HR Administration

‘Kelly Girl’ Turns 66: An Interview With Carl Camden


Feb. 16, 2012

For Kelly Services Inc., it all began with a secretary who couldn’t work because she was too ill. Sixty-six years later, it has become a multinational job placement company that finds temporary employment for 530,000 workers annually. With 8,000 full-time employees worldwide, Kelly has offices in all 50 states as well as in Asia, Canada, Europe and Puerto Rico. Of course, the Troy, Michigan-based company’s iconic image remains the “Kelly Girls,” those well-dressed women who would show up for office assignments wearing white gloves. Indeed, many observers still refer to the company with the words, “Oh, you’re the Kelly Girls.” And that’s fine with Carl Camden, Kelly’s president and CEO since 1996 and a 17-year veteran of the company. Camden, 57, is a graduate of Southwest Baptist College in Bolivar, Missouri, and he also holds a doctorate in communications from Ohio State University. Indeed, Kelly Services has grown far beyond what founder William “Russ” Kelly (1905-1998) envisioned when he started the company in 1946 as a service bureau to meet the office clerical needs of businesses in the Detroit area. Camden recently spoke with freelance writer Richard Rothschild.

Workforce Management: What has been Kelly’s role in helping to create the model for the staffing industry?

Carl Camden: There was the question of whose employees were these [temporaries]. Russ took the very strong position that they are our people. That was a very critical decision. A lot of people told Russ, ‘They aren’t your employees; you just put them out on assignment.’ We are an advocate for a certain segment of the industry. In the health care law, Kelly Services argued that temporary workers should be covered.

WM: How is Kelly Services’ model similar or different from the original model?

Camden: We still provide the talent at the pay rate plus the markup. But the array of talent we now employ is amazing. There isn’t a profession that isn’t done on a temporary basis, from scientists to dock workers. Kelly started as the ability of a housewife to make a little extra money. Today you have people around the world who make a living off of temporary work. Companies’ use of temporaries used to be a gap measure. Now the largest corporations have a specific model of how much their workforce is going to be temporary. Companies spend well over a billion dollars on this type of labor. To think Kelly would be managing this amount of a work is a far cry from sending out your secretary because someone else’s secretary showed up sick one day.

WM: What innovations have helped Kelly the most?

Camden: In the early 1990s, Kelly worked with Kraft and later Johnson & Johnson to start a corporate relationship. We wanted companies who would agree to purchase all of their temporary workers through us. Building company-to-company [relationships] was quite an innovation. We became part of the supply chain. Today we’re signing contracts worth more than $1 billion a year that have to be approved by a board of directors.

Kelly is one of the first companies to manage independent contractors. This became possible because of that corporate-to-corporate relationship. Nearly 70 percent of our business is with 100 companies. There has been a shift from HR to corporate procurement in terms of who owns our relationships on the customer side. These days it’s not just individuals who can make a living off temporary work. Companies, too, no longer look upon temporaries as a gap measure. Now the largest companies have a specific model on how much of their workforce is going to be temporary. It’s a critical path for companies to fill their talent needs. If you look at the industry itself, we’re being hired as the supply manager to hire all forms of free agent labor.”

WM: Does the Kelly Girl image remain relevant at Kelly Services?

Camden: The first response when I told people I was working here was, ‘Oh, that’s the Kelly Girl company.’ I realized that was an asset. It’s a good way to leverage off what is a very powerful brand name. The original idea [for temporary employees] came about because a secretary at another company called in sick, and Russ told that company, ‘Want to borrow my secretary?’ The same thing happened a month later.

I remember Russ telling me, ‘I’m not stupid. I realized there was a business to be done here.’ Kelly’s first employees, usually women, would arrive at an office and say, ‘I am the William R. Kelly office services girl.’ The women thought this was too much to say and asked if it would be OK to simply introduce themselves as the ‘Kelly Girl.’ Russ picked up on that. He made them all wear white gloves when they showed up. It was great branding. It connoted an image of quality. Russ recognized that temporary staffing was a [potential] business, and he turned it into a business.

WM: Can you tell us about Kelly’s role in finding temporary work for veterans, and, if Kelly does help veterans find temporary work, is that a relatively new function or is that something that can be traced back to the company’s origins post-World War II?

Camden: For years, we’ve stayed close to the military community to identify top talent. From our early start in the 1940s, Kelly’s focus was on finding veterans work when they came home from the service. Today, as veteran programs become more sophisticated, so do our efforts within them. Kelly now goes beyond just providing employment opportunities. We work with the individual military programs to help them understand civilian corporations and the ever-evolving workplace of today.

WM: Does Kelly Services expect continuing growth in coming years?

Camden: I would argue that flexible labor in all categories will be more than 50 percent of all labor by 2020. If you go back to the pre-World War II speeches, it was, ‘We were a country of craftsmen, small businessmen and farmers.’ People basically worked for themselves. I think we are going back to a country with a majority of workers working for themselves. A company like Kelly is helping those workers meet their needs.

WM: If the economy improves and full-time hiring increases, how will that affect Kelly?

Camden: There is no one who is a bigger cheerleader for economic improvement than me. I tend to pay less attention to the number of employees than the number of hours. The business world is always capable of amazing surprises. We are in the first couple of years of [being] the new supply chain representing all free agent labor. It will take a while to become the new norm.

Editor’s note: This Q&A is part of a series of interviews Workforce Management is running in conjunction with our 90th anniversary.

Richard Rothschild is a freelance writer based in Oak Park, Illinois. To comment email

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