Bob Knight pioneered the grassroots fly-in to make deals sealed with a face-to-face handshake and secured with an eyeball-to-eyeball personal pledge.
He saw seven decades ago how advances in computer-assisted drafting and personal aircraft could allow his small Lakeland operation to compete for projects anywhere, but he knew relationships would still be what mattered most everywhere.
By far and by wide, Knight was right.
What began in 1984 as a one-man shop catering to Central Florida phosphate companies is now Knight Industrial Equipment, an engineering/construction company that has managed multimillion dollar projects across the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, South America, Morocco and Russia.
KIE's latest project was installing a shipping and storage system for CF Industries’ $2 billion project in Iowa. “We just helped build the largest storage warehouse in America, right from here in Lakeland,” he says.
With KIE marking 35 years in business, Knight, 77, says his key to success wasn’t spanning distance but rather in dissolving it.
“Probably 70% of our business comes from the same customers,” he says. “You live or die by your reputation. We don’t have a sales force — I’m the sales force. We sell by reputation, word-of-mouth.”
A Navy veteran with an associate degree in civil engineering, Knight was newly married and 23 when he left Ocala to survey land for Lakeland Engineering in 1965.
Around then, Knight began taking $5 half-hour aircraft pilot lessons at Lakeland airport, where he met Scott Linder, Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport’s namesake. Linder also owned Linder Machinery, where Knight in 1968 became “the company draftsman and pilot.”
He also became the company’s face and flew to submit bids, sign deals and give progress reports. “I ended up vice president for engineering sales,” he says.
After 17 years, Knight grew frustrated with Linder’s resistance to a turnkey trend. “I wanted to go total turnkey — design, build, supply, ship,” he says. “Linder Machinery never wanted to do it. I decided to start my own company. It proved to be the right thing at the right time”
As a 42-year-old widower raising a teenage son, leaving a comfortable salary was “a big gamble, a hard decision,” Knight admits, before vowing he’d do it again — only earlier. “I probably would have done better if I’d started my own business sooner."
Knight took his improbable step to becoming a global business when he secured a $5 million contract to build Cargill plant at the Port of Tampa in 1987.
“It was a big system for loading and unloading warehouses directly into railcars and ships,” he says. “We designed the whole system. It was our first big job, our first big break.”
“We just helped build the largest storage warehouse in America, right from here in Lakeland.” Bob Knight, Knight Industrial Engineering in Lakeland
The Cargill contract allowed him to expand. “When I left Linder Machinery, I didn’t have a penny to my name,” he says. "And within two years, we were profitable, and I could afford to hire employees. Been in business all that time and haven’t borrowed a penny."
One thing led to another. After the Iron Curtain fell in 1991, Russian executives toured Cargill’s Tampa plant. A just-formed Russian company wanted KIE to build a similar terminal in Murmansk.
“They paid my way to look at what they wanted,” Knight says. “Six months later, I had the contract — the first large business contract between a private Russian company and an American company” following the USSR’s collapse.
KIE’s 1994 Murmansk contract made Knight a favorite of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. “I had an office in the Kremlin,” he says.
The four-year project required him to fly to Russia at least once a month, for at least a week to 10 days at a time, Knight says, adding, “Most of it was built right here in Polk County.”
At the same time, he expanded KIE and logged thousands of hours flying to look for projects, deals and contracts. For more than 30 years, Knight often flew to three cities a day.
Meanwhile, Knight was a community volunteer and served on the airport board “on and off” and on Fun and Sun’s Board — including six-and-a-half years as chairman — for nearly two decades
Lakeland-Linder “has been the backbone of our company” and flying “its lifeblood,” Knight says. “I absolutely [could not be in business] if not for proximity to the airport.”
His office and plant on West Airfield Drive are next to its “fairly large hanger” housing three planes.
Knight now flies fewer than 1,000 hours a year, but he says not a week goes by without him flying somewhere on business.
In 2004, he told the Lakeland Ledger he’d retire in five or six years. But first, he was adding a new jet to get him around twice as fast.
Fifteen years later, Knight never mentions retirement. “Down the road,” he says. “[But I'm] giving some thought to building a bigger hanger.”