Clemson University alumnus Matt Kelley started his engineering business in a room above a detached garage with a laptop he had bought on eBay for $500.
He had no customers, no employees and no equipment, but he had a dream and the drive to turn it into reality.
Little more than four years later, Kelley Engineering has 22 employees, a freshly renovated shop, 30 pieces of equipment, at least $2.4 million in sales this year and plans to expand to a second location.
“It’s definitely humbling,” said Kelley, who received his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 2007. “We started the business four years ago with a hope and a dream, and now it’s grown like wildfire to where we are today. It’s really a testament to the team we have built here.”
South Carolina’s government and business leaders are taking notice.
Gov. Henry McMaster recently presented Kelley Engineering with the 2019 South Carolina Emerging Manufacturer of the Year Award. Kelley Engineering also won the 2019 Employer Impact Award from Anderson County Economic Development.
The company is standing out as manufacturing surges in South Carolina. The sector employs about 255,800 people in the state, a nearly 24 percent increase from a decade earlier, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Kelley Engineering designs and builds custom automation equipment. The company also provides CNC machining and metal fabrication services to a wide variety of industries across the Southeast.
Kelley said the company’s team of engineers gives them a competitive advantage.
“There aren’t many machine shops and fabrication shops that have engineering support to come alongside a customer and solve problems,” Kelley said. “We have a lot of customer engagement because they value our engineering team’s role in designing effective solutions, managing build projects, and serving as a technical resource to the manufacturing team.”
Kelley is one of two Clemson-educated mechanical engineers at the company. Michael Spiers, who was the company’s third employee, was still a student when he started working for Kelley as part of Clemson’s Cooperative Education Program.
He left Kelley Engineering when his rotation in the program was over and returned to Clemson to finish his degree. When Spiers graduated in May 2018, he went back to Kelley Engineering to launch his career.
“A degree from Clemson gets you connections,” Spiers said. “What you learn in school is one thing, but I think what you take with you from your time at Clemson is more important– the connections you make, the career path you choose, what you do with what you learn.”
Kelley grew up a Tiger fan in Anderson, graduated from T.L. Hanna High School and always knew he wanted to go to Clemson.
Mechanical engineering seemed a natural fit. While growing up, he enjoyed working on cars and lawnmowers and was intrigued by concepts in physics, such as force, torque and stress.
“My Clemson degree is probably the biggest contributor to my success,” Kelley said. “I meet engineering grads from Clemson everywhere, whether it’s the insurance guy, a banker, a customer, a supplier, or a future employee. Clemson engineers are in every industry out there. A lot of them are in engineering, but they go on to do all sorts of stuff.”
Kelley graduated right before the Great Recession and landed a job with a company that designs and builds automation equipment. He worked there for eight years and gained valuable experience in design and management but still remembered the dream he had years earlier.
“Sitting in the Cooper Library my last couple years at Clemson, I’d think, ‘Man, I’d like to have my own engineering firm one day,’” Kelley said.
He took the leap in October 2015, but success didn’t come overnight.
Kelley renovated a room above the detached garage at his Greenville home so he would have a place to meet with customers. By January 2016, he was ready to start telling them his story. He networked anyway he could, including with cold-calls, emails and LinkedIn.
“The first year I got more no’s than I could possibly recount,” Kelley said.
Kelley stuck with it, landed a few projects and made some capital investments. He bought a milling machine, an engine lathe, a bandsaw and a mig welder. In those early days, Kelley did virtually everything himself.
“I’d order the material, I’d machine it, I’d weld it together, I’d paint it and I’d deliver it,” he said. “I did that for about a year. When I got some bigger projects, I’d have some guys come in and do subcontract work for me.”
Kelley’s garage started to fill up, and his business needed more room so that he could build bigger equipment for his customers. The commercial real estate around his home off Pelham Road was too expensive, so he started looking in Anderson County.
Kelley found a building on Highway 17 in Piedmont that had been vacant for years and needed some love but had the much-needed square footage. He bought and renovated it.
When Kelley Engineering moved to Piedmont in May 2017, the business consisted of Kelley and three part-time employees. The number grew to four full-time employees by the end of 2017, then tripled to 12 full-time employees by the end of 2018 and hit 22 by November 2019.
Employees described Kelley as an insightful, helpful and “hands-off” manager.
“He gives you room to grow and make your own mistakes,” said Travis Middleton, the company’s fabrication manager. “It can be a blessing or a disaster sometimes, but we learn from our mistakes. I think we’ve all grown so much as individuals and as a team.”
Shane Langley, the company’s machining manager, said that Kelley never discourages employees from learning new skills.
“I could say, ‘I want to go over there and have Travis show me how to weld or run one of the machines,’” Langley said. “Matt is never going to stop anyone from learning new stuff, and I think that’s important.”
Kelley said people learn best from their mistakes.
“We’re not allowing people to make big mistakes, but we definitely want them to have the freedom to be creative and try new things and to drive to better themselves,” Kelley said.
When he started the business, Kelley set a goal of $250,000 in sales the first year, $500,000 in the second and $1 million in the third. He fell $30,000 short his first year but surpassed his second-year goal, hitting $715,000.
“In the third year, we did $1.4 million,” Kelley said. “Then people said, ‘What are you going to do next year?’”
The goal for 2019 was $2.4 million, and while final numbers weren’t available, the company has definitely hit the mark, Kelley said.
The growth has once again created a need for more space. Kelley Engineering is in the process of closing on a building three miles away from its current location and plans to move its fabrication operations there, Kelley said.
Kelley Engineering also recently received AS9100 certification, which is of significance to suppliers who do business in the aerospace industry.
Kelley’s household has been growing, too. When he first started the company, Kelley and his wife, Meg, had one son, Micah who was then 6 months old and is now 4 and a half. They have added two more sons, Miles, age 3, and Mason, who is 9 months.
Kelley said that Meg, who holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in nursing from Clemson and works as a nurse practitioner, has played a big role in his success.
“My wife has been the biggest believer in me,” he said. “I would not be here today without her beside me, encouraging me and pushing me.”
Kelley said that if he has any advice for students it would be that experience and hard work are keys to his success.
“One thing I tell people is that you may not be the smartest, but you can outwork everybody around you,” he said. “That’s one thing you can control. If you want to be good, if you want to be better than other people in your field, outwork them.”
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