With bright sunlight streaming into his office overlooking the Baltimore County countryside in Timonium, Jim Knott squints his eyes and remarks that “life has never been better.”
The 2022 recipient of NAIOP Maryland’s Lifetime Achievement Award is a bit uncomfortable reminiscing about his successful construction and commercial real estate career that started when he was 14 years old. He constantly deflects questions about accomplishments, legacies and trophy office buildings.
“I don’t think I really did anything that special,” he explains. “I owe my success to having great mentors, an amazingly-supportive wife, a diligent team and the realization that hard work solved any problem. It was a simple formula that I repeated over and over and one in which I continue to instill to my family and co-workers.”
In the greater Baltimore area, the Knott family name is synonymous with construction, real estate development, community investment and philanthropy so there was never a question that Jim, the 11th of 13 children and son of Henry J. Knott, would follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and many uncles. Although the route was circuitous, the exposure to all facets of the construction and real estate industry provided the perfect foundation.
His first stop was working on construction sites for his father’s emerging construction company in Baltimore, which was initially started by his grandfather, Henry A. Knott, to help restore the city after the Great Baltimore Fire in the early 1900s. At the tender age of 14, Knott served as a laborer and apprentice, working side-by-side with veterans of World War II.
“I enjoyed what I was doing but, more importantly, loved the work ethic of the people, which had a singular mission of providing for their families,” Knott said. “This simple, straight-ahead approach to getting the job done for the greater good make a lifelong impression.”
An unfortunate work injury derailed the physical component of his career and prompted a pivot to an estimating position, where Knott was able to experience the inner workings of a vibrant construction company. It wasn’t long until he was back on-site but, this time, directing the activities of a construction crew at age 20, which provided additional perspectives and experiences. This led to the launching, shortly thereafter, of his own venture — Nationwide Masonry — which competed directly with his brother’s company, Henry J. Knott Brickwork.
“Our secret weapon was we used non-unionized labor so we could provide services at a cheaper price, and had little trouble winning contracts from schools and apartment projects,” Knott explained. The company operated for approximately five years before issues with labor unions forced its closure.
His next stop, after getting married to Carroll, was back with his father’s company as a superintendent where he was mentored by Earl Schultz. The company, by that time, was heavily involved in apartment construction and development —using modern pre-manufacturing principles, which provided another educational opportunity.
“That position provided me with extremely useful organizational skills, and knowledge how to manage an entire construction project, rather than one specific aspect,” he added.
Knott was driven by an all-encompassing quote which his father continuously reminded his workers and family. “Nothing is more important than learning and understanding the value of hard work,” he would say, while adding, “you can always find the time to play later.”
After Knott’s father acquired a significant stake in The Arundel Corporation, with Jim’s brother soaking up substantial responsibilities within the sand and gravel entity, Knott faced a life-altering decision. Would he remain with his father to play a larger role in the day-to-day activities of a major and highly-successful construction company, or embark on his own to set a new course? The decision was amazingly easy for the 30-year-old.
“My father never really wanted to go into business with his children because he knew family-owned business were typically fraught with problems and that scared him,” Knott said. “I agreed and also thought I was completely prepared to launch my own company, and started with some land that my father sold me in Edgemere.”
Lodge Forest, a housing community near Bethlehem Steel, became the first project of James F. Development Corporation, in 1976.
The company was comprised of Knott, his long-time mentor Earl Schultz and some carpenters. Nearly 45 years later the organization is now known as Knott Realty Group, with a workforce that numbers 50 professionals developing and managing projects in various asset classes throughout Maryland and Florida. The group’s portfolio includes nearly 5 million square feet of commercial office, industrial and warehouse space, as well as nearly 1,000 apartments. Knott Realty Group is guided by a long-term hold real estate philosophy.
The company has weathered several economic and real estate downturns by remaining prudent in its real estate investment and development philosophy and “staying close to its knitting.” However, creative strategies and a little luck have proven fortuitous.
“After concluding a lease with a document archives company in Howard County, the group invited us to join them as an investor to open other locations around the country,” Knott explained. “This led to a meeting with their corporate team but the deal never came together so, instead, with a volume of information garnered from our investigation of the industry, we recognized the opportunity to proceed on our own accord. National Business Archives was born and we dramatically grew the company before eventually selling the entity to Iron Mountain.”
The sale injected much-needed liquidity into the company and occurred during a time in the late 1980s when the entire real estate industry was under tremendous pressure from financial institutions.
“I received my MBA negotiating with banks and learned to never sign a personal guarantee on a loan ever again,” Knott said. “It was an extremely important, valuable and also painful lesson.”
Another timely win soon followed, as Knott was awarded the contract to construct the 1-million-square-foot Health Care Financing Administration building (now known as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) located in Woodlawn.
The company also received a financial boost following the sale of Beechtree Golf Club in 2008, a high-profile project that, after nearly 10 years of hard work, was ultimately ranked as a top 100 course by Golf Magazine.
“Building a golf course from scratch was tough sledding, especially since there was major competition from other courses in the area, but it was also a labor of love,” added the avid golfer. Proceeds from this sale was used to acquire land in Howard County, which the company transformed into Emerson, a mixed-use business community containing approximately 900,000 square feet of commercial office space.
Knott Realty Group expanded into Florida in 2007 after Knott, with a second home in Naples, became extremely familiar with the real estate landscape and started developing warehouse/industrial and residential product.
“I have been a south Florida resident for nearly 30 years and have tracked growth, seized opportunities and realized tremendous success with our varied real estate investments. The timing was right for our entry but we are taking a bit of a back seat for now based on escalating land prices,” he said.
The company has resisted the acquisition overtures of real estate investment trusts and others over the years. A sale or merger was never going to happen on his watch.
“I enjoy being on my own, calling my shots and developing product that I think is the most prudent,” Knott said. “I never wanted any partners and wish to create a successful real estate company that my family can continue to operate.”
It certainly has been a family affair. At one point, all three of Jim’s children — Carroll, Alison and James — were sorting files at the National Business Archives. While the daughters no longer work for their father, James is now the President of Knott Realty Group and works closely with Jim on a daily basis.
What is Knott’s most important lesson-learned after his more than 60-year real estate career and counting?
“Don’t borrow money to buy land, because it doesn’t produce any income unless you have buildings on it,” he answered. But then he quickly corrected himself.
“I owe everything to my wife. I was gone from home a lot, and she raised our kids and was extremely supportive of me in both good times and bad. Having a partner like that is immeasurable. My legacy is my kids and my grandkids and that is all I really care about now. I want to spend every minute with them.”