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 more vigorous.

"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. Industry—actually making products to sell elsewhere—has 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 view.

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 enjoy—though 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 to strike.

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 Tennessee—especially its School of Engineering—and 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 hill—that'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 east—warehouses, 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 resources—and perhaps a political climate more tolerant of Northerners than most Southern cities—capitalists 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 cars—for a regional and sometimes national market.

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 sophisticated—and 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 the world.

It's also more diverse. "We have a lot of small and medium-sized manufacturers," says Swanner. "There's nothing that dominates—it'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 officials.

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 rate—as 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 here—because 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 hum—and one sealed testing room where the relative humidity is kept at exactly 65 percent—Zellweger 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 divers)—cotton-industry jargon.

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 cloth—without phosphates—is 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 better educated.

"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 industry—now the biggest private employer in the metropolitan area—is 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 Spratt.

Like most modern industries, it's inconspicuously planted on a suburban site—a "campus" they call it—in 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 detail work.

These machines make lots of other things, too—tanks 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 you—but 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 trends.

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 did—and that through taxes and charitable contributions, a company might well contribute millions to the local economy even with a factory full of well-oiled robots.

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 California—there'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.