Reaching for the Sky: An in-depth look at Cobb’s 2017 ‘Small Business of the Year’

Set for the movie "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul" -- photo provided by Blue Sky Exhibi

When Don Keller and Tim Kelley set out as first-time entrepreneurs in 2003, they both admit it was a crazy idea.

“We worked for the biggest company on the planet,” Keller said. “There was no reason we should start a company.”

It was a difficult time for their industry as well. After the 9/11 attacks, many people were less inclined to fly on commercial airplanes and a majority of the scheduled trade shows were either canceled or downsized.

“For months, there were no shows because people weren’t traveling anymore,” Kelley said. “It took a while for everybody to start recovering from that.”

Despite the struggles that the industry was enduring, the duo decided that they had a passion for their work and an entrepreneurial itch. In 2003, they both left the successful company they worked for, started a business out of their homes in Marietta and invited 10 of Keller’s clients to join them.

“It was just two guys. We didn’t have a production facility,” Kelley said, laughing. “We had a logo. We had a name.”

That name was Blue Sky Exhibits, a manufacturer of trade show exhibits that now boasts more than 90 clients — along with the title of 2017 Small Business of the Year from the Cobb Chamber of Commerce. Those clients include industry leaders and household names, like Delta Airlines, Fruit of the Loom, L’Oreal and Amazon.

“We are blessed to work with a lot of companies that are top five leaders in their industry, and we’re just a small company,” Keller said.

Creating a Brand

Nine of the 10 original clients still work with Blue Sky, and the co-owners think it’s because of the core competencies they have maintained for 14 years: relationship, value and creativity. The value portion of that is largely due to the unique business model that the owners have used since day one.

“Typically, a trade show company would have a sales force, and they would have a production force,” Keller said. “So, the sales would sell it, they bring it internally and the production force would build it.”

This model is problematic because of the cost and the quality. On top of the overhead costs of maintaining and operating an entire production facility, Keller explained that the materials were expensive and often the welding wasn’t as good as it needed to be.

Instead, Blue Sky Exhibits built relationships with manufacturers across the country, professionals that were already experts with these resources. This revolutionary model for trade show manufacturing put Kelley and Keller on the fast track to success and made their clients very happy. Now, their competitors are trying to emulate this model.

“The customer ends up getting a product that is superior to what they’re used to, and I can control costs better,” Keller said.

Blue Sky Exhibits still does some of its own manufacturing, of course. While the office in Marietta is used primarily for design, sales and accounting, a second facility in Atlanta is used for production and storage of exhibits.

Becoming ‘Small Business of the Year’

To win the  2017 Small Business of the Year award, a company must go through an extensive application process. Keller and Kelley are very familiar with this, because this year marked the seventh time they submitted an application for Blue Sky Exhibits. The past six times, they landed the list of the Top 25 Small Businesses in the county, but they were determined to take home the gold.

The co-owners were then asked to pitch their company to the Cobb Chamber’s group of judges. Keller and Kelley were given a short timeframe for this pitch, and they wanted to make the best of it. Their presentation had a Braves theme and progressed through nine innings. Everyone in the audience received a box with several goodies, including makeshift baseball cards that featured every member of Blue Sky’s staff.

“We had a lot of fun doing it,” Keller said. “We have a lot of fun running this company and doing what we do.”

Besides their elaborate presentation, the men believe that they won the award this year because of the changes they made to the company in 2015.

“We took a good hard look at ourselves, and we basically reinvented ourselves,” Kelley said.

Blue Sky Exhibits was rebranded and reorganized completely, from the logo to a new sales department. Keller explained that, mainly because of how they revamped their operations, they increased their profit by 300 percent last year.

The owners stress, however, that their focus is not just the money.

“We feel it’s important to give back to your community, and we do that in a big way,” Kelley said.

Each quarter, for example, the Blue Sky Exhibits team serves breakfast at MUST Ministries. It’s a company event that involves everyone — staff members volunteer to cook one portion of the food, like eggs or bacon. They buy the supplies, prepare the food at home, and everyone meets early one morning at MUST Ministries to serve breakfast.

“It’s not just giving somebody money, but everyone is actually physically engaged,” Kelley said.

The company is also very involved with the Center for Family Resources, along with other organizations. This past December, Blue Sky Exhibits constructed and operated Santa’s House for Winter Wonderland on the Marietta Square. The two men also serve individually on several boards and organizations in the area.

“Cobb County is an amazing community to be a part of, [and] we believe in the Chamber [of Commerce],” Keller said. “We’re involved in a lot of stuff, but we’re strategic … we pick the organizations that we’re charitable to, the businesses that we support, the vendors and the partners that we choose to align with.”

From Trade Show to Movie Set

While Blue Sky Exhibits is the main focus of Keller and Kelley’s efforts, they have not shied away from other business opportunities. The facility in Atlanta is about 220,000 square feet, and it is essential during the busy times of the year. But for the other six or eight months, the warehouse sits empty.

“Because the movie industry is so robust here in Atlanta, we felt like we could turn part of that space into a movie studio,” Keller said.

So the owners of Blue Sky Exhibits entered into a partnership with two other entrepreneurs and started Base Camp ATL. Nearly 72,000 square feet of the warehouse can be used as a movie studio, including office space and a catering area. The studio caters to small- and mid-sized projects that last up to six months.

“And then they would be out before we were busy and we could bring all our exhibits back in,” Keller said.

Base Camp ATL also houses movie equipment in that space, like a 40-foot tall green screen, a plane fuselage, and OverDrive, a computer system that can simulate a vehicle in any environment.

“We would really like to become maybe a specialty studio,” Keller said.

They were recently part of the film “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” and managed to get both of their companies involved. At first, they were approached about the use of the studio, but then Kelley and Keller learned that the scene was going to be a pseudo trade show. They realized that they had more to offer than just the studio, and Blue Sky Exhibits was contracted to create the set as well. The scene incorporated 19 exhibits and had about eight minutes of airtime in the final cut of the film.

“That was a relationship that we started with 20th Century Fox, and I think they had a wonderful experience,” Keller said.

Winning the Gold

The two men say that, 14 years ago, their vision was to create a brand in their industry. At a time when trade shows were seeing a downturn and the future was uncertain, these two men wanted to be a beacon for their clients. They wanted to make a difference in their industry, and they feel confident that they have succeeded.

“I think we’ve already done it,” Kelley said. “We have created a discernibly better, more creative brand in our market.”

And yet, while they recognize their accomplishments, they remain humble. From establishing a revolutionary model for their company to reorganizing their business and tripling profits, from capitalizing on their off-season and starting a movie studio to winning Cobb County’s 2017 Small Business of the Year, Kelley and Keller have let their passion guide them to success. But they always point back to the help they’ve had along the way.

“It’s really our people that make the difference,” Kelley said. “It’s not what Don and I do, it’s the entire team coming together.”

Thanks to the efforts of everyone involved, it’s safe to say that Blue Sky Exhibits has come a long way from the two guys working out of their house with 10 clients.

“We’re slow but sure in our growth,” Keller said. “I think it’s a very solid growth, and we’re excited to what the future holds for Blue Sky.”