Knoxville’s Axle Logistics Builds Company, Plans Expansion and New Headquarters

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering View From Central Street

Axle Logistics may not be a household name, but it’s one of Knoxville’s biggest recent success stories. Founders Jon Clay and Drew Johnson started the company in 2012 and it has grown to be one of the top 100 (out of 18,000) logistics companies in the country. The rapid growth of this home-grown business has prompted acquisition of the Hull Dobbs Building at 835 North Central Street, with plans to completely renovate and re-purpose the building.

Jon and Drew are each from South Knoxville where they met in elementary school. Their parents also grew up in south Knoxville. Drew’s dad was a middle school science teacher, and his mother was a dental hygienist. Jon’s mother was also a teacher, both at the middle school and community college level, and his father was a landscaper.

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering From Corner @ Public Alley

Graduating a year apart at South-Doyle High School, they attended the University of Tennessee where Jon obtained a degree in political science, while Drew earned his degree in supply chain management. While Drew planned to work in logistics, Jon had no such plans, but found himself doing just that after graduation.

Jon worked in Knoxville for Chattanooga-based company Access America Transport, which was purchased by Coyote Logistics and then by UPS. Drew worked for JB Hunt, but eventually left there and worked for a series of startups. The two continued talking and in 2011 they made the decision to start their own third party logistics company, bridging the gap between customers needing to ship goods and the companies and individuals who could fill the need.

Hull Dobbs Building, 835 N. Central Street, Knoxville, September 2019

Hull Dobbs Building, 835 N. Central Street, Knoxville, September 2019

At the end of 2011, the two took a skiing trip out west and returned to start Axle Logistics. They initially had three financial partners who provided funding to start the company and purchase necessary equipment. They got a small office off Middlebrook Pike and spent the first month working on obtaining the necessary insurance. Filled with confidence, but no employees or customers, the two began cold calling companies and setting up relationships with truckers and trucking companies.

In July 2012 they got their first significant customer just as their money was about to run out. In August they hired their first employee who would do both sales and operations. That’s been their primary model since with new employees, though they now have some devoted to either sales or operations. The company continued to grow and they added more employees, expanding their office space as they went.

Rear Interior, Hull Dobbs Building, 835 N. Central Street, Knoxville, September 2019

Interior Ramp, Hull Dobbs Building, 835 N. Central Street, Knoxville, September 2019

Top Floor, Hull Dobbs Building, 835 N. Central Street, Knoxville, September 2019

In 2014, having outgrown their original location, they moved into the Langley Building at 520 West Summit Hill Drive and took space and the option to expand. They had eight employees and took 4,000 square feet, so expansion seemed ambitious, at a minimum. By 2016 they had grown to 30 employees and exercised their right to additional space, adding 3,500 square feet on another floor.

They made the move to downtown because their challenge is not customer acquisition or transportation acquisition, but rather the relentless pursuit of talent. The young professionals they needed want to be in an urban environment. A number of their employees live downtown and others can easily get into the city. When they realized they were going to outgrow the available space in the Langley Building, they knew they wanted their own building in order to make it appealing to their employees and that it had to be in or near downtown.

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering Lobby View @ First Floor

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering Courtyard Under Ramp

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering Fitness Room @ First Floor

Interested in taking an old building and bringing it back to life, they searched and ultimately landed on the Hull Dobbs Building at 835 North Central Street. It’s a huge investment, but one they feel is necessary. Final costs for acquisition of the building, parking lots and construction is now projected to approach $15 million. They see it as part of their mission. “We love Knoxville. It’s our community and that’s why we’re here.”

They went under contract for the building in May 2018 and, after months of due diligence, closed in November 2018. The time since has been spent developing architectural plans, working through applications for a facade grant and remediation inside the building. Sanders Pace did the original concept and Design Innovation Architects developed it and did the final design. Conversion Properties is the developer and will manage the project, with construction by Denark.

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering Back of Lobby Stair @ First Floor

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering Basketball Court @ First Floor

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering Atrium @ Second Level

The building was constructed in 1920 and served as home to seven different “motor” companies through its early years. An automobile ramp to the second floor will be preserved. It also served an unknown purpose with the Manhattan Project in 1942. From 1958 to 1971 it was the Hull Dobbs Ford Dealership. Over the years it suffered several fires and a suicide on site by the owner of one of the businesses. Knox Rail Salvage was the last business to occupy the space.

Joe Petre of Conversion Properties has known Drew from early on and Drew rented from him when he was in college. They reconnected when the company moved into the Langley building where Conversion has its headquarters. When Axle started looking for a new home, Jay Cobble helped them broker a deal. Joe helped guide them through securing a 15-year PILOT due to the number of jobs Axle will deliver.

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering Workspace No. 2 @ Second Level

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering Atrium @ Mezzanine

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering Owner’s Office @ Mezzanine

Both the city and the county enthusiastically supported the project, according to Petre. Axle was awarded a $200,000 Historic Preservation Grant. $50,000 of that had been awarded to the previous owners (835 N. Central, LLC, aka Henry and Wallace) and was returned when they failed to develop the building as promised. The group agreed as part of the terms of the grant to apply an H1 overlay on the property.

Plans for the building include retail on the first floor along Pruett Place and perhaps along North Central Street. The owners are installing a grease trap on the chance that a restaurant will use the space. The back side of first floor will include a lobby, gym, locker room with showers, break room, swag store, and small basketball court. The winding ramp will be transformed into a rising corridor lined with conference rooms. The top floor will be filled with work stations, offices and meeting rooms. A mezzanine will be added with executive offices and meeting rooms. A beautiful central stair case will flow from the lobby through the second floor and mezzanine up to a roof top deck for employees.

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering Owner’s Office @ Mezzanine

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering Roof Deck

Screens throughout the second floor will display constantly updated data regarding the business and sales. In a cool touch, the owners have purchased the scoreboard from UT’s Stokley Athletic Center to keep “score” of sales. Historic windows will also be returned to the second floor north facing wall. A new, modern, feature will be introduced through the core of the building. National Park Service regulations for historic buildings require that any additions be clearly distinguishable from the original design of the building.

Construction is expected to be complete and move-in ready by about this time next year. Currently occupying about 14,000 square feet, the new building will give them about 44,000, with about 8,000 planned for retail, 5,000 for IT in the basement and the remaining 31,0000 square feet for work space and amenities.

Meanwhile the company has grown to 86 employees and more are being added each month. By the time they occupy the building they expect to be around 130 and have plans to grow to around 265 employees within five years. They constantly recruit through their relationship with the UT Haslam College of Business.They work hard to keep turnover low and most recently it has been around 5% a year. They are also proud to have a number of employees under 30 years old who are making six-figure incomes.

Hull Dobbs Building Rendering From Adjacent Parking Lot

The company has expanded to Chattanooga and plans include adding several other cities such as Dallas and Chicago. They feel the model will work in any location with an adequate supply of talent for their business. The company ships throughout Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, as well as the Caribbean, working with companies needing to move one pallet or 500 truckloads a month. They work with small companies, the U.S. government and companies that are household names shipping all manner of goods. They have relationships with 40,000 operators. They are on track to make $100,000,000 in sales this year.

“We are proud of what we are and want employees to be proud. We want a cool culture where they take ownership. It’s entrepreneurial and we encourage them to carve their own path. Year-over-year we are a new company. It’s important that the culture not be obligatory (to please a boss), but that because of the pay structure and autonomy they are working more for themselves than for ‘the man.'”

Comments

  1. Richard Brown says

    That’s great news, finally that space going to be of some use, looks awesome too…. City should get all the properties from Henry & Wallace back…

  2. Nice plans and a great design. Very excited to see good, high wage, jobs being brought to town. Thanks for an informative article!

  3. Nice plans and a great design. Very 3xcited to see good, high wage, jobs being brought to town. Thanks for an informative article!

  4. Scott Carpenter says

    This is a great use of that big ol’ beautiful building. Welcome to Central St., Axis! Seeya next year.

  5. Contrast this: “They made the move to downtown because their challenge is not customer acquisition or transportation acquisition, but rather the relentless pursuit of talent. The young professionals they needed want to be in an urban environment. A number of their employees live downtown and others can easily get into the city.” with the Steve Hunley editorial that just appeared in the Knoxville Focus: “The war on single family homes and automobiles in Knoxville will have a perilous outcome. Taxes will rise to create the infrastructure. KUB bills will rise. Knoxville Area Transit bus service will consume even more tax dollars. Gridlock will increase. Local businesses will suffer as employees cannot show up to work on time. Quality of life will decline. Poor urban planning is very difficult to fix after serious mistakes are made.” People like Steve cannot understand that living miles out of town and having to drive everywhere, really, really sucks and that the future IS living in town, living close to work, etc. because THAT’S WHAT TALENTED PEOPLE DO, STEVE. Read the whole dumb article for yourself here: http://knoxfocus.com/archives/this-weeks-focus/knoxville-making-mistakes-nashville-already-made/

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      It is extremely well documented that sprawl, or the encouragement of “single family homes and automobiles,” greatly increases infrastructure costs to cities and is not sustainable in the long run.

    • Scott,
      I lived downtown for several years and it was fun for awhile, got pretty old though. My car was broken into so many times, I started to leave it unlocked. Our flower pots were stolen. And the Constant panhandling was a bit annoying. We bought a house on 8 acres, does that mean I lost my talent? Not everyone wants to live urban and that doesn’t make them a loser. Some (a lot) have to drive for our good jobs to places out West or in my case Maryville. Oh and many people can’t justify or afford spending several hundred thousand on a 1-2 bedroom condo or paying 1500/mo rent. He got a couple things right in the article. We often times do have pretty poor urban planning system that lets the developers get away with murder. I don’t quite agree that Recode will fix it. We are a long ways from people not needing a car in Knoxville but more good paying companies like this coming in and revitalizing downtown and perimeters should bring the amenities (grocery stores, schools, child care, doctors, pharmacies, retail) and accessible public transportation to make downtown Knoxville function better.

      • First off – hats off to Drew and Jon, and thank you for your significant investment in North Knoxville’s economy and culture. What an amazing asset for Central and surrounding neighborhoods.

        Second off – I don’t understand why people can’t just be ok with living where they want and get over trying to force their opinions down the other’s throats. Danielle I’m glad that you got to experience living downtown, and that now you’ve found you like living on 8 acres better. There are many people who prefer the opposite, and some in-between. Personally I like living on 1/4 acre close enough to downtown that I can get there in a few minutes. Intermediate-sized cities are growing in popularity because it’s possible to live within a city affordably – not all of these employees at Axle who want to live close to downtown are living in ‘downtown proper’ and paying astronomical rents. These are the individuals who are moving into ‘inner-city’ neighborhoods and revitalizing them, bringing more involvement and attention to schools, adding to the neighborhood tax bases, etc. I see Scott’s frustration with Steve Hunley’s online blog up-chuck because he needs to just get over the fact that Knoxville is growing and progressing, and get over the fact that ReCode is helping the city plan for the future – whether he agrees with it or not. In a quick search it looks like he, too, lives in the county (not the city, where ReCode is applied) so again, I don’t understand why he can’t just enjoy the fact that he lives outside of the city – and let the rest of us City tax-payers determine the future of our home. We are not Nashville, no one has some ridiculous hidden agenda to make people have to take public transportation (the horror!), and there is a way to see that development progresses evenly across all City sectors. I could go on and on but won’t – but will point out that Steve’s Knox-Focus ‘blog’ is embarrassingly one-sided, and it’s clear which way he leans in the Mayoral election. What happened to un-biased reporting?

        • James, all great points. We were lucky enough to find a property in S Knoxville and we are only 12 mins from downtown, so we didn’t get too far away. I am so glad to see bordering neighborhoods thriving and being revitalized. It is quite shocking the prices these homes are now commanding and people are getting pushed out of the market. Especially those <30 years old, not making the $100K salary. Unfortunately, as prices rise development goes further out, look at Seymour. The commercial then follows, which really puts strain on the infrastructure. I’m just so glad there are so many investing and making the city attractive to all ages. I do believe that what goes on in the city does have a correlation to what occurs in the county. And you’re spot on about the severely lacking journalistic integrity of this town. But name calling doesn’t help.

          • I don’t think I called anyone names, but if that was the interpretation I apologize. I have to ‘agree to disagree’ with Steve, because he’s obviously not going anywhere. I just wish he could entertain seeing the other side of the equation.

          • So sorry James, I can see how you would read my comment that way. Not my intention at all, I wasn’t referring to you as the name caller. You make very valid points and I believe we are in agreement with a lot! Have a great day 🙂

          • The homeless situation is a serious problem that does not seem to be at the forefront of the city’s political dialogue.

  6. Does anyone know what is going in next to XYZ on Central? They are completely renovating the space. Thanks

  7. Danielle Nance says

    This is really impressive! So happy to see that they are revitalizing this building. Lovely things happening on Central. Exciting to have a growing company that is paying great wages and recruiting/retaining top talent in Knoxville. This is what we need more of, thank you for providing excellent career opportunities and investing in your hometown!

  8. Love, love, love everything about this reno and the employee centric business model! Way to do it right gentlemen!

  9. Finally some good use of this massive space!

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