Broom at the top

Mark O'Brien
Director of Public Relations
Martino & Binzer

It may be impossible to come away from an interview with John W. Kiley, Jr., Director Emeritus of APWA's New England Chapter and head of Atlantic Broom Service, Inc., of Hyde Park, MA, without having your head resound with the grand thoughts of celebrated people. Maybe that's because John's success is the product of his own grand thoughts. Maybe it's just John's gift of The Blarney. In any case, his story is best told with the help of a few such celebrated people, whose grand thoughts help color the picture of a very colorful man.

"You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth."

-Mark Twain, American humorist and author,
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

You don't know about John Kiley, without you have visited a place by the name of Atlantic Broom Service. That company was made by John, and he tells the truth, mainly. There are things which he stretches, but mainly he tells the truth. This much is absolutely true: Atlantic Broom is the quintessential American success story, made by the quintessential self-made man. Aside from the Flying Broom lapel pins, which John proffers proudly to initiates like me, nothing is so emblematic of the man and his mission as this message, displayed prominently in his sign shop: "99.9% is not perfection; therefore, it's just not good enough." John is no less relentless about reminding himself of that maxim as he is about reminding his employees. And success hasn't distorted his view of competitive reality: "We don't make anything here that can't be made somewhere else. If we don't get it right, our customers will buy from someone who does."

As for the things which John stretches, businesses and reputations are built on image-marketing as much as sales and service. No one knows that better than John or is less likely to let the truth stand in the way of a good story. I'd like to know how many plow-blades have been sold over a recounting of this classic:

In 1992, John attended the Middletown (CT) Sports Charity Dinner, along with a host of other notables, including Tommy Lasorda of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Before the program, John flew his plane (the Flying Broom, of course) from Hyde Park to Hartford's Brainard Field, then drove to Middletown. After the program, John planned to fly from Hartford to Rochester, NY, taking erstwhile co-pilot, Art Fitzgerald, and Lasorda with him. When they arrived at Brainard for the flight upstate, the weather was miserable, the visibility negligible. Banking on his instruments and his Irish luck, John took off anyway, with a silent but seemingly game Lasorda seated in the cabin.

After flying most of the journey at 10,000 feet, John began to lower the plane in the hope of breaking through the cloud cover and spotting the Rochester airport or some landmarks thereabouts. As they descended below 3,000 feet, Lasorda walked to the cockpit and asked, still stoic, "Do you boys know when to stop going down?" Without answering, John continued his descent, clearing the cloud cover at 300 feet, and dropping the Flying Broom in Rochester without losing a bristle.

"It very seldom happens to a man that his business is his pleasure."

-Samuel Johnson,
English lexicographer and author

Aside from the pride John exudes when he talks about his business, or when he personally conducts a tour of his Hyde Park facilities, what's most evident about him is that he's a happy man. His business clearly is his pleasure; and his recounting of its genesis comprises that inspirational combination of passion, myth-making, and folksy savvy that's become all too rare in American enterprise. Consider this abbreviated chronology (considerably less colorful than John's version):

* 1946-John, with typical diplomacy, tells the principal of his high school to perform a particular gesture of affection on a proverbially pale portion of his posterior anatomy. The principal declines. Young John is in the job market.

* 1955-Atlantic Equipment Company, for whom John is selling trucks, tanks on a government contract to produce diesel generators. Going to pick up the payroll one day, John finds the doors padlocked, the building vacant, and himself unemployed. With typical patience, and nothing else but his car and his ambition, John starts Atlantic Broom Service the next day.

* 1956-John bumps into an acquaintance (and future co-pilot), Art Fitzgerald. Art tells John he'd like to sell brooms. John asks, "Have you ever sold anything?" Art replies, "I sold a gun once." With typical foresight, John hires him. Later in the year, John asks another friend, George Russell, if he'd like a job making brooms. George replies, "Yes, but I want to be paid in cash." John, with typical erudition, says, "No." Three days later, George joins the fold. The rest, as they say...

Along the way, there were developments too numerous to list here (e.g., Atlantic became a distributor for E.B. & A.C. Whiting in 1958; replaced DuPont's Tynex brooms with the longer-wearing and less expensive Prostran brooms; developed and sold molds for the first plastic sweeper-broom segments in the industry; standardized bolt-holes in plow blades; developed hole-punching processes; and purchased the turn-of-the-century presses with which they still punch blades). But two more dates remain central to John's story and APWA: In 1960, John attended his first APWA National Congress, as a guest of E.B. & A.C. Whiting. In 1963, John and Atlantic Broom hosted their first hospitality suite at the Congress, a practice that continues today.

"Organization and method mean much...but contagious human characters mean more."

-William James,
American philosopher and psychologist

John is neither patronizing nor falsely modest when he says, "Atlantic Broom would be nothing without APWA." Rather, he's humbly honest and enduringly grateful, for he knows you don't sell 90 percent of the plow blades in New England without contacts; and APWA has been John's largest single source of contacts since 1956. Reciprocally, John has put his money where his heart is, anteing up for refreshment budgets at local and regional APWA functions, continuing to host hospitality suites at National Congresses, making a tradition and a legend of his frequent flights to Anthony's Pier 4 in Boston for lunch with various customers and business associates.

Speaking of legends, John's will hold this: In 1990, a cardiologist gave John some news that would have had most of us making peace with our Maker. First, he said John needed quadruple bypass surgery to improve blood-flow to his weakening heart. Second, he said he refused to perform the surgery, since he didn't believe John could survive it. With the patience John typically shows to those who give him no for an answer, he found another cardiologist. After coming to John's room to pray the night before the surgery, the second cardiologist performed the operation, which John had every intention of surviving. (He'd already requested clearance from the tower and reserved a table at Anthony's.)

You don't know about APWA, without you have heard about John Kiley, a man whose business is his pleasure, a contagious human character who spreads joy and good will to everyone he meets. We celebrate John's contributions to APWA...but not nearly as much as John celebrates his life and his friendships.

Mark O'Brien is a communications consultant and freelance writer from West Hartford, Connecticut. He writes regularly for "Chapter Chatter," the New England Chapter newsletter. He can be reached at 860-678-4300 or at mobrien@goodbait.com.