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Oct. 16, 2020
Tom Kelley, a visionary leader and the CEO and board chairman of Gage Brothers Concrete Products, died Oct. 15.
He was 62.
Under Kelley’s leadership, the century-old Gage grew into a 21st century industry powerhouse, with 250 employees and relationships that extended worldwide.
“We lost a boss. We lost a leader. We also lost a friend,” said Joe Bunkers, acting president of Gage Brothers and Kelley’s co-worker for the past 21 years.
“He truly just loved and respected everybody and had so many relationships around the world.”
Kelley had led Gage since 2001. The company was his first job after graduating from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, where he earned his degree in civil engineering. A Pierre native, he worked for his father’s construction company while in school.
While he wasn’t part of the Gage family, the Gages quickly recognized Kelley’s ability, Bunkers said.
“Al Jr. way back in the day gave him the reins and the go-ahead and said: ‘Run with it. You’re the one who’s going to do it.’ ”
And he did. During Kelley’s time as CEO, the company transitioned to employee ownership, as growth skyrocketed.
“Nobody could sell concrete better than Tom,” said Craig Lloyd, founder and board chair of Lloyd Cos. and longtime friend of Kelley’s.
“Nobody could talk the talk or work with customers better than him. It’s just a big loss.”
Kelley’s reach was worldwide. As a leader in the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute, which he chaired for several years, he founded the institute’s international committee in 2013 and chaired it until 2016.
“I can’t tell you how many times he went to Dubai and India working with prestressed concrete people and making their processes better,” Lloyd said. “He reached the world.”
Closer to home, Gage worked on several signature projects in the Twin Cities, including the Wells Fargo downtown complex, TCF Stadium and Target Field.
Over 35 years, the company worked on more than 40 projects for Twin Cities-based developer and contractor Ryan Cos.
“I was smiling yesterday picturing Tom already negotiating with St. Peter and catching the Ryan ancestors up on the latest advancements in precast,” said Mike Ryan, president of the company’s north region.
In Sioux Falls, the company worked on multiple projects for Sanford Health, the Sanford Pentagon, the Denny Sanford Premier Center and countless others.
“For the last 40 years, we’ve worked together on projects, you name it, public or private, universities, Tom touched everything in our industry,” said Jeff Fiegen, president of Fiegen Construction Co. and Kelley’s longtime friend.
“He was always a guy who could find a way to do it better, and he believed in it and had a passion to improve on things.”
For decades, Kelley dreamed and planned for Gage’s next headquarters.
By 2015, annual revenue exceeded $60 million and the longtime home on West 12th Street no longer fit the company’s needs.
In 2017, Gage committed to its new location, a 210,000-square-foot precast plant in northeast Sioux Falls designed to be the nation’s most automated precast plant.
“With the cost of labor and the labor force that’s out there, laying a brick or block at a time is the way it used to be done. It’s not the way of the future. There aren’t the bodies to do it,” Kelley said in a 2017 interview announcing the project.
Kelley had traveled and researched worldwide to find the best practices to apply in the plant, said Fiegen, whose company served as the contractor.
“He just had a dream and figured out a better way to do it,” Fiegen said. “Tom was able to put it all together and turn it into a state-of-the-art plant here in South Dakota. He was an engineer at heart. He could just figure things out and make improvements on them, and that plant is state-of-the-art. It truly is his legacy.”
Kelley never wanted it to be his legacy, “but it was,” Bunkers agreed.
“Tom helped set us up for our next 100 years, to be able to catapult off the success we had instead of letting it hold us back where we were. Thinking so much farther ahead than most people is really where he lives on.”
Within the plant, Kelley focused on company culture and workforce development. Outside it, he championed efforts to grow students in the trades, co-chairing a five-year campaign for Southeast Technical Institute to offer more opportunities for students and serving on the board of the Sioux Falls Development Foundation.
“He understood you need diverse skills out in the plant, and the people he put in HR and the ESOP happened, and all those good business decisions allowed him to have less turnover,” Fiegen said. “We talked about it all the time, and he believed in it. There were English lessons provided. He had great compassion for the staff, and he was so proud about turnover being reduced.”
Kelley would take weekly trips to Minneapolis to call on developers and architects, “and soon they were calling on Tom,” Fiegen continued. “He was so well-respected. His products appeared on most regional buildings, and he was a great engineer and great at numbers on the fly. He wouldn’t need a plan in front of him, and he could solve problems.”
“Definitely, most of the time he was the smartest guy in the room,” he said. “He was very well-versed, very well-read. It didn’t matter if it was construction — it was what can we do to make the state a better place to live, how can we do better in Sioux Falls. He stretched my imagination.”
Kelley’s career also included significant involvement in the area business community. He served six years on the board of Sanford USD Medical Center, including a four-year term as chair.
“Under his watch, the Medical Center has enjoyed the best five consecutive years in recent history,” said Paul Hanson, president and CEO of Sanford’s Sioux Falls market.
“His due diligence to maintain balance between clinical services, financial performance and operational efficiency has driven the organization to many national accolades.”
Hanson, a friend and neighbor of Kelley’s, called him “an extraordinary man.”
“He blessed us with his knowledge, passion and focus on life,” Hanson said. “His level of engagement always had sense of community commitment, and I will miss him so very much, both personally and professionally.”
This spring, Kelley suffered a near-fatal heart attack, causing him to shift his attention to preparing the company and himself for a day when he might no longer be CEO.
Bunkers took over as acting president and began running daily operations, while Kelley focused on big-picture work and rehabilitation. He was geared back up to running four or five miles a day.
“He was taking on a mentor and teaching role and business development,” Bunkers said. “So from an operational standpoint, it’s not that we won’t miss a beat – we will – but we have had those pieces in place and have been laying a foundation for about six months.”
They would talk at least two hours a week outside work, Bunkers said – conversations including Kelley’s vision for the future, both for the company and for himself in eventual retirement.
“He was really starting to talk about how does a transition work. He talked to friends who had gone through it … and it was fun to talk about, setting the vision for his next chapter, and that’s probably the saddest part is he was actually starting to make plans.”
Kelley’s legacy at Gage – beyond the plant and countless projects – is his vision and the relationships he built, Bunkers said.
In a an interview a few years ago, Kelley’s comments suggest he would have agreed.
“Precast is a very strong part of a lot of sectors, and that’s helpful,” Kelley said.
“We really don’t chase projects. What we do is chase relationships. Most of our clients are repeat customers. Our 10 top customers are probably 80 percent of our work every year.”
Kelley leaves behind his wife, Julie, three children and four grandchildren.
At the family’s request, his memorial service will be at 1 p.m. Oct. 24 inside the Gage Brothers plant.
“I said yes, we’ll figure it out,” Bunkers said. “God, we’re going to miss him here. We’re just going to miss his presence. He was our guidepost. And he’s gone, and that’s going to take awhile to get over.”
Tom Kelley was a builder. He built buildings, teams, relationships and community. He died Oct. 15 at age 62.