Despite his business and political successes, Tim Kelly says he wasn't born with an entrepreneurial spirit.
"I wasn't really a natural. People think in terms of caricatures like, you know, entrepreneurs are just born that way and pop out that way. And I don't think so. I think it's a journey," Kelly said, despite a more than 30-year career running several local businesses and nonprofits.
At 54, Kelly as a local entrepreneur recently bested 14 other Chattanooga mayoral candidates to make it into a runoff election against competitor Kim White on April 13.
If you ask him what he was like as a kid, he'll tell you to ask his sister.
"She was always the smart one, you know," Kelly said, marveling at his older sister's life as a Harvard-educated editor, married to a British diplomat.
"And I was actually a pretty shy kid and I was not particularly athletic as a young kid," he said. "I was kind of always in her shadow and looked up to her."
Meanwhile, he says he spent his adolescence "stuck" in his own head, producing a sarcastic kid whose interests— which included reading books like George Orwell's "1984" and discussing philosophy — weren't conducive to fitting in.
Then Kelly attended Columbia University as a John Jay scholar studying comparative literature and German.
"I only applied to these Ivy League schools because my sister had gone to Harvard, and I thought, well, I kind of got guilted into it," Kelly said. "I was thinking about things at that age that a lot of my friends weren't interested in. And so it was kind of revelatory."
And while he says his young life and eventual public service were informed by the women in his life — his sister, Susan Lynley Welsh, and his mother, Betty Sue Farmer — Kelly's worldview was largely formed when he went to college in New York.
"It was the first time that I found myself as a minority. I was used to being ... in the dominant group," Kelly said. "And I had a lot of unexamined prejudices about any number of things that, when I got to New York, I realized were just not the case."
Coming from the last all-boys class of the Baylor School, a high-end private school in the then-much-smaller Southern town of Chattanooga, Kelly had not known many perspectives outside of his own.
"It opened my eyes and not just in a dualistic diversity of Black and white. I mean, the number of cultures in New York and the breadth of the cultural experience there is just fantastic," Kelly said. "I mean, race had something to do with it, but it was the first time that I realized that the world that I grew up in was not the real world or the whole world."
When he went to see the school, Kelly met Brent Forrester, a fellow recipient of the scholarship who would become his roommate, and his friend for the past 35 years.
Lives in: Downtown
Studied at: Baylor School, Columbia University, Emory University
Family: Ginny Kelly (8 years), sons Jack and Cannon
Civic engagement includes: Community Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters, River City Company
Forrester, who is from Santa Monica, California, said that Kelly was more stricken by the school and the city than most.
"Tim was thrilled with Manhattan. You know, it lit him up more than most of the other students that I knew there, because of the contrast from where he had come from," Forrester said of Kelly.
Forrester said that the pair were so energized by the city, school and newfound perspectives that they would often stay up late, tape recording what they thought were really potent ideas.
"I'm sure they were just as pedestrian as anything, but we were so convinced that what we were saying was, was for the ages," Forrester joked. "We would literally tape record our conversations for posterity because we thought we could change the world with those ideas."
So when Kelly, with his wealth of new knowledge and perspective, decided to move back to Chattanooga to help with the family car business, people who knew him were surprised.
"I was a little surprised when he went back because Tim struck me as quite obviously a true intellectual and a kind of a visionary, whose mind massively expanded in college, and he was thrilled with the life of the mind and the world of ideas and with being involved in social change," Forrester said. "It doesn't surprise me now, because I can see that, really, you know, Chattanooga has always been his destiny. You know, Tim really is one of those outliers who has a gigantic heart and the personality of a world changer.
"And I get a little choked up saying this, but the world he wanted to change was the world he came from," he added.
And so Kelly went home to work in what was then the family Cadillac and Saab dealership.
"So I'll never forget my dad calling me and saying we've got the opportunity to pick up either Volkswagen or Subaru. 'You know you're a young fella, you know about import cars, which one do you think we should do?'" Kelly said about making his first real business decision. "I picked Subaru, and my first real job coming back — a meaningful management job other than summer jobs — was to go over and pull out all the inventory and drive all the cars over and set it up. So Subaru was kind of my baby from the beginning."
Then he served as imports manager followed by general manager in the late 1990s. And Kelly continued to grow and operate the dealership until December, when he sold it to Crown Automotive Group during his campaign.
Earlier in his career while he was still growing the car dealership, Kelly also followed a "parallel track."
"I had wanted to branch out on my own for quite some time back in the late '90s. And my dad was not terribly interested in that," Kelly said. "So I took my own money and bought the ... Polaris Victory Triumph store out on North Dayton Boulevard and went on my own into the motorcycle business."
Kelly still owns his motorcycle business, Southern Honda Powersports.
"My dad, you know, didn't have any interest in that. He thought it was strange and risky, and he was interested in just kind of staying between the lines and doing the traditional stuff," Kelly said. "That's where I get kind of annoyed with my opponent sometimes. As though I just inherited this business and rode it to where it is.
"That wasn't true at all. Subaru was the line that I picked up, and it was the only thing that survived, ultimately," Kelly said. "And the motorcycle business was all my initiative, as was Chattanooga Football Club and everything that came after."
While Kelly said it's important that not everything was handed to him, he does recognize the leg up he was given in his life.
"Clearly, I had a great advantage, largely based on education but somewhat on family wealth," Kelly said, noting that his parents and grandparents came from humble beginnings.
"I get this all the time as though I'm from some sort of silk stocking, Lookout Mountain, carpet-bagger, old money, and that is the furthest thing from the truth," he said. "But the notion that I just inherited this pile of money is crazy."
And, to pay forward the opportunity he had, Kelly said he'll focus on education and equitable opportunity as mayor.
"It really goes back to education, and that's why I'm so passionate about the value of an education and being able to provide economic opportunity," Kelly said. "Now, had I not come back to work in the family business, I wouldn't have been able to learn what I learned, and I wouldn't have had the opportunity to branch out and do what I'm doing.
"And that's where I think entrepreneurship owes it to other people to reach back and lift other people up and help connect the dots with opportunity."
And Kelly's own journey has not been without its challenges.
Kelly said he hit the hardest time in his life when the 2008 recession struck in the middle of an expansion of the dealership.
He had been encouraged by General Motors to establish a second location in order to move half of the car brands into a separate showroom. So he did.
"I worked really hard at their behest to try to make that happen," Kelly said. "And then, of course when it hit the fan with the recession, they pulled the rug out from under us, and we lost all those GM franchises."
Meanwhile, Kelly's increasingly difficult work life began to strain his personal life.
"The 2008 recession was just brutal. And it cracked a big crack in my marriage that we never really recovered from," he said of his first marriage to Nicole Kelly, who remains friends with the family and supports Kelly's campaign.
"My work life really, really had a negative impact on our marriage."
"I spent quite a bit of time in counseling with my first wife, and after divorce, I stayed in counseling," Kelly said. "And, very frankly, it was one of the best things that I ever did. It really helped me get my head together."
Kelly bounced back.
Over the next few years, Kelly continued to run his car and motorcycle businesses, earned his master's degree in business administration from Emory University, co-founded the Chattanooga Football Club and married his wife of eight years, Ginny.
"I can only thank God for ... the experiences that I've had," Kelly said.
Steve Marlin, general manager of the Subaru dealership and an employee of Kelly's for roughly a decade, said Friday that Kelly is "an incredible guy."
"We've been great friends ever since we met," Marlin said of his former boss. "He is a tremendous guy to work for. He's very fair, very straightforward and he's just, you know, an all-around great guy."
Marlin said that Kelly is "gracious" to his employees, extending "a real compassion" for everyone he works with, while running the business professionally.
"So I think it would make an excellent leader for the city. He's what the city needs: somebody that has been in business and knows the pluses and the minuses," Marlin said. "Tim's the kind of guy that he will know when somebody — let me put it this way, I can't use car jargon — when somebody is BS-ing. And then he'll know the truth when he sees it."
Ultimately, Marlin's description of Kelly came down to the same word that Forrester's did: visionary.
"I think he's a great guy. I think he's a great leader, and he's got a great vision for the city," Marlin said. "He is a visionary leader."
Kelly said his vision for Chattanooga has been brewing for decades, deriving from experience helping local nonprofits, ranging from Big Brothers Big Sisters to his work as chairman of the Community Foundation.
"Thinking back to Leadership Chattanooga in 1991, That's when I first began to think about running for mayor," Kelly said Thursday, noting his frustration with how little progress the city had seen at that point. "There were too many things that we continued to sweep under the rug and just sort of kick cans in circles about."
Specifically, he remembers conversations about equity and education in the '90s that haven't improved much over the past 30 years.
"As I say a lot, entrepreneurs hate wasted potential, and Chattanooga has still got so much potential," Kelly said. "We have got to address these sort of pernicious, stubborn structural problems that we've been dealing with, and it's going to take, I think, leadership without political caution to do it."
And so, in the spirit of his mother's service to the Junior League and the Girls Club, Kelly said he wants to continue his public service career as mayor.
"Her example ... compelled me because I saw what a difference she was able to make," he said of his mother, who got Kelly to join the Girls Club board after returning from college.
"I just always considered it to be my job as much as the job that paid me, as a Chattanoogan," Kelly said of public service. "You know, it's part of what makes this community extraordinary."
That spirit and vision are why those who know him think Kelly would make a good mayor.
"Tim has done well for himself. He has a really good life, he has a wonderful wife. He has done great in business. He doesn't have to do this. There's no reason to do this, except from a genuine place of wanting the city he loves to be the best city in America," Forrester said. "And the purity of his mission is truly inspiring to everybody who knows him, but not, not unsurprising to those of us who've known him a long time. You know, Tim is just a gifted human being with a big heart, and I just can't imagine anybody being a better leader for the great city of Chattanooga than Tim Kelly."