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Leadership Award

 Margaret Kelly 

Chief Executive Officer
RE/Max International, Inc.
Oakland Community College, Michigan

By Evelyn L. Kent
Community College Times
March 29, 2005

After about five minutes of talking to Margaret Kelly, co-CEO of RE/MAX International, you want to excuse yourself, make a pot of tea and settle in for a long, cozy chat.

As Kelly talks about the strengths she brings to RE/MAX, she's warm and inviting. She acknowledges her business acumen, but she believes her success has come from focusing on individuals – people she feels helped her through two battles with cancer. "I've connected with the company, and I've brought in a few different things," Kelly said.

A graduate of Oakland Community College in Farmington Hills, Mich., Kelly began her career at RE/MAX in 1987 as a financial analyst. She has since worked her way up or found herself promoted into a variety of positions at the only major real estate franchisor that is still owned by its founders.

"I still truly am amazed and pinch myself that I am where I am right now. It's still a dream come true," Kelly said. 

The youngest of six children, Kelly began working in her father's steel factory in Detroit at the age of 12. At 14 she started running machines and cutting steel. Perhaps predictably, she detested the work. "I was there, 14 years old, running machines, covered with oil and had dirty hands and broken nails," she said.

Despite the dislike, that factory is where she learned about business and developed her work ethic, and those years prompted her to dream about doing something different. A little research and some convincing by her family landed Kelly at Oakland. 

"It gave me that stepping stone," Kelly said. "I thought that was my final destination." But she'd caught the education bug and went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Walsh College.

Five years after graduation, she began her career at RE/MAX. By 1999 she was senior vice president of external operations. It was then that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Kelly took six weeks off to recover from two surgeries related to the cancer. 

Eighteen months later, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and took a six-month leave of absence to recover and to regain her strength. The staff and owners of RE/MAX were an integral part of her support system, taking over her responsibilities, visiting her regularly and cooking meals for her family, Kelly said.

"I was very humbled when I came back, and so many people said that they missed the energy that I bring to the company," she said.

That energy is one of the reasons that the company decided to make Kelly the first president who was not also one of the founders. 

Kelly wasn't as certain as the four founders were that she should take on the job, so she had to decide what she wanted to bring to the company. "Here are these four people who have been around forever … I can't be them. I need to be who I am, and I tried to add my touch,” which Kelly said is her ability to connect with the other employees.

Apparently, her openness has made a huge difference. She once received an anonymous suicide note. Some sleuthing and open communication helped her find the employee who wrote it and offer some help. She has brought experts in to the office talk about domestic violence, rape and other women's issues.

On the lighter side, she arranged cosmetic makeovers in the predominantly female office. "I can't tell you what a difference it's made," Kelly said. "You like to think that you make a difference, it's just nice to hear that you do."

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