Matt Kelley ’07
By Paul Alongi
Kelley built his award-winning engineering firm from the ground up.
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 — which designs and builds custom automation equipment and provides CNC machining and metal fabrication services — had 22 employees, a freshly renovated shop, 30 pieces of equipment, at least $2.4 million in sales and plans to expand to a second location.
“Sitting in the Cooper Library my last couple years at Clemson,” Kelley says, “I’d think, ‘Man, I’d like to have my own engineering firm one day.’”
After graduating in mechanical engineering right before the Great Recession, Kelley accepted 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.
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 networking any way he could, including with cold-calls, emails and LinkedIn.
Despite countless rejections, Kelley 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 says. “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.”
“What you learn in school is one thing, but I think what you take with you from your time at Clemson is more important.”
Eventually, 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. 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.
Kelley Engineering continues to expand and recently received AS9100 certification, which is of significance to suppliers who do business in the aerospace industry.
In 2019, Gov. Henry McMaster 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.
Michael Spiers ’18, 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. When Spiers graduated, he went back to Kelley Engineering to launch his career.
“What you learn in school is one thing,” Spiers says, “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.”