The baton has been passed to the second generation of the owners of the Wolf Creek Company. It’s a story that had its humble beginnings in 1961, in Dayton, Ohio, when Charles (Bud) Knowles decided to change careers.
At the time, he was heading up the office of the FBI in Dayton. One day, he received a call from J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, informing him that he was going to be transferred. The new job sounded like it was going to be more dangerous than the position he held. Also, he was raising a family, and with his oldest child Scott just three, he was not ready to pick up roots and move. In the FBI, if you turn down an assignment at that level, in effect you’re turning in your papers, so he left the Bureau.
Knowles then began to think about what he was going to do. He recognized that neighborhoods in the Dayton area were expanding, and new neighborhoods were being formed. He realized that there would be new landscapes going in. Having been raised on a farm in Wichita, Kansas, he thought to himself, “I’m a farmer; I understand plants,” and with his limited experience, he started a small landscape and nursery business. He called it Wolf Creek Company, jumped in with both feet and worked like heck to make a go of it.
Two years later, that small landscape maintenance company grew into a retail garden center with a landscape design/build division. Irrigation installation was added to the mix later. The oldest of Knowles’ sons, Scott, remembers working in the business as a kid. He was a crew member, installing irrigation.
However, in 1978 the market was changing; there was an increased demand for irrigation installations, housing developments were springing up all over the place and landscaping was booming. Knowles was approached about becoming a Rain Bird distributor. After much consideration, he accepted and fully committed himself to the irrigation business. He sold the garden center and the landscape maintenance company, as well as the irrigation contracting business.
By 1981, Chris Knowles, Bud’s younger son, began working at the company. He worked in the warehouse as well as driving a truck to deliver product to contractors. He was 16 at the time, so you could say both Scott and Chris grew up in the business.
Scott graduated from Ohio State University, and then entered the family business. Chris graduated from Urbana University, and also entered the family business. But Scott left in 1982, to start his own business, dealing with computers. However, it wasn’t too long afterwards that he began to see how the big box stores could cram his business. Sure enough, they began selling computers, printers, etc., squeezing him out. So, six years later, he liquidated his computer business and rejoined the family business as general manager.
By now, the Wolf Creek Company had become a full-fledged wholesale irrigation distributor. The owners began to expand their markets, and by 1990, they had three locations: Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati. The Knowles tried to stay strictly with irrigation components, but that wasn’t meant to be. With an expanded market, contractors wanted to buy not only irrigation components, but other products as well.
As the demand for landscape lighting, water features and drainage products grew, they were added to Wolf Creek’s menu. Barbeques, fire pits and pavers are now all part of the inventory. “So, we had to find our place. We’re the mechanical guys in the outdoor space; we’re not the feed-and-seed guys,” said Scott Knowles. “If there are pieces and parts that go together to make a system, we’re those guys. It’s just a strength that most people don’t have.”
About 10 years ago, Bud Knowles decided that it was time for him to retire. The business that he had started 55 years ago is now headed up by his sons, Scott and Chris Knowles. Ownership is split between the brothers.
A third sibling, their sister Brooke, also came into the business.
“Our sister was our first lighting specialist. She has found a passion for lighting and loves doing it,” said Scott. “Today, we have two lighting specialists; lighting, as a portion of our business, exploded in 2007.”
Chris works out of the Dayton office; he’s in asset management. He manages all the property, including inventory and purchasing. Brooke now works out of the Columbus office, and does not have any ownership in the company.
“That’s all her choice, by the way,” said Scott. “My father wanted her in the business; my brother and I said, ‘No, let’s keep it clean.’ She said she liked doing what she’s doing and didn’t want the responsibility. It didn’t fit with where she and her husband were going. About two years ago, the completion of ownership was transferred.”
I asked Scott, now 57 years old, if there are any succession plans in place, if and when he and Chris retire. “We do. They don’t involve any family members at this point,” said Scott. “It’s either going to be some folks who are here now, or we could sell outright, or we could keep the business and have a professional team managing it. I, personally, am thinking more along the latter lines.”
When I remarked that he was a long way from retiring, he replied, “You know, someone asked me several years ago what I was going to do when I retire. It just hit me and before I even thought about it, my response to him was, ‘What do you mean? Why can’t I just keep doing this?’ I love what I do. What else would I do that gives me any satisfaction? I can’t think of anything.”
Where does he see Wolf Creek going in the near future? “We definitely are looking at options for growth; we’re not slowing down. We’re transforming the business as we speak,” he said. “We are going through yet another strategic planning session initiative and building in some new things, beefing up our systems and tools to match up with the whole Millennial thing coming along here.”
Scott continued, “We’re actually upgrading some of our staff. We are actively looking at areas that we can organically, or through acquisition, grow into. That could be even new customer segments or new product segments. So, we’re looking at everything.”
Where does he see the future, especially for independents?
“You can say what you want about our industry, but we are dominated by very small companies, and developing relationships is huge,” said Scott. “Where you have your strong regionals, there’s a place in the marketplace for both.”