SMYRNA - When Jack A. Knox, president of Smyrna-based metal contractor R.F. Knox Co., walks into his office in the morning, he passes black-and-white portraits of three previous company presidents — his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
But if you ask the 41-year-old executive how the company has stayed in business for a century (it launched 100 years ago on May 15, 1914), he points to generations of dedicated employees, not just to his forefathers.
“This isn’t about the Knox family,” he says. “It’s about our employees and what they have done and allowed this company to do.”
Known for fabricating and installing HVAC ductwork for massive commercial projects such as the Georgia Dome, Peachtree Plaza, the Atlanta Merchandise Mart and the Georgia World Congress Center — to name a few — R.F. Knox Co. employs 250 people at its 8-acre headquarters in south Cobb.
The company tackles up to 2,500 projects each year. Its craftsmen can fabricate and install just about “anything made from metal,” Knox says.
Lining the walls of the office are framed photographs highlighting some of those more unusual projects: gilded gates, curvaceous handrails, gleaming elevator panels and even a set of cages for a gorilla sanctuary. In one office, draftsmen sit at computers amid stacks of blueprints. Out in the 75,000-sq.-ft. shop, about 50 fabricators weld, hammer and cut HVAC ducts and other metallic objects with precision. One truck after another streams out of the rear parking lot carrying ductwork to install sites throughout metro Atlanta.
When Knox’s great-grandfather, Robert Fletcher Knox, started the company in 1914, commercial HVAC was nonexistent. After all, W.H. Carrier had just patented the air conditioner that same year. Having begun his apprenticeship in metalworking in about 1890, R.F. Knox spent the earliest years of the company working on the likes of stovepipe, fascia, slate roofing and boiler breeching stacks, said Fred W. Knox, Jack’s 78-year-old father and president of R.F. Knox Co. from 1969 to 2007.
“R.F. was a pretty tough taskmaster from what I hear,” Fred Knox says. “He was still bidding jobs into his 80s and was visiting jobs and showing up at the office until he was 93.”
R.F. Knox’s strict smoking ban for workers was emblematic of his no-nonsense character.
“He went out on the job one time and a man was smoking a pipe,” Fred Knox says. “The guy saw my grandfather coming and put the pipe in his pocket. His pants caught on fire.”
In 1957 and ’58, craftsmen from R.F. Knox Co. helped renovate the state capitol building; they clambered over the 200-foot-tall Gold Dome without incident—but also without the harnesses and hardhats used today. “We didn’t put the gold on the dome, but we put all the metal on the roof, as well as steel window sills and fascia,” Fred Knox says. “We’re proud we were part of it.”
In the 1960s (R.F. Knox died in 1966), second-generation president John D. Knox penned a letter that captured the gist of R.F. Knox Co.’s culture.
“It was about how quality, integrity, service and reliability should be foremost,” Jack Knox says. “At the end of the day, we might not be the cheapest contractor, but we’re going to hold all of these other traits in the highest regard.” But if maintaining high standards has helped the company survive, that doesn’t mean it has been easy: From the Great Depression to the so-called Great Recession, R.F. Knox Co. has survived its fair share of tough times. “It seems like the downturns happen about every 10 years,” Fred Knox says. “There was one in the early ’60s that I remember well because I thought I was going to be out looking for a job.” For his part, Jack Knox shudders at the memory of the early 1990s. “Probably the scariest time was in 1991 and ’92,” he says. “We were one check away from having to close the door.”
A backlog of major projects for expanding clients such as WellStar Health System, Piedmont Hospital and Northside Hospital helped the company weather the 2008 economic crisis, Knox says. And of late business has been good: R.F. Knox Co. is already working with Kaiser Permanente, Northside, Emory University Hospital, WellStar and Baxter Pharmaceutical, among others, on large HVAC projects. Technology, too, is a hot growth sector. “Data centers are a booming part of our commercial business,” Jack Knox says. “You’ve got buildings that are over 500,000 square feet, and yet have only 10 employees in them. As soon as we finish one data center, they’re saying the technology is obsolete. So they’re continually building.”
The lack turnover at R.F. Knox Co. also smacks of another era: The average employee has worked there for about 14 years, many for 25 years or more, and several have retired after 50 years of service, Fred Knox says. “Looking back, my fondest memory is the people we worked with,” he says. “The employees who work for us for so long really become like family. That’s what we like to stress—we’re a family, and we work together to get the job done.”
A closer look at
Jack A. Knox, President, R.F. Knox Co.
Education: BS in Business Administration, Auburn University.
Family: Married to Barbara. Children: John Allen (16), Jared (15), Merritt 10 (attend Mt Paran Christian School in Kennesaw).
Volunteer activities: Attends North Metro Church and serves on the board of directors for Blue Skies Ministries; also serves on the local and national boards of directors for the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors National Association (SMACNA).