I’ve always liked to build things. When I was seven, I got tired of my father promising to buy me a bike, so I looked around for parts in the Woburn dump on Mishawum Road and used them to build my own bike.
My father never had money anyway. He blew it all on drinking. He worked in the Woburn leather factories, and he was skilled enough to operate every machine, so he was highly paid, $40 a week. That was a lot of money back in 1932. But it was mostly gone by the end of the week, almost every penny sunk into Brogna’s bar on the corner of Nichols and Main Street in Woburn, or the Moose hall on Campbell Street.
We lived in a shack on Chester Avenue in north Woburn — and I mean a shack. The kitchen had no cabinets. The only heat was a kitchen oil stove. We didn’t have a shower or bathtub. My mother would heat water on the stove so my brother and I could wash ourselves with cloths. Actually, not cloths. Rags. The rent was five dollars a week, and part of our duty was feeding the pigs. The pig pen came right up against our shack. The property owner would bring garbage, and we’d have to feed it to the pigs.
My father gave my mother only a few dollars to run the house, so we survived on the small amount of money she made at the Glick Brothers chicken factory in north Woburn. She was one of twenty or thirty women who would stand there and wait for the chickens to come down the line. A machine would take off the big feathers first, and then the women used knives to take off the fine feathers, so the birds were “dressed” for cooking and eating. The pay was ten cents an hour. As soon as I could start working, I gave everything I made to her.
When I was nine, we finally moved up in the world, to a townhouse at 910 Main Street, Woburn. But three months after moving in, I came home from school one day and found my parents arguing. They argued all the time, mostly about his drinking. But this time I saw my father hit my mother. He gave her a backhand across the face. I lunged at him, but I was only nine. He threw me against the wall. My mother yelled, “That’s it! You can hit me but you’re not going to hit the kids!”
My parents divorced. My mother moved into a tiny apartment with my brother and me, at 518 Main Street, Woburn. It had a 10×10 living room. She slept on a cot and my brother and I slept in the bed. My father moved in with his sister in Peabody center. She kept him under control for a few years. But when he moved in with one of his brothers, he fell off the wagon. He practically lived at a bar in Peabody. He wasn’t homeless, but pretty close.
When I was out of high school and living on my own, I’d visit that bar in Peabody to slip $10 to the bartender to make sure my father was eating. One day the bartender said he still had the $10 from my last visit because he hadn’t seen my father in a while. The last place he’d seen him was across the street, near a billboard.
I walked across the street and looked behind that billboard. And there he was, on the ground. I couldn’t wake him up. I called the police. He ended up in the Essex County Sanitorium in Middleton, with tuberculosis. A couple years later, I was planning to pick him up on a Saturday and get him out of there, to live with me in my new apartment. But on Wednesday they called me and said he had passed away. He was 50 years old.
My first job was on Crawford Farm, which is now Beacon Village. I was nine years old, but I was one of the tallest kids. They had me using this push-pull weeder because I was tall enough to use it. I got 90 cents for a 10-hour day. I stayed three weeks. Later on, I moved to Kerrigan Farm for $1.50 a day and stayed there until I was 12.
Then I got a job at a deli called Kenny and McMurray at 489 Main Street in Woburn Center. I cut the cold cuts, stocked the shelves, ran the cash register. I was only 12, but I was six foot four, so I looked old enough to work. After work, I polished cars for Ungerman Motors, before a manager named Steve Lannan bought the place and turned it into Lannan Chevrolet. I also worked at the Woburn YMCA, setting up the bowling pins. I got three and a half cents per string. Of course, it only cost 25 cents per string to bowl.
But all along, I was a builder. In the eighth grade in wood shop, most of the kids were building things like mailboxes. I built a 14-foot boat using a plan from Popular Mechanics magazine. My uncle was carpenter and cabinet-maker. He had a woodworking shop in his house. I visited him a lot, so I learned at a very young age.
Besides math, my grades in school were so-so. I never studied, except one afternoon when my teacher made me stay after school to study for a makeup test. I studied for 10 minutes and got an A. That’s how I discovered that if I concentrated, could absorb and retain a lot of material, especially technical material, after just one quick scan. This would prove very valuable.
Three months after I graduated high school, I got married. My mother had to sign the marriage license for me because I was only 17. A year later, when I was drafted in the Korean War, my wife was pregnant. I applied for a deferment but heard nothing until I was sitting at the draft board at the Towanda Club in Woburn, waiting to get on a train to Boston for my physical. A guy came over to me and said I was deferred. Good news, but on the way home, I realized I’d lost my wallet in the Towanda Club. My wallet had $19, and that’s all there was between me and the world.
I never wanted to work for anyone, only for myself. For a brief time I worked at Raytheon in Waltham as a millwright, basically a jack of all trades. But at the same time, I ran my own tile company. In fact, I ran it until 4 every day, then worked at Raytheon until midnight. I got four hours of sleep at night, but that’s all I needed. My company was called Tilecraft of New England, with three employees. One of my jobs was redoing the floor at the old Burlington Town Hall, the one that came down in 1969.
I was ready for something bigger. I was ready to build a house and sell it. But that meant borrowing money to fund the project, and I was only 20 years old. The first place I tried was Woburn Five Cents Savings Bank. The bankers laughed at me because they knew my father. See, the mayor had a circus cage on wheels, the kind you’d see with animals inside, and he would round up the drunks and parade them through the city. The idea didn’t last long. I’d always heard it was used only once — with my father inside. True or not, everyone had heard that same tale and believed it, so the bankers considered me a bad risk.
I partnered with a cosigner who was a little older than I was, and I found a lender named Sid Rosenthal in Boston. He was willing to finance builders with no track record, or with bad credit. The key was speed. I had to build houses quickly and sell them quickly, to get out of those early loans quickly and establish a track record — and save money on interest. Once I had established a track record, Sid set me up with some banks. He was a lawyer for those banks, so it worked out for everyone.
The first house I built was a cape off Church Lane in Burlington, at 6 Edgemont Avenue. I didn’t do all of the work myself. I farmed out the plumbing, electrical, some of the concrete work. I understood how to do all of those things, but when you’re building as a business, you can do only so much with your hands. You have to rely on your brain to hire the right people.
I sold that house to Burlington math teacher Jim Curtin and his wife Jewel when they had just graduated college. Ted Murray, the developer who owned lots of property in that neighborhood, said houses were selling for $11,000. I sold mine for more because it had extras like hot water heat and a fireplace. “You broke the price barrier, kid.” That’s what Ted told me. He always called me “Kid.” He was impressed that I understood how to finance real estate projects at my age. I understood the math.
For the next several years I built a lot of houses in Billerica, Woburn, Winchester, Lexington. My gradual turnaround from poverty to success came from work, work, work. Finally, I had money to spend. I decided to settle a score with Woburn Five, the bank that dismissed me because of my father. When the bank went public, I started buying up the stock — carefully. If you owned more than four percent, you had to go through a lot of red tape, so I used other people’s names, including my mother’s.
Unfortunately, the bank made some bad moves and went belly-up, so I lost a quarter million dollars and my plan failed. My plan was to buy 10 percent of the stock, a controlling interest in the bank, and force them to put me on the board of directors. Then I’d walk into that lobby and tell those guys, “Hello again. I’m your new boss.” They’re lucky the Feds got to them first.
After years of building houses, it became boring to me. I was 27, and I was ready to construct a commercial building. My first building was 99 Cambridge Street in Burlington, which became the home of Burlington Studios Photography for many years. I had rented space elsewhere in Burlington for my own business, so I knew prices, and demand, were growing.
Commercial buildings offer the big reward of lifelong income instead of just a one-time sale like a house. But they involve big risk, even though it’s calculated risk. You need to be sure there’s a market. Instinct plays a big part. People thought I was stupid when I built Colonial Park Village at 279 Cambridge Street, next to Burlington Medical Center. And I heard the same when I built Hillside Colony Plaza on Cambridge Street, across from the high school field.
Bankers and friends in the business told me there was no market, so those plazas would be empty. But I observed similar developments in similar towns and saw there was a market. Sure enough, every space was filled before it was ready, and both plazas have been very successful, so I proved everyone wrong.
When the Burlington Mall opened, the new Mall Road became a bit of a battleground. It was undeveloped and very desirable. Spaulding & Slye, the company that built New England Executive Park next to the mall, tried to develop the 25-acre triangle across the street, defined by the Mall Road, Lexington Street and South Bedford Street. They were backed by New England Mutual Life, a big name. But the town wasn’t having it. The proposal bombed three times.
I decided to take a big risk. I’d buy the land from Spaulding & Slye and develop it myself. My lending banks thought I was crazy. Spaulding & Slye had big backing. If they couldn’t get an approval, my lenders asked me, “What makes you think you can beat them?” I thought my idea was better:
- Rezone 10 acres on the Mall Road.
- Build a small residential street off Lexington Street.
- Near the bottom of Lexington Street, build a church.
- Add some houses on South Bedford Street.
- Donate some land to the town for conservation.
The town liked my plan, so I built the brick office buildings that now have Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, Fidelity Investments and more.
The small residential street is Laurel Hill Lane. The church is Heritage Baptist Church. So I was able to build where a much more powerful company couldn’t build. That’s a good example of how tricky this business can be. It can be funny, too. When I built a self-storage facility in North Andover, the Planning Board forced me to have much more parking than normal. Later on, when I returned with the as-built plan, they asked why the parking lot was so big. I told them they made me do that. They looked at each other and said, “Oh, really? We forgot.”
That was quite a ways back. Now it’s 2020. My business now owns and manages about 3.5 million square feet of space for office, retail, industrial, research and development, and some self-storage facilities. It has properties in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. My two youngest sons now run the business, and they’ve grown it faster than I did. My longstanding track record proved invaluable in this business.
You could say my sons had a better head start than I did.
— Richard James Kelly
RJ Kelly has no formal college degrees. But remember his ability to quickly absorb technical material? He put it to use by studying condominium law at Harvard Law School and advanced real estate appraisal at Bryant & Stratton College. He holds licenses as an insurance broker, real estate broker, construction supervisor and hoisting engineer. His company is headquartered in Burlington at 55 Cambridge Street.
Richard built the Murray-Kelly wing of the Council on Aging building on Center Street (the original Burlington High School). He and developer Bob Murray from Murray Hills Inc. funded the project and dedicated it to their own mothers.
Here’s a small sampling of RJ Kelly properties, including company headquarters at 55 Cambridge Street, at the base of the Burlington Mall Road: