The millions of people who visit Atlanta each year for business or pleasure probably don’t know it, but there’s a good chance they’ve passed by some of the work done by R.F. Knox Co. Inc., the 103-year-old firm headed by SMACNA’s incoming president.

The Peachtree Plaza skyscraper, Georgia Dome, the Georgia World Congress Center convention facility and even the state capitol have all been built with the help of R.F. Knox workers. From industrial ductwork to brass, copper and stainless steel, R.F. Knox does all sorts of sheet metal work.

“We’re in all different types of buildings,” said Jack Knox, a 45-year-old who became SMACNA’s 2017-18 president at the end of the Oct. 22-25 convention.

The wide variety of projects the fourth generation, family-owned company is known for was partly borne out of necessity, Knox explained.

Jack Knox, SMACNA's new president

“When the company started back in 1914, there wasn’t any air conditioning, so everything was gutters and flashing, roof work, stovepipes (and) anything made out of metal,” he said.

R.F. Knox Co. was founded by Robert Fletcher Knox — although Jack Knox pointed out “nobody ever called him that” — as Knox and Maier Co., which specialized in small metal-repair projects. In 1924, J.J. Maier ended the partnership, and the firm, which was based in Atlanta, changed its name to R.F. Knox.

The post-World War II years, which saw Atlanta grow to a major metropolis fueled in part by the rapidly increasing use of air conditioning, allowed R.F. Knox to grow as well. The company was hired to perform ductwork fabrication and installation for many commercial and industrial projects in the region, ranging from tobacco manufacturing facilities to automakers. Today, its work mix is overwhelmingly commercial, with some industrial and architectural projects thrown in.

Historic projects

R.F. Knox was even selected to take part in a 1958 restoration of the state capitol’s golden dome, installing all of the metal on the 200-foot-tall structure, except for the gold leaf. 

Georgia State Capitol building

“We have (footage) of that,” Knox said. “It was crazy.”

By the mid-1970s, the company had outgrown its longtime downtown Atlanta headquarters and moved to Smyrna, Georgia, and a sprawling 85,000-square-foot plant on 8 acres in 1974.

Jack Knox grew up in the sheet metal industry and unlike a lot of people involved in family businesses, said he always wanted to work for it.

“I worked with both my brother and my sister,” he said. “We would work there in the summers, driving trucks, sweeping floors, answering phones. Whatever it took.

“Having my name on the company, we take a lot of pride in what we do,” Knox said.

Even after enrolling at Alabama’s Auburn University, Knox said he always planned to work for his father’s company.

“I really had a desire to work with my dad,” he said. “And he gave me that opportunity.”

Two days after graduating from Auburn, Jack Knox started as an estimator at R.F. Knox Co. From there, he moved into project management and later construction management. Jack Knox’s father, Fred Knox, retired in 2007, allowing Jack to take over as company president.

“And the rest is somewhat history, I guess,” Jack Knox said.

About a year after becoming president, the country and the construction industry went into a deep downturn. And while the Great Recession hurt a lot of sheet metal contractors and even cost SMACNA some members, Knox said his company was luckier than many. It stayed busy thanks in part to the many projects in health care, pharmaceuticals and higher education that R.F. Knox has long specialized in.

“They don’t stop building,” Knox said of such industries. “Typically, the bigger it is, the harder it is, those are the types of projects that we’re on.”

Recent work

Recent major projects include Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new $1.6 billion home of the Atlanta Falcons pro football team. R.F. Knox fabricated and installed spiral ductwork ranging from 74 to 96 inches in diameter for the project — much of it was lined with Spiracoustic Plus insulation from Johns Manville.

Today, R.F. Knox has 26 employees in its offices and 160 sheet metal workers who are members of SMART Local 85, which covers the whole state. While he doesn’t like to discuss revenue figures, he said the company typically is responsible for about 300,000 man hours per year.

R.F. Knox is not the only sheet metal firm with lots of projects right now, he added.

“The economy in Georgia is really booming. Everybody’s busy,” he said. “There’s definitely a shortage of qualified labor. And that’s not just in Georgia. That’s all over.”

It’s one of the topics that Knox will be tackling during his term as SMACNA president. Many members are struggling to find enough workers, whether for the office, management or shop. In many cases, local unions don’t have anyone available — a big change from as recent as two years ago.

Despite the healthy economy, Knox said SMACNA members need to stay up-to-date on technology if they want to win projects. Contractors who don’t embrace computer-aided drafting or building information modeling are going to find themselves left behind. And providing education on new developments is one of the biggest benefits to SMACNA membership, Knox said, adding that he wants to ensure the association continues to meet members’ needs.