(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second 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
At the very young age of 26, Joe Fox leveraged his recent experience in recruiting technical people and moved to Atlanta to open an office for a Spanish-based human resources firm.
“We had many challenges, but also a lot of successes,” he says. Yet, a year later, Fox was back in Knoxville with his former firm, opening a local branch while also supervising 30 recruiters. That gig only lasted 12 months as the firm’s Chief Executive Officer and Fox reached an impasse.
“I did not agree with him on culture and the best ways to motivate people,” Fox says. “I was fired at 11 a.m. on a Friday, reconnected that afternoon with Tyler (Fogarty, a long-time friend), and was on the job with him on Monday morning.”
Like he has done in so many ventures, Fox said he immersed himself in everything that makes a good home. Today, the two are partners in Fox & Fogarty, a local real estate firm as well as a spin-out named Respectful Rehab. As its name implies, the company is about rehabbing older buildings.
“You can do it the right way and still make a reasonable return,” Fox says of their goals with Respectful Rehab.
Rehabbing older buildings led the team to historic preservation and emerging growth corridors sprouting off of the downtown area. Along the way, Fox and Fogarty also joined with two other individuals to launch SMJT LLC. The letters are the first names of the four partners.
Perhaps their most visible project is Elkmont Exchange Brewery and Eating House just slightly north of the intersection of Broadway and Central. It’s in the North Knoxville growth corridor and a venue that is a favorite spot for meet-ups for groups like the Knoxville Chapter of Life Science Tennessee’s Academic Alliance.
“Elkmont was a wild ride,” Fox says. “It was two years of my life. We had a lot to learn, and we appreciate the Knoxville community standing behind it.”
With the new venue on the cusp of opening, the youthful entrepreneur says Erich Maelzer, a Knoxville friend, told him that he needed to look at the hemp industry and its potential. “It was a daunting task to think about taking on a new industry,” Fox recalls, but it clearly captured his imagination as he read about the emerging industry for hours each night.
After talking about the opportunity with his partners at SMJT and securing their support, Fox began taking frequent trips out West to better understand the hemp market and growth potential.
He asked himself, “How did we fit?” The answer was not that clear, but he says, “I knew we did.”
Fox’s initial thoughts were to grow small, high-quality volumes of hemp and extract cannabidiol (CBD) for a high-end product. Two years ago when he first started exploring the opportunity, Fox said 200 to 300 pounds of hemp processed daily was a high volume.
“Those plants high in CBD are difficult to grow,” he says. “Yet, I learned (there’s that word again) the bottleneck was not growing it, but processing it.”
There was another important factor that Fox learned from an industry expert who told him, “This industry moves in dog years.” That translates into a factor of 7x which only accelerated his plans.
NEXT: Where is Blühen Botanicals today and where is the company headed?