national average. But we'd like to see more people give."
Docksey is amazed by the kindness and generosity of the company, its workers and the people who lead it.
"If all of us were a little bit more like the Kells, it would be a better community," Docksey said.
Rod Stetzer is a reporter for the Chippewa Herald. Contact the Chippewa Valley Business Report at 723-5515 or through www.chippewavalleybusinessreport.com.
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