Inside Track: Kelly learns HR the hard way

Coming out of school during a recession, the HR Collaborative founder spent months getting very familiar with the job market.
After hiring her first employee, Beth Kelly remembers knocking on doors because the fledgling firm now needed to cover payroll. Photo by Snap Studio

As the first of six children, Beth Kelly is a natural leader.

Kelly, the president and founder of HR Collaborative, was born into a family where both her parents were educators who found themselves constantly on the move during her childhood until her father settled into the role of superintendent of the Chippewa Valley school district in southeast Michigan when Kelly was in the sixth grade.

Kelly said throughout that time she was able to develop people skills as she constantly built friendships and assimilated to different environments.

After high school, the Ohio native attended the University of Michigan, where she initially wanted to major in something that led to public service, such as political science or law, but instead found herself with a liberal arts education.

During her time as a Wolverine, however, she stayed connected to public service. Kelly became the student coordinator of the school’s public service internship program, where she helped a cohort of students participate in internships in Washington, D.C., every year.

After she graduated from U-M in the early ’80s, Kelly faced a job market that was unsettling. At the time, there was an economic recession.

“I started looking for a job,” she said. “I was in the job market for probably eight months. That was a real challenge. I did have the internship experience but no real practical experience in the human resource field. It was really a tough time. I made looking for a job a full-time job and, from my perspective, I think that is something that every HR person should have to do in their life because it gives you great empathy. It gives you a great sense of what the job search is like for the person looking for the job — the highs and the lows.


HR Collaborative
Position: President and founder
Age: 60
Birthplace: Columbus, Ohio
Residence: Rockford
Family: Husband, Paul; sons, Sean and Brian
Business/Community Involvement: Vice chair of Clark Retirement Community board
Biggest Career Break: “Going to Cascade Engineering and getting a chance to create a world-class human resource department from the ground up.”

“I can remember to this day that when people would tell me they were going to make a decision on Friday, 12 o’clock on Friday came and they still hadn’t called me. I would call and ask, ‘Do you have a decision for me?’ Some of them were very kind, but some of them were like, ’Well, it is only 1 o’clock, it is going to take a lot longer than that.’ So, it is a whole different experience. It is something that you need to feel and internalize to be able to be a good HR person.”

After an unsuccessful job search, Kelly went on to Michigan State University, where she earned a master’s degree in human resources and labor relations.

After six months on the job hunt for an entry-level human resource position, she landed a job at Foremost Insurance, which is now Farmers Insurance. Kelly said her role was to write job descriptions and conduct hiring of non-exempt employees. Kelly worked at Foremost Insurance for a year and a half until she found her second job.

“Someone who I had interviewed with, Dan Wiljanen, at the time was leading the learning developing area at Steelcase,” she said. “He didn’t have a position for me that he could hire me for, but he really became a good friend and took me under his wing and made connections for me. One day he called and he said, ‘A friend of mine is working as a consultant with a small plastics company on the southeast side of town and I think you would be a great candidate for them. They are looking to hire their first HR manager.’ I went over and interviewed with the consultant and then I got a chance to meet Fred Keller and the company I went to work for was Cascade Engineering.”

As the company’s first HR manager, Kelly stepped in with a company that was in a fast-growth mode. She said she set up the employee filing system, helped to write the company’s first handbook and helped to facilitate the company’s quality circle meetings, which Kelly said were really important to Keller. She helped to set up different programs at the company, including the employee assistance program, welfare-to-work hiring program and learning programs.

Kelly said while she was there, Cascade Engineering grew from 150 employees to over 1,000 employees over a 10-year period.

She went on to become the senior vice president of human resources at D&W Food Centers, which has since been acquired by SpartanNash. While Kelly was at D&W, the retailer had 29 stores in West Michigan. The stores employed about 4,500 people.

Kelly said she stayed there for four years.

“I left there in large part because I was going to stay home with my family,” she said. “I had two young sons at the time. Their lives were getting busier and it became difficult to juggle their commitments and my commitments, professionally. Today, we would say, ‘Well, of course, everyone does that,’ but back in 1997 and ’98 that wasn’t the case. It was very difficult to both work and raise your children at the same time.”

For the first five years of her children’s lives, Kelly said she was able to have someone look after her sons and then she was able to take them to daycare. But as they grew older, life became complicated.

“I was privileged, and I don’t take it for granted,” she said. “I was privileged to have a good, reliable daycare and a supportive husband, supportive partner, because he was as much their dad as I was their mom. When it really got complicated was as they were going to school, you want to volunteer in the classroom, you want to go to the parties, you want to go on the field trips, you want to pick them up after school because you want to hear about their day and all those other things. That was when it got really complicated. When they were smaller, they didn’t have to go to many places, and I trusted our daycare service provider, so it wasn’t challenging at all.”

Kelly was fortunate to have a steady stream of household income as her husband owns a business, Foremost Graphics. While Kelly was home taking care of their children, she was doing some part-time work as a contractual HR consultant for The Right Place and the chamber of commerce.

“My work was pretty much part-time and project oriented,” she said. “It was just me alone, so I didn’t have to worry about paying anyone or have a reliable stream of income coming in. I had a working spouse, so between the two of us we made enough money to live. My work was to primarily keep me abreast of my profession, to keep me connected to the professional colleagues that I came to admire and respect so much and basically to provide a small additional income. It was not a huge money-maker at the time and it also gave me the flexibility to be at home. At the time, my oldest was in first grade and my youngest was in preschool. We did some preschool programs with him, but I would not work while they were home. It was a good routine for when the kids were in school and I continued it for several years.”

She later became the director at the Employee Assistance Center for three years, but Kelly said she actually was working as a consultant and a stay-at-home mom.

Afterward, she worked at Crandall/Partners, an HR consulting firm, where she helped to manage different projects and operational work. After a couple of years, she went back to HR consulting and created a company called Connexsource, first with a partner and she then worked independently. The company later became HR Collaborative in 2013.

At the time, Kelly only had one employee and she quickly realized the growing pains of owning a company.

“I had done HR work all of my life but typically it was done in larger organizations where I had a team of technical experts and experts in payroll, insurance, office setup and technology,” she said. “So, I did my part and everyone did their part and we all succeeded, but when I went out on my own I realized — first of all, very quickly — that the IT department is totally unappreciated, but also I quickly learned that there are an awful lot of elements to the work that we do that needed to be considered. So, for the first year it was very difficult. ‘How are we going to pay people? How are we going to create budgets? Oh, I have to buy workers compensation.’ I didn’t know that. I didn’t know how it was calculated. I had to buy unemployment insurance. How do I set that up? All the different elements of setting up a working organization with a collection of people in it were part of the challenges I faced as well. After I hired my first employee, I remember going out and knocking on doors because we needed income coming in to cover payroll.”

Seven years after officially opening HR Collaborative, Kelly now has 26 employees and before the COVID-19 pandemic, the company had 80 clients that covered industries ranging from nonprofits to education to technology, among others.

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