In 1946, Staples High School woodworking teacher Bill Torno looked around. A year after World War II ended, he predicted there would be a housing boom in Westport.
He opened a lumber yard and hardware store on the Post Road. He was right. Both thrived.
In 1970, Torno sold the businesses to Bob Kelly. He had a tough time. Three years later, he too sold — to another, completely different Bob Kelly.
This Bob Kelly had quite a resume. After being seriously wounded in Vietnam, he earned a Ph.D. in economics.
An internship with the President’s Council of Economic Advisers turned into a 2 1/2-year stint in the Nixon White House. Kelly moved on to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, working for Secretary George Romney.
“Then came this Watergate thing,” Kelly says. “The government just sort of stopped.”
One day, he saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal. A bankrupt lumberyard was for sale, in a “seacoast town.”
“I had a vision of horse-drawn carriages and 3-masted ships,” Kelly laughs.
That wasn’t Westport. But Torno Lumber and Hardware was a great fit.
A few years after buying the businesses, Kelly was asked to join the Fairfield University faculty. He taught economics for 30 years — while running his stores.
The college scheduled all his classes in the morning. Kelly spent afternoons at Torno. “They did fine without me here,” he says.
He retired from teaching 10 years ago. It was the depths of the financial crisis. Torno was hit hard.
“I never wanted to run a big company,” Kelly says. “But we got whacked. There were big chances in our industry.”
Small stores like his always had a price disadvantage. But if Torno was within 10% of bigger places, he’d always done fine.
Almost overnight, that model no longer worked.
“To be an independent now, you have to be very big,” Kelly says. “Big companies buy better. Now, companies we’ve dealt with for 50 years don’t want to deal with us.”
So — 46 years after he bought Torno Lumber and Hardware, and 73 years after Bill Torno set up shop — the businesses will have their 4th owner.
The buyer is Interstate Lumber. Shelly Kahn — president of the Greenwich-based firm — was raised in Westport.
“He’s a very good guy,” Kelly notes. “They’ve got several lumberyards, and a distribution center. They were one of the guys eating our lunch. This will be very good for Westport. I have no doubt Shelly will do a better job than I did.”
But only on the lumber front. Kahn plans to replace the hardware store with a showroom.
Of course, the Torno name will go. Interstate Lumber is the new name.
Kelly has 120 days to sell his inventory “and get my butt out.”
“I’m 78 years old,” he says. “I’m a reader. I like to exercise. I like being in the woods. My favorite tools are a chainsaw and lopping shears. I’ll confront and attack nature.”
He made the move with no regrets. He has many great memories.
“I made the right choice to here,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful time. I’m very, very happy I did what I did.”
For nearly 3/4 of a century, Westport has been very, very happy with what Bill Torno — and Bob Kelly — did too.