When Chuck Knight took the top job at Emerson Electric Co. in 1973, he vowed “not to be second string at anything in life.”
Mr. Knight was many things, but few would accuse the legendary business and civic leader of being second string.
At 37, he became one of the youngest CEOs at any billion-dollar U.S. corporation. He went on to make Emerson into one of the largest companies in the region and kept alive its remarkable record of 43 straight years of earnings increases.
Outside of the boardroom, he was a powerful force behind efforts to build on the region’s medical and academic infrastructure and was known for marshaling the business community behind civic projects. Though he was from the Chicago area, those who knew him say he grew to love St. Louis.
The emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital bears his name, the Emerson Grand Basin of Forest Park the name of the company he led for 27 years. One day, the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Washington University’s medical school may help cure the disease he battled for the last five years.
Charles F. Knight died Tuesday (Sept. 12, 2017) at Missouri Baptist Medical Center in Town and Country due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 81.
At 6-foot-4, Mr. Knight was famous for his tough management style, and his temper was legendary. “If someone’s not well-prepared, he’ll get torn apart,” former Emerson executive Albert E. Suter said in 2001.
When he passed the torch, Mr. Knight expected his successor, current Emerson CEO David Farr, to be a little more subdued: “He won’t have quite as much temper as I have. I never made it personal, but sometimes it got carried away.”
Executives knew they could get called at home at any hour of the night and ordered to report to Mr. Knight immediately at the company’s headquarters in Ferguson. Farr, who worked for Mr. Knight for 20 years, received his share of those calls.
“He was a tough taskmaster, but in the end Chuck cared about you, cared about the company,” Farr said Tuesday. “I never worried about knowing where Chuck stood. Chuck would tell you.
“He cared about the organization, he cared about the people and he cared about this community,” Farr added. “That’s why even after he retired he stayed in this community. He cared about St. Louis and what we stood for.”
Mr. Knight served as president and chairman of Civic Progress, the group of chief executives who at the time set the agenda for St. Louis leaders. He was on the board of trustees of Washington University from 1977 to 1990. He was also chairman of Barnes-Jewish Hospital, which named him emeritus chair for life.
Mr. Knight helped to create the merged Barnes-Jewish Hospital in 1996 and the formation of what is now BJC HealthCare. He was board chairman of the BJC system from 1993 to 1998. In 2002, Barnes-Jewish Hospital opened its Charles F. Knight Emergency and Trauma Center on Kingshighway.
He led efforts by civic leaders to raise taxes for the St. Louis public schools and led fundraising for the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis, the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ and Girls’ Club and the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.
“I don’t think we have a choice there,” Mr. Knight told the Post-Dispatch in 1988. “We have to provide those (city) kids with education, and ultimately, with employment.”
At Emerson, W.R. “Buck” Persons, another legendary CEO, hired Mr. Knight away from a job at his father’s consulting company in Chicago. Mr. Knight succeeded Persons as Emerson’s chief executive in 1973 and became chairman the following year.
Mr. Knight spearheaded Emerson’s evolution from a largely domestic manufacturer to a leading global technology provider. Through his acquisitions, the company grew from annual sales under $1 billion to revenue of nearly $15 billion today.
Founded in 1890, Emerson remains one of a handful of major Fortune 500 companies still based here. It was the first to sell electric fans in the U.S., and during World War II, it became the world’s largest manufacturer of airplane armament.
Mr. Knight was instrumental in building the company’s largest business segment today — automation equipment for industrial customers. He was also key in taking Emerson global, though the moves were sometimes controversial because they led to domestic plant closings during the 1990s and layoffs of thousands of employees.
“If we hadn’t moved those jobs, we would have lost a lot more jobs, because we weren’t competitive,” Mr. Knight told the Post-Dispatch in 2005. “You have to realize that the wealth creation stayed in this country, too, because we generated profits that flowed to our shareholders.”
Mr. Knight was named Chief Executive of the Year by Chief Executive magazine in 1987, the second year of the award. In 2000, he was inducted into the Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame.
After 27 years at the helm, Mr. Knight stepped down as CEO in 2000 and retired as chairman in 2004.
In 2005, Mr. Knight wrote a how-he-did it book called, “Performance Without Compromise: How Emerson Consistently Achieves Winning Results.”
“It was really written about how he raised his kids,” his son Lester Knight joked Tuesday. “But I think we all have been successful because of that.”
Even though his father was a Fortune 500 CEO, Lester Knight said Mr. Knight made it to almost all of his son’s high school basketball games, planning his professional life so that he still had time for his family. He loved getting them together for an annual summer gathering on Glen Lake in Michigan.
“Most people know him as an incredibly successful and tough businessman, but I think the greatest joy he had was his family and getting us all together,” Lester Knight said.
He was a “totally different person up there,” Lester Knight said, away from the phone calls and the meetings. But his competitive side could never completely disappear.
“He was still just as intense, trying to win every game with the kids or the grandkids,” his son said.
Mr. Knight was born Jan. 20, 1936, in Lake Forest, Ill., and married the former Joanne Parrish in 1957 in Winnetka, Ill. He earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA from Cornell University, where he played varsity football and tennis. He listed duck hunting as a favorite pastime.
A memorial service is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and St. George in Clayton. In lieu of flowers, the family would appreciate memorials to the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Washington University School of Medicine.
In addition to his son, of Chicago, among the survivors are his wife, Joanne; two daughters, Anne Davidson of St. Louis and Jennifer Beckmann of Chicago; son Steven Knight of Seattle; and 12 grandchildren.
Jacob Barker of the Post-Dispatch and Michael D. Sorkin, formerly of the Post-Dispatch, contributed to this report.