As Tom Kelly, senior vice president for MHI Machine Tool, retires after more than three decades of service, he reflects on his legacy and looks forward to life after Mitsubishi.

After an evening of dinner and a meet-and-greet with his wife and children, one of Tom Kelly’s dear friends and colleagues sat the senior vice president for MHI Machine Tool down and revealed a moment of truth that made Kelly cry.

“Tom, I’ve got to tell you something,” Ed Davis began, tearing up. “My relationship with you as a supplier and a supplier-partner is something I’ve never had with anybody before. I trusted you more than I trusted the people who worked for me. You never let me down, and you always did what you said you would do … I thank you for that.”

That powerful testimony goes a long way to define the kind of personal and professional man Kelly is and what he has stood for in his decades working for Mitsubishi Heavy Industry.

It’s also part of a strong legacy he will be leaving behind when he officially retires from MHI January 8, 2021, ending a journey he began with the heavy machinery giant in March 1987.

And although he’s been spending time at his North Carolina residence, the idea of retirement still hasn’t quite hit him yet.

“It’s definitely surreal; it’s very emotional,” Kelly said. “Moving out of my office, I took some pictures. I’m down on my hands and knees scrubbing out cupboards and stuff. We don’t have a janitor that works in our office. Again, it’s the way we run our office; you see something that needs to be done or you see garbage on the floor, pick it up; don’t step over it.”

The start of something big

Kelly’s origins with Mitsubishi began in Detroit when he convinced his father-in-law to buy a Daihatsu lathe that was imported by the Mitsubishi International Corporation and sold locally by Ed Vandervelden — a dealer with whom Kelly would eventually work selling similar machines.

“I bought that and actually got to meet some of the Mitsubishi people in the Chicago area,” Kelly said. “And they’re still friends to this day. And some of them have been work colleagues as I morphed this job into what it is now.”

Vandervelden and Kelly didn’t see eye-to-eye on several aspects of the business, but during that time starting in March of 1987, Kelly was able to book a lot of business.

“I ended up landing a big project for the Saturn Motor Company in Spring Hill, Tennessee, along with several other projects,” Kelly said. “And I was rocking and rolling and actually getting the respect of Mitsubishi in Japan. They really liked working with me, and I ended up developing a great rapport with Takuya Kawada.”

Tom Kelly, Takuya Kawada, and Takayo Noguchi in 1988. (Courtesy: Tom Kelly)

This team up became successful almost immediately.

“I’ve worked with Tom for more than 30 years; he always brought us some technically challenging orders from customers,” said Kawada, who is the liaison management officer for MHI in Japan. “I met him for the first time at our Kyoto plant in Japan for Chrysler’s New Process Gear project. At that time, we made a unique tooling gear shaping machine with tandem cutters that was cutting gears simultaneously.”

That budding relationship with Mitsubishi took Kelly in a new and exciting direction.

“I ended up leaving Vandervelden and going to work for Mitsubishi International Corporation, which was the importer of the machine tools, so I ended up being Vandervelden’s superior,” Kelly said.

It was his continued success with Mitsubishi that eventually led to his current position as senior vice president — one that was created especially for Kelly.

“I was carrying in the gear cutting machines more than half of the sales throughout North America, just myself, out of an office building in Southfield, Michigan,” he said. “Things were going so well, and things were getting tight from the standpoint of customer service and support that was being handled by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of America out of Chicago. And I would have to negotiate with them for their attention. Meanwhile, they’ve got maybe 15 or 16 other distributors and dealers wanting their attention to sell one machine at a time where I was getting 10 to 15 machine orders. I had a lot of stuff that I needed done, and the assets — their assets — weren’t being managed well, because as far as I was concerned, my customers were more important than anybody’s.”

Tom Kelly with Ed Davis, manufacturing engineering manager with New Venture Gear, in Kyoto, Japan, in 1987. (Courtesy: Tom Kelly)

Making it official

In 1999, Kelly successfully negotiated with MHI and put together a business plan for North America on how machines would be sold, how many salespeople and service techs were needed, as well as eliminating unnecessary reps and distributors — basically covering all sales and service for North America.

“We successfully convinced them that we could do that under Mitsubishi International Corporation,” he said.

This continued through 2007 when Mitsubishi International Corporation changed its business philosophies and rolled Kelly’s business into Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of America.

“So, I got a demotion; I went from being president, who was in charge of making budgets and doing all the hiring and staffing and policymaking, to senior vice president,” Kelly said. “Basically, a Japanese general manager was placed over me, and he was in charge of all the financials, which was fine for me. I was responsible for meeting the sales budget. We would come to an agreement at the beginning of the year where we would settle on what I needed to do and plan a path toward meeting those goals.”

Being able to take MHI to a direct sales platform and opening an office in Wixom, Michigan, is what Kelly considers one of his defining moments at MHI.

“That was a big step,” he said.

The MHI team poses for a group photo at last year’s Motion + Power Technology Expo. (Courtesy: Tom Kelly)

Trips to Japan

With MHI based in Japan, a lot of Kelly’s tenure has involved dozens of trips to the other side of the world.

“I’ve been to Japan more than 50 times,” he said. “I used to have a little joke with my Japanese friends. I’d say, ‘How many times have you been to Japan?’ And they’d look at me very confused. ‘How many times have you left Japan?’ ‘Oh, twice.’ Then I’d say, ‘OK, so you’ve been to Japan three times. I’ve traveled to Japan far more than you have.’”

Over the years, Kelly has developed an enduring friendship with Mitsubishi’s Kawada.

“Tom has always suggested and provided our customers’ needs and demanded what we should address and develop,” Kawada said. “He also let us meet U.S. regulations and customers’ specifications for our products, too. He is just like a teacher for leading us to the U.S. market from Japan.”

Kelly’s time with Kawada and in Japan has forged a special friendship between the two.

“During our business relationship, he has enjoyed Japanese culture. We visited many historical places in Japan, and he especially loved Japanese traditional meals, sushi and sashimi with sake, and Karaoke bars,” Kawada said. “He also invited us to his house and cottage by the lake and golf club. He introduced us to typical U.S. life with his family and friends. We appreciate Tom and his heartwarming care and hard work through his long career. He is a precious family member of Mitsubishi Machine Tools and my brother.”

Making (and keeping) friends along the way

Kelly promised that the friendships he has cultivated over the decades will only grow stronger after he retires.

“I may be retiring from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, but I will still be in communication with a lot of my old friends,” Kelly said. “Also, the gear-cutting industry is quite unique even amongst competitors. Competitors can actually be social friends. That’s been a nice experience. It’s been an emotional time to step aside, but I need to do some different things with my life.”

That’s especially true of one of Kelly’s competitors, David Goodfellow, CEO of Star SU LLC.

“David Goodfellow’s been kind of my nemesis over the years,” Kelly said. “I’ve stolen jobs from him, and I’ve lost a lot of jobs to him.”

But it’s obvious from Goodfellow that he wishes Kelly nothing but the best.

“Tom always made a good impression when we would meet at AGMA meetings,” Goodfellow said. “Especially when he showed up with his kilt and turned it into a memorable moment. On the more serious side, Tom has a good way with people, and I wish him a good retirement.”

Tom Kelly and his wife, Cayce, take in a University of Alabama football game with Gear Solutions publisher David Cooper and his wife, Teresa. (Courtesy: David Cooper)

Good friends almost from the day they met, Jamie Gibbs, president of Gibbs Industries, said Kelly has been a constant champion for Mitsubishi, helping the company get a machine-tool foothold in the U.S.

“I’ve known Tom forever,” Gibbs said. “And he’s always been the same guy. He digs in and helps the customers, and he’s just a wonderful person in general. His reputation is stellar, bar none. He’s always kept this straight line, and that’s the way he was and is to this day — smart, articulate, forthright. He’s ‘Mr. Mitsubishi,’ and championed it like no tomorrow.”

And, in true fashion, Kelly feels the same way about Gibbs.

“He’s one of my best friends,” Kelly said. “He was one of the first guys bedside when I had my heart attack. He’s a go-to guy, and we’ve traveled to Japan together.”

David Cooper, publisher of Gear Solutions, also has nothing but good things to say about Kelly and his personal and professional character.

“I got to know Tom through the magazine; Mitsubishi was the first major gear machine manufacturer to advertise with us, and they have been on the back cover of every issue ever since,” he said. “I’ll never forget the faith he showed in us from the beginning. I also had the pleasure of having Tom and his lovely wife, Cayce, down for an Alabama football game. But beyond that, his friendship and knowledge of the industry have been invaluable to both me
and the growth of
Gear Solutions magazine.”

The next phase

Not everyone thinks to retire at 61, but Kelly has been able to invest well and wants to take advantage of this next phase of his life.

“I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to run — it used to be called the Mitsubishi Gear Center — like an entrepreneur with an ownership stake,” he said. “I’ve been able to negotiate good employment contracts in the past, which would be performance related. If you don’t perform well, you don’t get paid much. If you performed exceptionally well, you just get paid more than most. That’s been pretty good. So, I’ve been able to get to the point where I can afford it.”

Kelly also has become introspective over the last decade as health issues with himself and friends have convinced him to take a better stake in his personal life.

“I have lost a lot of friends and family just very strangely — mostly to major heart attacks,” he said. “I had a heart attack in 2012, and I’m doing OK now. I just went to see my cardiologists. I’m OK and keeping an eye on my health, but I want to be able to just pick up and go places. I lost both my parents in the last year, and I regret not being able to visit with them more often.”

Leaving MHI in good hands

Kelly expects to leave MHI in good hands as Scott Knoy succeeds Kelly’s MHI legacy. Although he had some concerns about the culture barrier his successor would face, Kelly expects the transition to be a smooth one.

“The concern when we hired Scott — and that was a concern of my Japanese counterparts — was would he be able to understand the differences in the cultures,” Kelly said. “And you have to be patient and you have to — and this could be true with all business — that sometimes it’s a two-way street. You can’t just drop something in somebody’s lap and expect them to understand completely what you’re looking for. You have to pull in both directions.”

Kelly said that philosophy also pertains to not just upper management, but to everyone from the manufacturer to the customer to the engineers who are developing the machines themselves.

“You have to pull the manufacturer, and you have to pull your customer, and you’ve got to somehow meet in the middle,” he said. “Very rarely does a customer deliver a specification that the suppliers can easily meet, because it could be somebody else’s specifications. Don’t come to me and ask me to build a Gleason. We build Mitsubishis. It’s that kind of thing. So, you’ve got to be patient but definitely be responsive toward customers and be demanding of our factory. Don’t take no for an answer, that’s for sure. Sometimes with engineers, the easiest thing for an engineer to say is no. And that’s not acceptable.”

Tom Kelly and his wife, Cayce, enjoy some time together on a recent fishing trip. (Courtesy: Tom Kelly)

Advice from the past and for the future

Part of the legacy Kelly will leave behind will be an impressive example to the future sales people to come. Those decades of experience have put Kelly in a unique position to share some wisdom to an industry that is constantly changing and evolving.

“I’ve looked at my role; nobody designed my position with Mitsubishi, which is strange; there was no job description; I basically created it and kept it by performing well,” he said. “Here’s the one thing that’s important: Never say, ‘It’s not my job.’ Never restrict your capabilities or what your desires are. If you see something that needs to be done, either do it yourself or get somebody to do it; don’t let it sit. A lot of people — organizations and people in our lives — they just compartmentalize. You’ve got to see the big picture. And that’s the one thing that I’ve recognized in myself; I call it having good peripheral vision. I see the big picture, and I see everything around. So, keep your eyes open; see the big picture.”

Giving advice to the future reminded Kelly of some good advice from the past that he got from Davis, his longtime friend and business colleague.

“He taught me early on. When I first met up with him in Syracuse, New York, he had this sign in his office, and it read ‘TMTTME,’” Kelly said. “Years later, I finally asked, ‘What does that sign mean?’ He says, ‘It’s about time you asked. It’s real simple, Tom. It’s Tell Me the Truth; Tell Me Early.’ He says, ‘There’s a lot of people that, particularly vendors, that when they’re having a problem, they’re going to be late or they have a performance problem or something and they’re trying to fix it themselves, and they’re not filling me in. You want to see me blow a gasket? Don’t tell me. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me. So, tell me the truth, tell me early, and we’ll work it out together.’ So yeah, that was a good learning point.”

Even though his official last day is in January, Kelly is taking advantage of some much-deserved vacation before he’s officially retired, but he doesn’t plan to waste any time when it comes to life after retirement.

“I definitely want to enjoy life,” Kelly said. “I want to spend more time with my wife and family. And if I want to go visit my siblings or friends any place in the United States, then I’ll just jump in the car and go.”