Brock: The resurgence of The Dynamo of Dixie

Brock: The resurgence of The Dynamo of Dixie

August 31st, 2014 By Charlie Brock in Opinion Columns

The American Lava Company building complex of five plants

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Paul Kruesi, former CEO of American Lava Co. Coined the term, "Dynamo of Dixie."

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Just celebrating our third annual GIGTANK Demo Day highlighting some promising startup businesses, we see further evidence of Chattanooga's rise in prominence and potential as one of the country's leading entrepreneurial cities. As "Gig City" is marketed nationally, it's interesting to look back to 1914 when the moniker "The Dynamo of Dixie" was conceived and became our town's calling card across the region and country.

Looking back, the period around the turn of the last century was the most prolific in our city's history in terms of early-stage businesses. Consider some of the activities that took place and the associated names: Adolph Ochs invested in the fledging Chattanooga Times; Cartter Patten started Chattanooga Medicine Co. (now Chattem); two Chattanooga lawyers, Benjamin Thomas and Joseph Whitehead, conceived the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and convinced John T. Lupton to back them; Thomas Maclellan took over management of Provident Life & Accident Insurance Company (now Unum); William E. Brock took over Brock Candy Co. (now Ferrara Pan); Harry Probasco started the Bank of Chattanooga, which became American National bank (now SunTrust). Other stalwart companies were started or relocated to Chattanooga during this time, including Volunteer State Insurance Co., Siskin Steel, American Lava Co., Dixie Mercerizing (now Dixie Group), along with three private schools -- McCallie, Baylor and Girls Preparatory School.

Most of those companies and institutions have continued to grow and prosper, providing employment to many Chattanoogans throughout the 20th century and generating wealth that would enhance philanthropy, education, religion and civic life in our city.

So what competitive advantages did Chattanooga offer to help fuel this business creation? Most importantly, businesses were offered access to modes of transportation that were the envy of many other locations. Rail came in a significant way in the 19th century and, combined with our location on the Tennessee River, provided companies multiple ways to move raw materials and finished goods. Our geographic location, with access to markets in the eastern half of the country, was crucial. The local business community also provided strong leadership during this important developmental time -- one example is Paul Kruesi, CEO of American Lava Co. and the originator of the term "Dynamo of Dixie." Kruesi served on the initial founding board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and was relentless in marketing his adopted city, as he signed guest books at hotels during his many travels as "Paul Kruesi, Chattanooga, Dynamo of Dixie."

As we look back 100 years and consider parallels to today, we see infrastructure and transportation as key. Only today our competitive advantage is on the digital highway as our fiber optic grid, which was laid down along the railroad right of way so integral to our initial development, provides us with the fastest Internet speeds and "smartest" smart grid in the country.

With this competitive advantage, Chattanooga is again attracting significant regional and national attention, this time as Gig City. Our lower cost of transportation in the digital economy -- $70 per month for Gigabit access -- is being closely watched by no less a tech titan than Google, which is following Chattanooga's lead with its Fiber to the Home Initiative.

Our digital prowess has given us a calling card with entrepreneurs as it positions our city as one where innovation and risk-taking are valued. This reputation is now combined with an impressive amount of early-stage investment capital and a strong -- and growing -- support system that includes accelerators, mentors, corporate and foundation supporters. As a result, Chattanooga is seeing a wave of new startup businesses on par with the century before -- a mix of home-grown and relocated entities. Just a few years ago, one could list the number of early-stage technology companies on one hand. Today it is possible to name more than 50 such companies that have started here within the last three years. The GIGTANK Demo Day put on by CO.LAB included companies from San Diego, Huntsville, Atlanta, Knoxville, Miami, and Toronto, in addition to Chattanooga. Two of these companies recently announced their plans to relocate here.

As we look forward to Chattanooga's future, let us remember that this current generation of entrepreneurs holds the promise of success, progress and innovation in their hands. With the right support from our community, they are poised to carry on the "Dynamo of Dixie" legacy for centuries to come.

Charlie Brock, great- grandson of Paul Kruesi, is the CEO of Launch Tennessee. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call 423-886-2090.