(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a three-part series spotlighting Knoxville native Joe Fox and his entrepreneurial journey, the latest being Blühen Botanicals that opened a retail location in Knoxville’s Old City last week.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
For a Knoxville native who is only 34 years old, Joe Fox has already experienced more entrepreneurial journeys than most people twice his age. They include the mortgage industry, real estate, personnel recruiting, residential renovation, historic preservation, and micro-breweries.
“I have 17 LLCs,” the graduate of Karns High School told us in a recent two-hour interview in an interim office on West Jackson Avenue. For Fox, those interests extend beyond his own businesses. For example, he and Tyler Fogarty, his business partner in Fox & Fogarty, are also key sponsors of Knoxville’s Maker City organization.
While the articulate and laser-focused Fox remains involved in a number of his earlier ventures, the one that appears to occupy most of his time is Blühen Botanicals, founded less than a year ago and already valued at $60 million. It is focused on the rapidly emerging hemp industry, one enabled in the Volunteer State by legislation passed several years ago by the Tennessee General Assembly, and more broadly across the nation by the federal “2018 Farm Bill” that removed an eight-decade ban on growing hemp, a form of Cannabis sativa and in the same plant species as marijuana.
The company recently announced it had received a $30.6 million investment from SOL Global Investments Corporation as part of the latter’s plan to diversify into hemp-related businesses. For Fox, who is a Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Blühen Botanicals, it is further validation that hours spent reading and learning about hemp were well-worth the effort.
“I read about hemp nightly from midnight to 3 a.m.,” he told us during the recent interview. “The more diligence I did, the more it sucked me down the rabbit hole.”
The evolution of Blühen Botanicals from a possibility to a full-integrated enterprise – growing to retail – mirrors the professional journey of the Karns High School graduate who never attended college.
“I took a path less travelled after high school,” Fox says, adding, “I value those who pursue college, but it was not for me.” Yet, as readers will discover throughout this series, learning is a key factor in the success that he has experienced.
“I’m a sponge,” Fox says about his desire for knowledge. His first foray after high school was in the mortgage industry locally before relocating to the Cashiers area of Western North Carolina at the ripe age of 21. “That was my formal education . . . the real estate sales industry,” Fox explains.
It was the 2005-06 period when real estate was a booming industry, and the company where Fox had 30 salespeople focused on the 4,000-acre development.
“This feels too good to be true, it’s unsustainable,” he thought at the time. How true those intuitive insights were when the recession hit a year or so later. “I saw it crumble before my eyes. It was very eye-opening at a young age.”
Fox said the experience taught him how cyclical in general the economy is and how it can impact certain industries. Yet, he continued to work in real estate, carving out a niche for himself. “It was feast or famine,” Fox says of those years that many have labelled the Great Recession.
Along the way, he also began to explore other possibilities.
“I always had an interest in sustainables and renewables,” Fox told us. Where did those interests take him? The answer was human resources and recruiting.
“I carved-out a niche within a niche,” Fox explains. It was helping companies, primarily in California and Colorado, recruit Chemical Engineers with a process engineering focus.
“I rode that wave hard and enjoyed it,” he said.
NEXT: More about Fox’s journey.