Knoxville's surprisingly diverse array of
manufacturing is a bigger part of our economy than you may think
by Jack Neely
Amidst the hum of massive machinery, workers are making things. All sorts
of things. They're making seatbelts and hot dogs and thermostats and adhesive
bandages. They're making garbage cans and motorboats and peanut butter and
razor blades. They're making stereo speakers and wallpaper and oil filters
and bathroom sinks. Wearing hardhats or hairnets, earplugs or safety glasses,
they turn knobs, guide routers, thread spindles, pack boxes. You may never
see them. They work in a huge factory in a crowded industrial park in East
Knox County. And in a huge factory in Powell. And in a small factory in Bearden.
And in an old plant downtown. And in another burgeoning industrial plant
off Pellissippi Parkway. They're all over, tens of thousands of them, the
secret manufacturers of Knox County.
When Levi's closed its Knoxville plant in November, it was a shock to the
city, as all unexpected layoffs are. There was concern for the laid-off
employees, of course, and what it would mean for Knoxville's tax base, and
what we'd do without Levi's vigorous community programs. But in all the news
summaries concerning the plant closing, many longtime Knoxvillians were even
more startled to learn that Knoxville had ever been home to the largest
Levi's plant in America.
We don't think of the Home of the Vols as an especially industrial city,
a city that makes things. We have professors, lawyers, bankers, insurance
agents, salesmen, and lots of government employees. But manufacturers?
A prominent urban planner in Chattanooga sits in his Miller Square office
and explains the difference between Chattanooga and Knoxville. Knoxville's
older and larger, but Chattanooga's more famous and lately it has seemed
"You see," he says, "Chattanooga is a real city. Knoxville's just
a college town, a government town." He mentions UT, TVA, ORNL, implying such
tax-funded impositions are somehow phony from a municipal point of view,
surface embellishments that aren't likely to nourish a deep-rooted
city. He says Chattanooga works so well in part because it's a
real city, "the Dynamo of Dixie," an industrial town, with real factories.
With all of those taxpayer-funded institutions shriveling in one way or another,
a "government town" might well have reason to covet a city with a lot of
private industry. Industryactually making products to sell
elsewherehas always been considered the most solid foundation for an
urban economy. There's something about industry that makes a city seem
substantial, dependable, genuine. It's what drives the world economy, what
pays the bills. If you don't have some industry, if you don't make
something, you're leeching off cities that do. That's the time-honored American
The funny thing is, that even by that Chattanoogan's narrow industrial
definition, Knoxville is indeed a real city.
A look at Knoxville's industry makes it seem clear that if all Knox County
manufacturing were to cease tomorrow, suppliers in every state in America
and several countries around the world would be scrambling to make up for
the loss. Especially in the automotive-part and precision-machinery industries,
Knoxville factories are often one-of-a-kind, the premier, and sometimes the
only producer of a certain product in the United States.
Exactly the proportion of Knoxville's gross municipal product that's produced
via manufacturing is not easy to calculate, but the Chamber of Commerce estimates
that even without Levi's, perhaps one in every six of those employed in
Knoxville's metropolitan area works in a factory. In Knox County alone, factory
workers outnumber UT undergrads.
There are, by the last count, more than 500 manufacturing concerns in Knox
County. (About half of them are very small, with nine workers or fewer, but
even some of those are doing groundbreaking work in high-tech fields.) These
factories and workshops are manned by about 24,000 industrial laborers.
Across Knoxville's six-county metropolitan area, the number of industrial
workers swells to about 50,000. Knoxville's metro area boasts more manufacturing
employees than scores of other major metropolitan areas across the country,
many of which are much larger. According to Employment & Earnings
magazine's latest tabulations, there are more factory workers in Knoxville's
MSA than there are in Omaha, Sacramento, Tucson, or Boise. More than in Peoria,
Green Bay, Jersey City, and Flint, Mich. More than Lexington, Mobile, Little
Rock, Charleston (W.V. and S.C.), and even New Orleans. More than
in the entire states of New Mexico, Montana, Alaska, Wyoming, Nevada, and
Hawaii. And, yes, more even than in the metro area of that industrially
real city, Chattanooga.
Wages have been improving rapidly in recent years; Knoxville factory workers
make, on average, more than $500 a week. Total annual payrolls in manufacturing
come to over $700 million in Knox County alone.
Most business boosters have a list of Knoxville's advantages at the tip of
their tongues. Transportation and location are together a big one; at or
near the intersection of three major interstates, Knoxville's within a day's
drive of 75 percent of the U.S. population; a few also mention Knoxville's
riverway for bulk transportation, an advantage not all cities enjoythough
it's threatened by the uncertainty of the Chickamauga locks. Climate and
natural beauty may not have a great deal to do with most manufacturing processes
but do make it easier to bring employees into an area and keep them there.
Also cited is the labor pool. Lynn Musick is president of the East Tennessee
Industrial Council. "The labor here has traditionally been very
committed," she says. "Year to year, there's not a lot of turnover,
not a lot of transition from job to job." Melissa Ziegler, director of the
pro-industry Knox County Development Corp., cited as the juggernaut behind
recent industrial-park development, agrees. "That's the first and most important
thing. There is an outstanding work force here with a very strong work ethic."
She mentions Matsushita, an electronic-parts factory in East Knox which has
won national awards for quality and production.
Promoters often add that Tennessee is a "right to work" state in which unions
can't force membership on factory employees. For industry, that's a euphemism
for the fact that laborers are less likely to be union members and less likely
Some also mention lower taxes and looser restrictions on business in Tennessee.
(A 1996 Money magazine article oft-quoted by Knox boosters was headlined,
"Knoxville is heavenly; the Big Apple is hellish." They were referring to
tax rates; Knoxville had the lowest per-household tax rate in the country.)
And there's TVA, a supplier of dependable and relatively inexpensive energy.
However, judging by how often it's mentioned, Knoxville's proudest industrial
asset is its "technology corridor," a cliché that has been used to
describe everything from Pellissippi Parkway to I-75 all the way to Chattanooga
to, most recently, Market Square. In Knox County, the term mainly implies
the dynamic between the University of Tennesseeespecially its School
of Engineeringand Oak Ridge projects run by ORNL or the Department
of Energy, especially those geared to privatize processes previously controlled
by the government.
"Technology's one of our strongest suits," says Allen Neel, president of
Tennessee's Resource Valley. "The region is finding challenging new ways
of capitalizing on that strength."
Musick says the DOE's Center for Manufacturing Technologies, in particular,
has aided Knoxville's burgeoning high-precision tooling industries. In the
last 15 years, several have bloomed in the area, from computer-imaging equipment
manufacturers to numerous precision auto-parts manufacturers. Among the most
recent recruits are American Safety Razor, which opened a major plant in
the Forks of the River Industrial Park, Daikin Drive Train, which makes torque
converters and transmissions at Eastbridge Industrial Park, and PBR Automotive,
the only American factory for an Australian company that manufactures brake
calipers. One of the most intriguing is Oozx, USA, a Japanese company that
makes aluminum valves for Jaguars and other high-performance vehicles. Their
West Knoxville factory is in the process of gearing up. At full speed, those
four factories, all of which have arrived in the last three years, will together
employ more than 1,000 workers.
Ziegler also cites help from UT and ORNL but reminds us that Knoxville was
capitalizing on high-technology manufacturing long before the Manhattan Project.
"Knoxville has a long history of technology-based business," she says, citing
the example of Weston Fulton and his revolutionary sylphon in 1904. She sees
Knoxville's high-tech plants as nothing less than "a comeback for core
manufacturing in Knoxville."
In 1886, a bird's-eye depiction of Knoxville shows a pastoral cluster of
five or six buildings on a hillthat's the University of Tennessee,
a tiny college with about 500 students. The school seems dwarfed by the busier,
denser districts to the north and eastwarehouses, railroad yards, and
at least 26 smoke-belching factories, some of them huge.
Knoxville was once, and not all that long ago, well-known as a manufacturing
town. Long before the Civil War, when our only college was a shaky one-house
operation, Knoxville's biggest industry was liquor, most of it shipped downriver
from dozens of Knoxville distilleries to ports as far as New Orleans on
flatboats. Knoxville's first "factory" was a tanning yard; Knoxville artisans
made saddles and other leather goods for use throughout the region. Another
early export was paper, milled from local timber; in the 1820s, when maverick
educator Sequoyah needed paper for his national Cherokee newspaper, the
Phoenix, he sent to Knoxville for it. Papermill Road was named after
a factory that flourished in the mid-19th century. We used that paper for
other products. One legacy of Knoxville's era as a state capital was a rare
printing press which produced dozens of periodicals, including the first
newspaper published in Tennessee, and books, including the first novels ever
published in the region. By 1853, Knoxville had a heavy-duty machine factory
which manufactured, among other things, guns. But Knoxville's industrial
boom years were still well ahead.
Attracted to Knoxville's location central to coal, timber, marble, zinc,
and iron resourcesand perhaps a political climate more tolerant of
Northerners than most Southern citiescapitalists came here after the
Civil War and built factories.
The iron mined in the region and processed in Knoxville became such a vital
industry that we named a district after the mechanics, most of them Welsh
immigrants, who worked in the foundries. Marble quarried here was cut to
size for use in the great monuments of Washington. (Knoxville claimed to
have the largest marble plant in the world; for decades, we advertised ourselves
as The Marble City.) Timber from the clear-cut tracts in the Smokies
came to Knoxville to become usable lumber and, in several factories, furniture.
Raw cotton and wool from all over the South came to Knoxville on the rails
to be made into thread, material, and clothes. In 1885, Brookside Mills boasted
a machine-packed plant with 21,000 spindles.
From the 1870s onward, Knoxville was one of the most industrialized cities
in the South, at one time second only to Birmingham in factory workers per
capita. Knoxville factories manufactured stoves, leather belts, buckets,
furniture, sausage, glass bottles, saw blades, engines, bricks, beer, buttons,
railroad spikes, even railroad carsfor a regional and sometimes
Local inventors fomented small revolutions. In 1904, a Knoxville weatherman
named Weston Fulton invented a seamless electrified metal tube he called
the sylphon, which became the basis for thermostats and ultimately
a key part of the World War I depth charge; he earned 25 patents off the
sylphon, and his Cumberland Avenue factory was employing over 4,000 by 1945.
The Savage brothers from England were inventors of industrial machinery and
ran a large-equipment factory here. Two other brothers named Dempster invented
and manufactured a new garbage-disposal system called the Dumpster
that cleaned up around the world. Twentieth-century Knoxville factories produced
porcelain, soft drinks, fertilizer, mattresses, flour, chewing gum, and cigars.
Knoxville's textiles industry was huge, employing 9,000 by 1940. Knoxville
was at one time the nation's biggest manufacturer of underwear. For a moment
in the 1920s, there was even an automobile manufacturer here.
Pretty impressive, for a college town. Manufacturing had its downside, of
course, as it did in every industrial city. For decades, Knoxville was
industrially filthy. A decade before John Gunther called Knoxville "the ugliest
city in America," kinder, gentler authors like James Agee and even Ernie
Pyle derided the city's sootiness. When Pyle first visited in 1935, he said
he'd heard Knoxville was the "dirtiest city in the world"and admitted
that as far as he could tell, that rumor was true.
It was probably not until some time after 1945 that when people thought of
Knoxville, they first thought of the University of Tennessee. Knoxville was
a business town.
Over the years, Knoxville's famous marble quarries thinned out. Industry
found purer, cleaner sources of coal and iron than East Tennessee offered.
The textile industry lost a lot of business to overseas competition. Textile's
decline, which began 50 years ago, continued recently with the announcements
of closings at the Palm Beach suit factory and especially Levi's. In one
fell swoop, Levi's laid off 10 percent of Knoxville's industrial laborers.
But it was only 10 percent, and less than 5 percent of the industrial
labor in the six-county Knoxville metropolitan area. What remains is more
diversified than ever, and much of it's growing.
If the plumes of black smoke Knoxville boosters were so proud of in the 1880s
are absent, it's because they're now illegal. Modern industry is much cleaner
and quieter than before. If it's possible for there to be any liability to
clean manufacturing, it's the fact that industry, and the economic vitality
it implies for a city, is no longer as conspicuous as it once was.
"I'm pretty sure Knoxvillians don't know how much is here," says David Swanner
of the Chamber of Commerce. "You don't see industry, you don't hear about
it. Most of the people who live here have never even been through an industrial
park. Manufacturing is a little different, anyway. What goes on behind closed
doors, they work in their own little world in there, they concentrate on
what they're doing and don't spend a lot of time letting people on the outside
know about it."
(That's easy to believe. Calling about 20 local manufacturers and asking
for basic information about what they produce, several didn't return our
calls. Some relatively large plants have no public relations offices; some,
protecting trade secrets, have strict no-visitors policies.)
If Knoxville industry is less overwhelming, both in terms of giant factory
employment and airborne soot, it's at least as interesting as it ever was.
Back in those sooty-smokestack days, most of Knoxville industry was directed
toward supplying the needs of the region with fairly basic products. Today,
Knoxville industry is more sophisticatedand more national and even
international than ever before. Every year, Knoxville-produced products,
especially in the area of high-tech machinery, arrive in countries around
It's also more diverse. "We have a lot of small and medium-sized manufacturers,"
says Swanner. "There's nothing that dominatesit's a fairly good mix."
Others agree. Allen Neel says "Knoxville has diversity, no question. People
think of our area as more of a service center, but we've got a strong
manufacturing base, and a tremendous potential to grow."
Knoxville's economic diversity, as much as we implicitly deny it with our
"college-town" clichés, has been cited in Money magazine's
urban rankings as a positive thing that gives us some protection from market
fluctuations and recessions. But it can cause embarrassing dilemmas for public
Showing some prospective industrialists around recently, Swanner says one
asked him, "What drives the economy of Knoxville?"
It's a reasonable question. In spite of multiple large and prominent layoffs
in both the public and private sectors in the last 10 years, Knoxville's
unemployment rate remains mysteriously lower than the national rateas
our wages have been rising faster than the national average. Visitors see
extravagant new buildings going up here every week.
Swanner's been working at the Chamber for three years. But, of course, he's
stumped. He always finds that question difficult to answer in less than an
hour. "Knoxville industry is so diverse, it's hard to put your finger on
it," he says. "It's good in that it makes us more recession-proof. It's not
good if you're trying to explain the economy herebecause you can't!"
Musick likes to brag on Knoxville manufacturing's global influence. She mentions
a couple of companies right off the bat: CTI, which makes computer-imaging
equipment for a world market, and another company called Zellweger Uster.
It's in a smallish building in a quiet park off Baum Drive in Bearden. To
look at it from the parking lot, you might think it's a pediatricians' group
or an insurance office, a first impression that might not change if you were
to walk in the door and see a receptionist and quiet rows of carrels. But
go down the steps into the basement and suddenly you're in a factory, where
from raw aluminum bars, 20-odd workers make some very complex copier-sized
machines with hundreds of gears, belts, and other moving parts, most of which
are made from raw materials right here. This small plant is America's leading
manufacturer of fiber-grading machines used by textile plants around the
world, from Alabama to Pakistan. Though several Knoxville factories export,
few export most of their products. Zellweger Uster exports 80 percent of
the machinery they make.
Pronounced something like Zelvegger Ooster, it's a Swiss-based company,
but this is their main American plant. Though there's large machinery that
tends to emanate a high-pitched humand one sealed testing room where
the relative humidity is kept at exactly 65 percentZellweger Uster
may seem more like a friendly workshop than a factory. Most of the workers,
casually dressed, sit as they trim and bore parts from aluminum and even
wood, for the cabinets that hold each machine together. Through large windows
to the outside they can see woods, grass, a creek, Sacred Heart's playground.
The president and CEO upstairs is Swiss, and there are other foreign nationals
on staff; but even these Tennesseans in Vols caps speak another foreign language
of neps, slubs, and slivers (rhymes with
Each machine takes days to finish; they hand-make each one, and test it
carefully. We're told they're very expensive, but for textile mills, maybe
worth it. One new Zellweger Uster product, the Intelligin, promises
to save the U.S. cotton industry $1 billion a year.
Ask someone about Knoxville factories, and they'll mention the ones they've
seen recently, especially the ones that actually look like factories:
Rohm & Haas, the chemical plant near the interstate interchange. "We're
right in the middle of civilization here," says human resources manager Charlie
Clark, admitting that operating an old-fashioned downtown factory in an era
when most chemical plants are located in suburban industrial parks is sometimes
a challenge, both in terms of transportation and getting along with residential
neighbors. It's no longer one of those smokestack industries; the acrid pall
that once lay across this Third Creek Valley has largely dissipated thanks
to aggressive pollution-control efforts.
Once among America's biggest manufacturers of Plexiglas, Rohm & Haas
surrendered its original product to concentrate on other chemicals and is
still an important part of Knoxville's economy. Protective of its trade secrets,
much of the plant is off-limits. But its products are very public. "Buy a
can of Sherwin-Williams paint, and chances are good that two-thirds of what's
in that can came from this plant," says Clark. The stuff in Tide detergent
that keeps dirt from getting back into the clothwithout phosphatesis
a Rohm & Haas product. Pick up a Time magazine, and that slick
substance on the cover that keeps the ink from smearing, is Rohm & Haas.
Chemicals manufactured in this plant end up in 3M surgical tape, Bounce fabric
sheets, Chubs diaper wipes, and Windex. In all, the plant churns out a quarter
of a billion dollars' worth of product each year, over $35 million of which
goes into the local economy through wages and purchases.
Its 300 employees are only a fraction of its original work force, but that
number has been stable for a decade. Clark has no doubts about the plant's
long-term viability. Knoxville's a great place for it, he says;
having worked in plants in Kentucky and Texas,
Clark says Knoxvillians have a markedly stronger work ethic; they're also
"The chemical operation is so complex now, the requirements for employment
are much greater than they were," he says. It's tough to work in a chemical
plant without both a knowledge of chemistry and a facility with computer
calculations. Operators need at least a two-year associate's degree; many
have a full chemical-engineering degree. Thanks to UT and a well-run
chemical-engineering program at Pellissippi State, Clark says, "we've never
had a shortage of well-qualified applicants."
Robertshaw is another pre-suburban factory in a building that wasn't made
to be looked at, but now that a bike trail wraps around it, we see it from
several directions. It's much smaller than it once was, but still employs
700 workers and still makes thermostats and other devices for which there's
a strong modern demand.
They're both war-effort factories, built downtown as factories were in those
days. They're often the two mentioned by people who haven't seen Knoxville's
hundreds of other modern factories tucked away in suburban sites, sometimes
invisible even to each other.
The largest concentration of manufacturers in Knox County is at the Forks
of the River Industrial Park, developed in the 1960s between the Holston
and French Broad Rivers in East Knox County. If it were a city of its own,
it would show up on industrial maps as an especially diverse one. Aqua-Chem
makes heavy-duty saltwater-desalinization machines, many of them shipped
out for export markets by barge. Bike makes athletic clothing. Dana makes
truck transmissions. Briggs makes sinks and tubs. Hastings makes oil filters.
Melaleuca/B&V makes cosmetics. Some of these are subsidiaries of bigger
companies, but Sea Ray Boats is headquartered in Knoxville and one of America's
largest manufacturers of pleasure craft. From two separate factories in the
Forks of the River park, Sea Ray manufactured over 7,500 boats last year.
(Another plant in Tellico adds to that number). Two newer industrial parks,
EastBridge and WestBridge, promoted by the Development Corp., are still growing.
Knoxville's highest-profile international industrynow the biggest private
employer in the metropolitan areais DeRoyal, until recently known as
DeRoyal Industries. "We dropped the Industries from the name because
it called up images of smokestacks," says marketing representative Kathy
Like most modern industries, it's inconspicuously planted on a suburban
sitea "campus" they call itin Powell, just north of Clinton Highway.
It could well be a community college or even a retirement home. You might
not guess it's the world headquarters for a nationally important medical-supply
manufacturer with 29 plants in several states and countries.
And even on this pastoral administrative "campus" are two manufacturing plants
that take raw materials and turn them into familiarly recognizable finished
products, from tiny valves for IV bags to adhesive bandages. In one huge
room is a windowless, partly subterranean factory that could be the setting
for the final scene in a James Bond movie. Here beneath bright fluorescent
lights, enormous machines called blow-molders melt plastic pellets at a
temperature of 350 degrees, then drop long sleeves of molten plastic into
a chamber which closes tight around it like an iron maiden as air pressure
blows up the molten sleeve like a bike tire against the framework of the
mold, then cools it to hardness with chilled water. Today this machine is
producing large barrels for medical waste at the rate of one every 90 seconds.
A robot arm which swivels up, down, sideways, and diagonally finishes the
These machines make lots of other things, tootanks for Whirlpool
humidifiers, even plastic tubing used for Murray-brand lawnmowers. This division
is called Royal Precision Plastics. DeRoyal's promotional literature makes
it sound as if they'll produce anything plastic for youbut most plastic
products don't require this degree of precision.
Each of these machines is run by computer, and each is valued at $1.3 million.
They're run by men wearing hairnets and what look like surgical scrubs. When
they machines all running at once, the men also wear earplugs.
In the next room are injection molders; some are quite large, attached to
funnel-shaped tanks, but they are more for the precision work, like the valve
manifolds used for intravenous fluids. Injection molders are for making solid
parts of any size; they pack plastic into molds at pressures of up to 30,000
pounds per square inch. Many, like the valve manifold, are tiny. In the medical
industry, the work has to be perfect. A leaky valve can mean a fatal infection.
In another building across the way is a very different factory. In a spacious
room, large machines with complex networks of conveyor belts and spindles
are lined up, each tended by two people.
With windows to the outside and workers listening to country music on the
radio, it seems more laid-back than the plastics factory. But looks can be
deceiving. Each operator is watched carefully by an inspector. At a long
table, a group of three women in hairnets scrutinize bandages.
One of these machines spits out Sleep-Right nasal-passage openers, with adhesive,
sometimes at the rate of one million a day.
Today they're even making a medical product to respond to the latest New
Age fad: stickers to adhere magnets to the skin. (In contrast to the Sleep-Right
strips, they're making only a modest 30,000 magnet stickers a week). One
machine said to be the only one of its kind folds hospital drapes into storable
packs, a job until recently done in Mexico by several laborers at a time.
DeRoyal has four other plants in Maynardville and Tazewell, plus more than
20 others outside the region, from Kells, Ireland, to San Luis Obispo, Calif.
No one knows for certain, but the latest estimate of how many different products
DeRoyal manufactures for all its clients is in the neighborhood of 25,000.
Knoxville manufacturing is something of a half-empty or half-full conundrum.
To those who never thought of Knoxville as a manufacturing city, the sheer
number of Knoxville's products can be astonishing. To others who've been
watching it over the decades, and judging it in terms of employment, it's
not what it once was.
Last May, researchers at UT's Center for Business & Economic Research
released a report commenting on the fact that manufacturing's share of Knox
County's total non-farm employment had fallen by more than a third in the
period from 1973 to 1994, acknowledging that the decline mirrors national
Even before the Levi's layoffs, the report hinted darkly that "should the
current trend continue into the next decade [here they cite a chart showing
Knox County manufacturing employment dipping to less than 8 percent by
2004]...manufacturing would become an inconsequential component of the local
economy." The statement's made to emphasize the importance of recruiting
new industry, and the report does go on to detail how the arrival of several
new manufacturing and distributing companies in the county should help shore
up Knoxville's traditional economic diversity.
However, the notion that Knox County manufacturing might become "inconsequential"
by 2004 or so might seem a little on the dramatic side. Employment's an important
part of industry's part in a community, but not the only part. Dealing purely
in numbers of employees doesn't acknowledge that modern manufacturing doesn't
require as many employees for the same products and profits as it once
didand that through taxes and charitable contributions, a company might
well contribute millions to the local economy even with a factory full of
Even dealing with pure employment statistics, other figures suggest any decline
in manufacturing's share of Knox County's employment is mostly a matter of
there being more new non-manufacturing activity in the county than less
manufacturing. Lee Grant, a researcher with the Tennessee Department of
Employment Security, watches employment trends across Knoxville's metropolitan
area. "Manufacturing has been remarkably stable for several years," hovering
between 48,000 and 51,000 workers since 1992.
And there's not only those thousands still on factory employment rolls to
consider, but all the stuff they make. When you shave or paint your house
or turn on a stereo or buckle a seatbelt or slam on the brakes or (if you
fail to use a seatbelt and aren't quick enough on those brakes) hurt yourself
and get a bandage in an emergency room anywhere from here to
Californiathere's a good chance you're using a Knoxville-manufactured
product. Manufacturing will surely continue to have its ups and downs here.
It will probably never dominate Knoxville's economy, but it will never be
inconsequential, either. It seems clear that if manufacturing is what makes
a city real, Knoxville's already there, and has been for a long time.