“It’s certainly not something I ever thought I would do,” says lifelong Westchester resident Al Kelly about his newest gig as president and CEO of the New York/New Jersey Host Committee for the first-ever outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl on February 2. “I never even thought a job like that existed.”
Then again, taking on previously nonexistant jobs is somewhat of a specialty for the Bronxville-born, Crestwood-raised Kelly. After graduating from Iona College—where he combined his undergraduate degree in computer and information science and his MBA and graduated in five years—and a stint in strategic and financial planning at PepsiCo, he was offered the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be head of Information Systems at the White House during a period of great innovation. “It was an exciting time to work there, because it was in the early stages of computer technology being transitioned in,” he says. “We put in the first email system there. My wife and I had only been married a little over a year and a half, and we didn’t have any children yet when we moved to DC. It was a great adventure for us as a couple.” He stayed there for two and a half years under President Ronald Reagan, who’d just been reelected. “It was a pinch-me experience,” he recalls.
It was only after leaving the White House that he began his longest tenure, at American Express, where he worked for 23 years—in a variety of roles from line and staff jobs to positions in finance, marketing, and operations. “I always tried to manage my career so that I was a jack of all trades and master of nothing,” he says—but it’s clear he’s being self-deprecating, since he became president of the company in 2007.
“It was an honor working at such a great company and brand,” he says, “and, as a result, it attracts really first-rate people. When you have a big role in a company like that, your number-one job is to get great people to work with you and I focused really hard on doing that.”
After what he describes as “a lot of soul-searching,” he decided it would be best for his career to pursue something outside of American Express that he could run himself. When he left the company in April 2010, his intention was to take the rest of the year off. He had been working hard for 30 years, and was finally looking forward to some downtime.
Life had other plans, though, and, the week after his last day at American Express, his eldest daughter, Kaitlin, then 21, was diagnosed with lymphoma. Kelly was able to be there for her every step of the way. “Al was Kaitlin’s rock,” says Peggy Kelly, Al’s wife of more than 30 years. (They met during her senior prom in high school.) “He was at every doctor’s appointment and every treatment. Our kids and our family have always been a top priority for Al, no matter what his job demands.” Today, the couple has five children, ranging in age from 10 to 26.
Kaitlin’s cancer was thankfully in remission when a search firm contacted Kelly about being president and CEO of the New York/New Jersey Host Committee. He describes his role as “part ambassador, part leader, part fundraiser, and part problem-solver.”
Having worked at only three companies up until that point—all of which were huge corporations with infrastructures and processes already in place—Kelly loves the small-business aspect of the job, building a company from nothing to something. “For a month, I worked out of my house and car,” he says. “We had no computers or phone lines—or anything for that matter.”
Organizational hurdles didn’t stop there. “The New York/New Jersey region’s large geographic footprint has posed a logistical challenge for the Host Committee,” he says. “It affects planning on all levels, from weather to transportation to even community involvement.” To address community involvement, he helped create the first-ever “Join the Huddle” Mobile Tour, where a “Huddle Shuttle” comes to fans and lets them see replica stadium locker rooms, take part in drills, or take pictures with the Vince Lombardi trophy. “We wanted to attempt to touch as many people as possible,” he says.
“The fact that I took this job goes to the core of what makes me who I am,” Kelly continues. “I can use the platform of the Super Bowl and the NFL to do so much good for the area and for those in need.” He rattles off numerous projects related to the event: the Super Community Blood Drive; the Urban Forestry Project, a huge environmental program planting about 25,000 trees in areas that were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy; and the Snowflake Youth Foundation, which has a mission to revitalize and rebuild facilities and places that school-age kids
use like playgrounds, community houses, and Boys & Girls Clubs.
When asked about his passions, his answer is simple: “my kids, Catholic education, and healthcare.” He has been coaching Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball for 17 years, and has coached virtually every sport his children have played. He’s also involved in a great deal of charitable work. He’s the chairman of the board of trustees at Holy Child in Rye (where his wife and two older daughters attended high school), is on the board of New York-Presbyterian Hospital and three different boards related to the Archdiocese of New York, and, in November, he was a repeat keynote speaker at the Westchester Business Council.
“Al’s energy level and willingness to give back is astounding,” says Jim Egan, Kelly’s friend since childhood. “It is so wonderful to know him, and you’d never meet anyone who would say anything bad about him. There is no more loyal and trusted friend, dedicated and loving father, effective business leader, and visionary and few who have matched his charitable activities in both time and treasure. He’s one of a kind.”
Another longtime friend, Bill Harrington, shares a story that sums up his dedication: “Al was the president of AmEx and was away on one of his many trips to Asia. My family had arrived early to a Saturday-morning CYO basketball game we had at 9 am. Al had flown in from China that same morning and was already sweeping the floor of the gym for that day’s slate of games. He was operating on zero sleep, but made sure to fulfill the obligation he had made. Most people I know would have begged off and slept in.”
When he does have free time, he enjoys playing golf at Westchester Country Club, where he is a member, along with spending time with his family and friends at his vacation house in Southampton. He also likes to support his childhood friend, Jim Sullivan, whom he grew up playing basketball with, by taking frequent trips to his many restaurants in the County, such as Ruby’s Oyster Bar & Bistro, Rye Grill & Bar, Lexington Square Café, and Morgan’s Fish House, to name
Kelly and his team are all obviously excited to see the fruit of their labor come Super Bowl Sunday, and when asked what is next on his agenda (after winding down the organization of course), he states that, “I owe my wife a proper 30th anniversary celebration, because with everything going on there was zero time for anything. I also owe her and each one of my kids a vacation. In a perfect world, I will take the summer of 2014 off and probably go back to work in corporate America following that.” We’ll see.
Cat Zambito is a freelance writer who can also be heard and seen on television and radio commercials. She lives with her husband and son in Mamaroneck and is expecting her second child in April.