Cornerstone of leadershipCorporate titan Ryan McKelvey is one of our own
By Jami Gaudet
Photography by Jessica Whitley
Maconites know the McKelvey name. Dr. Tom McKelvey, the kindly dentist who arrived in Macon in 1960, maintained a practice here for more than 50 years. Macon is where he and his wife, Rose Mary, a fixture in development at Wesleyan College and later at the Museum of Aviation, raised their six children.
In September 2020, Ryan, the youngest McKelvey, became president of Cornerstone Brands — four home and apparel lifestyle brands selling proprietary home furnishings, décor and women’s apparel through catalogs, ecommerce and retail stores.
Cornerstone’s companies will be familiar to online shopping aficionados. Frontgate, Ballard Designs, Garnet Hill and Grandin Road engage customers through social media, blogs and design services, while Ballard’s podcast, “How to Decorate,” provides inspiration and ideas.
Despite the pandemic, 2020 was a year of achievement for Cornerstone and of ascension for McKelvey. While many corporations failed or floundered, home design and décor boomed and Cornerstone flourished, topping $1 billion in sales. McKelvey, who began the year as president of Ballard Designs, was promoted twice. In April, he was named Cornerstone’s chief operating officer, and in September, Cornerstone’s president.
Yet, this proud son of Macon flies under the radar as one of the city’s most inconspicuous corporate luminaries. Here, he’s known to family and childhood friends as “Boo,” although no one, including McKelvey, knows the nickname’s origin.
Macon architect and developer Gene Dunwody Jr. is effusive in his praise for his lifelong friend.
“Boo was always a creative soul, resourceful and constantly evolving. Now, he’s doing it on a national and worldwide level,” Dunwoody says.
McKelvey says this Macon Magazine story marks only his second foray into the local limelight, on the heels of a March speech to the Rotary Club of Macon at the request of club program chair John O’Shaughnessey.
“Our parents were friends and our families carpooled to school. Seven O’Shaughnessey kids, six McKelveys — and no seatbelts,” says O’Shaughnessey, laughing at the memory. “At Rotary, I was mesmerized by Ryan’s story and accomplishments — everyone in the club was.”
In the corporate world, McKelvey has made his mark as a work horse, not a show horse. He’s an unassuming, modern-day renaissance man, the rare guy who knows his way around a house, self-taught in its operating systems. McKelvey cops to being a DIY person before the phrase was coined.
“I like planning and executing projects. I’m a decent carpenter, maybe better rough than finished; a decent plumber; electrician; and I can weld and tile most things,” he says. “I understand the functioning systems of a home.”
Rebecca, his wife of 28 years, applauds her handy husband: “Boo is a problem-solver whose mind is always working. I’m spoiled. I’ve never had to call a handyman.”
McKelvey claims he may be hardwired to be handy. He offers a childhood portrait hanging in the family dining room as proof.
“I’m sitting in front of my little wooden scooter with a hammer beside me. I’ve always had a knack for looking at something, figuring out what was wrong and fixing it,” he says.
Cornerstone’s new president began honing his skills while a newlywed in a little 1930’s era home in Cumberland Center, Maine, that he and Rebecca bought in 1995. He gathered bids for the electrical work but tackled the job himself with the help of the book, “Household Wiring from Start to Finish,” recalling, “renovating that house was a large learning curve because we pretty much did it all ourselves.”
McKelvey fondly recalls his early childhood “way out on Rivoli Drive” — considered the country in those days. He attended Springdale Elementary School, where he repeated second grade, later transferred to St. Joseph Elementary School, and like many Macon boys in that era, played youth football in Central City Park.
With his father’s growing interest in historic preservation, the family eventually moved intown to College Street. McKelvey attended nearby Mount De Sales Academy for middle and high school, where he played football and graduated in 1985.
He began college at Auburn University, transferred to the University of Georgia in his sophomore year and attended night classes to boost his grades. Graduating with a degree in finance from the Terry College of Business, McKelvey accepted a position in securities, quickly realizing that “securities didn’t bring me a lot of personal enjoyment.”
After some soul searching and research, he landed a job with iconic cataloger and retailer L.L. Bean.
“I identified the need for change and took a chance, packing my worldly possessions in my 1985 Honda Accord, moving to Maine, and renting a furnished apartment sight unseen,” he says.
Hired in 1992 as an inventory analyst at Bean headquarters, unexpected opportunities arose after he and colleagues found solutions for longstanding projects. Process improvement became a theme for McKelvey, whose responsibilities increased.
Despite his early success, McKelvey’s career wasn’t without setbacks and complications necessitating bold moves at pivotal moments.
While his tenure at L.L. Bean provided growth, he recognized that employee longevity made advancement increasingly more difficult. During this self-described inflection point, McKelvey left the retail giant in 1998 for small, little-known L&A Molding, a Bean vendor: “It was scary, but I needed to try something different to continue to grow.”
After two years at L&A, he applied to be liquidation manager at Ballard Designs, but instead was hired as director of quality and sourcing. In 2005, his promotion to president of improvements catalog of Cornerstone Brands necessitated two years of weekly trips to Cleveland, Ohio, departing on Sunday and returning home on Friday.
“Rebecca and I committed to raising our children in Middle Georgia, and rather than uproot our family we agreed I’d travel to maintain stability at home,” he says. “It was challenging, but I wouldn’t trade my work in Cleveland for anything. There I gained the experience I needed to run one of the businesses.”
Meanwhile, an opportunity arose at Ballard Designs and McKelvey was named president in 2008.
McKelvey proved his worth with 13 years of solid leadership at Ballard’s helm. Mike George, president and CEO of Qurate Retail Inc., Cornerstone’s parent company, lauds McKelvey for “expanding Ballard’s retail footprint and critical innovations including experiential, virtual and in-person interior design services.”
For six months, McKelvey maintained dual oversight for Ballard Designs and Cornerstone Brands, but in March 2021 he relinquished the Ballard presidency, naming a long-time colleague as his replacement.
THE CORNERSTONE WORLD
Although each brand has its own president, the four Cornerstone companies share distribution and call centers, technology, website platforms, marketing, transportation, delivery and collectively purchase supplies.
“We leverage where it makes sense, but keep the brands separate and unique to maintain a small-business feel. Brand appeal varies, but similar customer demographics enable us to introduce customers to the other brands in our portfolio,” McKelvey says about the business model.
McKelvey knows he inherited a successful company.
“I didn’t step into something broken, but I want to improve the customer experience and operations while growing Cornerstone for shareholders and consumers,” he says.
McKelvey calls navigating COVID-19 and planning for its aftermath his biggest challenge: “There are supply chain issues and I’m trying to develop relationships and a team without face-to-face time. But despite the separation, we work collaboratively and meet regularly.”
According to McKelvey, Cornerstone is meeting the moment.
“The real estate market is strong and three of our brands are in the home sector. People are focusing on their homes and new home owners are our best customers. We’re uniquely positioned to help them make transitions,” he says.
NAVIGATING FAMILY HEALTH CHALLENGES
The McKelveys have two children, 22-year-old Anna Helen, who heads to graduate school at UGA this fall after earning a bachelor’s degree there last spring, and Michael, 19, enrolled in special education at Mary Persons High School in Forsyth where he’ll remain until he’s 22. McKelvey says, “It’s his favorite place. He loves school, his teachers and friends.”
Born in 2002, doctors suspected Michael had growth issues in utero. Constantly battling colds and infections, at 4 months old Michael was rushed to an urgent care facility and quickly transferred to Macon’s Children’s Hospital where he was intubated. Two weeks later, he was diagnosed with pneumocystis pneumonia, an opportunistic infection striking immune-compromised individuals.
After the diagnosis, Michael was transported to Children’s Egleston Hospital in Atlanta. There, via a new test developed in Switzerland, a pediatric immunologist diagnosed him with cartilage hair hypoplasia and severe combined immunodeficiency, a rare form of dwarfism commonly accompanied by immune system issues.
The McKelveys learned too that Michael had no functioning immune system, and astonishingly, that they both carried the recessive gene. Impossibly rare, the condition is only found with any statistical significance in two rural counties in Finland and within the U.S. Amish population.
Michael’s single treatment path was a bone marrow transplant with 3-year-old Anna Helen serving as donor. But it took months to get Michael healthy enough for surgery and for the chemotherapy preceding the procedure. That December, Michael, then 8 months old, underwent the transplant and remained hospitalized until January 2003. Although it’s unknown whether he will require a booster transplant, he’s not been hospitalized since.
“If not for his diagnosis at the Children’s Hospital, Michael probably would have passed away because of his inability to thrive,” says McKelvey, who describes his son as “a happy child who loves every person on Earth. He is very social, but nonverbal. … He understands what’s said to him and communicates with a talking device. Cognitively, he can’t read or do math, but his ability to navigate a computer is amazing.”
Now, all U.S. children are screened at birth for the immune system disorder Michael endures because early discovery increases the chances for an immediate transplant to avoid some of the manifestations.
MIDDLE GEORGIA MAN
Ryan and Rebecca McKelvey led parallel lives while growing up in Macon. Although they attended different high schools, they had mutual friends and their parents were acquainted, but according to Rebecca, “they never put two and two together, and although we attended the Terry College of Business at the same time, we never knew each other.”
They met as adults at the former W. Rucker’s on Riverside Drive. McKelvey jokes, “We wish we could say we met in church, but we met in a bar.”
Rebecca elaborates, “Ryan had already moved to Maine. We hit it off and got engaged a year after our first date,” adding with a laugh, “I call it God’s plan.” They married May 1, 1993, in Macon, honeymooning up the East Coast en route to their new life in Maine.
Outside of stints in Maine and several years in Atlanta, the McKelveys have chosen to stick close to home. They reside in Forsyth and built a river home in Dames Ferry about 18 miles away, which doubled as McKelvey’s office during the pandemic.
The couple enjoyed their years in Atlanta, but valued the way they were raised and wanted to provide that same experience for their children. McKelvey says he’s been blessed throughout his life with support from his parents, teachers and coaches during his formative years in Macon, and by corporate managers, executives and his wife during his professional ones.
Rebecca speaks glowingly of her multi-talented spouse.
“Boo can do anything. He ran a tie-dye business in college, selling in several states and to one department store, and while we were dating he installed my car stereo himself,” she says. “At L.L. Bean he was part of the team that redesigned the way the Bean boot rubber bottom was manufactured.”
Clearly, the boy with the tools has spent a lifetime mastering the toolbox. McKelvey’s fascination with how things work and his ability to create, repair or renovate just about anything makes him indispensable at home. Those talents, paired with his sweeping knowledge of product development, a collaborative management style and broad experience up and down the corporate ladder, make him equally valuable in a workroom and boardroom, earning him respect and admiration throughout the ranks of the corporate giant he leads.
Ryan McKelvey on leadership
“I wasn’t overly aggressive in trying to grow my career. My mindset was to do my best work where I was at the time. Opportunities presented themselves. Maybe I could have made things go faster if I had been more aggressive, but my career has always provided us with what we needed to be very comfortable in our lives.”
“I learned a long time ago, my success isn’t ultimately what I contribute to the organization, but how I can help others succeed in their roles.”
“I’m not afraid to take calculated risks and don’t mind failing as long as we’re learning.”
“The pandemic has revealed new ways of doing business. The office will continue to be important for building the community of a business and for sharing and creative purposes, but maybe it means going to the office for events or key meetings, or working there a couple of days a week with the other days spent at home. There’s been a lot of change, but there’s still quite a bit of runway.”