14 Things With John Kelly of Kelly Benefit Strategies

2 weeks ago by Tom Soladay

In this week’s “Things With” we sat down with John Kelly of Kelly Benefit Strategies, the team’s founding partner. John has been with us since our humble beginnings in 2007 and helped us reach a level we never thought possible 14 seasons ago. To this day, John continues to share his passion for cycling and helping others in any way that he can.

I grew up in Timonium, Maryland with my three brothers. I always loved my bike and I used to ride all the time. I could ride a wheelie all the way down the street and I was always fiddling with my bike, trying to make it lighter. But it wasn’t until college when I started doing triathlons to stay in shape for Lacrosse that I bought a road bike and fell in love.

When I graduated from college, I wanted to go on a mission trip and that’s how I found Athletes in Action. They had a cycling ministry run by Dave Brown, the father of Nate and Jonny Brown. I applied knowing nothing about bike racing and thought I’d help pump tires. Before I knew it, I bought a racing license, Dave gave me a training program and I fell in love with racing bikes. I ended up racing a 10-day stage race in Costa Rica my first season and it was nuts. A few years later, I did the Tour of Mexico with the US National Team.

I worked in the family business, trained every day, and raced on the weekends for years. I learned a lot from cycling and found it to be a place where I could be alone with my thoughts and work out a lot of things in my life while on a bike. What I learned in cycling began to apply to the business. We started a family in 1992 and focused hard on the business and introducing concepts of what I learned from the bike.

When I met Charles Aaron, I was immediately drawn to him. Charles wanted to start a pro road team and Kelly Benefit Strategies was growing. We had achieved a level of success, so I convinced my brothers to support a pro cycling team. We tried to launch in 2006 but had the co-title sponsor pull out so we had to wait until 2007. Charles’ vision was solid, he had a clear ethical line he was not willing to cross and brought on Jonas Carney who had a strong cycling ethic. The rest is history.

One of our roles in healthcare is to help businesses design, manage, administer, and deliver their benefits. We focus on value drivers that help employers save time, control cost, and maximize value while helping them attract and retain employees. I once watched a talk that Apple’s former CEO, the late Steve Jobs, gave where he talked about a human on a bicycle being more efficient than any other animal on earth. That really stuck with me. Jobs went on to say, “we don’t make computers, we make bicycles for the mind.” That is what Kelly Benefit Strategies is doing, combining humanity and technology to create efficiencies that benefit businesses and people.

We have the best sick care system in the world but we’re not healthy as people. Part of the reason we’re not healthy is that we overwork, we overeat, and we’re not active. We need to create venues for people to embrace a healthy lifestyle. You don’t have to be a bike racer to ride your bike. That’s what I loved about the Lateral Stress Velo club that we sponsor. Sure, I wanted an elite team but I wanted “clubees”, people who simply want to ride their bikes. Riding your bike is a means of gaining a healthy lifestyle and it’s a lifetime activity and I wanted to share that with people.

One of my favorite races and early memories was Downer’s Grove in 2007 when we won the US Pro crit with Martin Gilbert. Jonas was not afraid. He put the whole team on the front. It was the first year of the team and we won. We weren’t supposed to win that race.

Martin Gilbert, John Kelly, and Jason Danner following Gilbert’s win in 2007.

I learned that to be successful on the bike, you had to have a solid foundation, work on key focal areas, and build up your strengths. I think the same is true in business. It helped us create a philosophy and approach to the market with our business that is modeled on principles necessary to be a great cycling team. The idea that a business is like a bike racer. Businesses rely on benefits to help attract, retain, and value people, and they need a team, technology, and service to help them do that well, just like a professional cyclist does. I looked at what we did as building a benefits bicycle to help businesses. Our job is to metaphorically design and service a benefits bicycle that helps businesses do what they do better.

The inaugural Bridges of Hope ride benefitting the UnitedHealthcare Children’s Foundation was a fantastic event and we can’t wait for the 2021 edition. It started at our headquarters and all proceeds went to helping children and their families who have gaps in their health insurance get the care they need. Engaging with people, making a difference, it was amazing. The riders, staff, vehicles, and bikes were all there and provided by Rally Cycling. We raised $140,000 and it was the biggest inaugural UHCCF ride ever.

Supporting the UHCCF rides is another area where the team is ahead of the pack. This team was built on a foundation of solid values and Charles’ vision. Charles wants to deliver for his sponsors in a way that transcends just winning bike races, and the team’s commitment to the UHCCF is a testament to that. Winning is important and we’ve won a lot of races but expanding your sponsor’s interests around the sport is just as important.

The Maryland Cycling Classic is scheduled for Labor Day weekend 2021. It stands to be the biggest one-day UCI race in the entire country. They asked me to be the host committee chairman and I plan to create a chairman’s ride to benefit the UHCCF. It’s been a rewarding process and we have UnitedHealthcare as the presenting sponsor. I grew up in Baltimore and I want people to see the goodness here. From Sandtown to the Harbor. I want to use cycling as a means to do that on an international stage and I can’t be more grateful for UnitedHealthcare’s participation in the event.

I try to live what I like to call an integrated life where family, faith, business, and relationships can converge in a meaningful and enjoyable way. It’s core to who we are as a business and to everything that we do. It’s not super complicated. Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s all connected. I believe personal values should permeate into everything that you do. Treat others well, operate with integrity, and have values that are rooted in genuine care for one another.

I remember when Kevin Lacombe went through the rear windshield of the CSC car during the Tour of California. I watched Jonas stop, ride with him to the hospital, and take care of him. Forget about everyone in the bike race. It was the most important thing to him. It’s easy for racing to consume your life and there are personalities that bend towards self-absorption and selfishness. That’s not Jonas. I saw that day what mattered to him and it was the wellbeing of those around him.

Instead of the pro peloton having to figure out how to go to church on Sunday, I wanted to see the church go to the pro peloton. I wanted to see something where somebody focused on and cared for the peloton when they needed care or counsel most. Todd Henriksen from Athletes in Action had the vision to do the same so when we met, I said I was all in to support his vision. Todd now travels to all the big races and even does virtual sessions with the athletes. After Chad Young passed away in 2017, it was a really difficult time. I was so glad we had a chaplaincy in place to bring everyone together to talk and to mourn such an incredible young man. We’ve been able to use cycling as a means to help people. I’m really proud of that.