Long-running local businesses adapt with new products, owners but stay in hometown


The products, looks, distribution and even the ownership of many of Chattanooga's biggest and best-known companies and brands have changed over the past century.

But the local legacy businesses have adapted to changing markets while surviving wars, recessions and buyouts to continue their brands and operations in the Chattanooga area.


Insuring success and staying in Chattanooga

In 1998, Chattanooga-based Provident Life and Accidental Insurance Co. agreed to merge with Unum Corp. of Portland, Maine, in a $5.2 billion stock purchase that created the nation's largest seller of worker-disability insurance.

Unum, which began in 1848, was the nation's largest seller of group-disability insurance, while Provident, which was started in 1865, was the leader in disability insurance policies sold to individuals.

Provident at the time was Chattanooga's biggest private employer and the city potentially was in danger of losing the headquarters of its largest locally based company. While executives of the two companies didn't announce where the new concern would be based, James F. Orr III, chairman and chief executive officer of Unum, was to have retained the same position at the merged company.

J. Harold Chandler, Provident's chairman, president and chief executive officer, became president and chief operating officer of the merged business called UnumProvident. On July 1, 2001, Chandler was to have succeeded Orr as chief executive officer. Orr was to have remained chairman.

However, Orr stepped down as CEO and chairman Nov. 1, 1999, just a year after the announced merger as the combined company's stock plummeted in response to disappointing financial results.

Chandler immediately stepped into the CEO role, and Chattanooga became the headquarters of what is, ironically, now called Unum.


Chattanooga Medicine Company grows into global power

In 2010, one of Chattanooga's oldest businesses was bought by French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, which paid $1.9 billion in cash for what was then called Chattem.

Chattem was founded as the Chattanooga Medicine Co. on February 21, 1879. It began operations in a small, two-story brick building on Market Street in downtown Chattanooga. At the time, Chattanooga consisted of fewer than 10,000 people whose occupations often centered around the railroad and a river port.

The company's principal founder was Zeboim Cartter Patten, who originally came from Illinois to Chattanooga by way of the Union Army. He was joined by four other charter members - Fred F. Wiehl, H. Clay Evans, Lew Owen and Theodore G. Montague, all well-known Chattanooga businessmen.

Zan Guerry, whose grandmother was a Patten, held the company's chief executive officer role for 25 years, seeing the company's revenue climb from $100 million to more than $1 billion. Chattem became known for such popular brands as Allegra, Gold Bond and Icy Hot.

Last year, the company announced it was phasing out the name Chattem, which it had used since 1966, in favor of that of parent Sanofi.

Robert Long, head of North America consumer health care for Sanofi who succeeded Guerry, said the business plans to continue to invest and grow in the Scenic City. He said that when Sanofi purchased Chattem in 2010, it was a $500 million-a-year business. That figure has tripled since then to an expected $1.5 billion in gross revenues this year, he said.

Also, Chattem employed 580 in 2010. The operation finished 2017 with 825 employees, all but 75 of those in Chattanooga, Long said.

"We remain proud of our heritage. That remains firm in our DNA, in our culture," he said.


Sweet success in the snack business

McKee Foods Corporation was founded in 1934 when O.D. and Ruth McKee bought a small Chattanooga bakery known as Jack's Cookie Company and started baking small cakes. O.D. had spent the previous year selling 5-cent Virginia Dare cakes from the back seat of his 1928 Whippet car and was eager to own his own business to support his wife and three small children during the Great Depression.

Ruth joined her husband as an equal and involved partner and hired a housekeeper to care for the children so she could manage the office and buy ingredients while O.D. went on the road to build sales. In 1937, the McKees moved their bakery to Charlotte, North Carolina, but returned to Chattanooga in 1952 and then found their permanent home in Collegedale in 1957.

McKee Bakery found its greatest success in 1960 when the company pioneered the family pack, a package of individual snack cakes that sold for 49 cents. They named them after their granddaughter Debbie, and the rest is history.

The company is still owned by the McKee family, now in its third generation of management under CEO Mike McKee. Little Debbie is now America's No. 1 snack cake brand and the company operates bakeries in Collegedale; Gentry, Arkansas, and Stuarts Draft, Virginia, along with a distribution center in Kingman, Arizona.


Cooking up success through the years with Dixie, Magic Chef, Maytag and Whirlpool

What grew into one of America's biggest cooking product manufacturers began in Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1916 as a family-owned-and-operated company known as Dixie Foundry.

Company founder S.B. Rymer Sr. was a native of Polk County, but his family later immigrated to what was then Oklahoma Territory. Rymer and his family returned to Tennessee, settling at Cleveland, where he established several retail businesses and the Dixie Foundry Company. Dixie Foundry initially produced cast-iron holloware used for corn stick molds, fireplace grates and frames, sugar pots, and teapots.

In 1921 the company began to make coal and wood ranges for the kitchen; thereafter, ranges of different sorts have been the company's main items. By 1924, production expanded to coal and wood heaters. Gas ranges came off the company's lines in 1928, and in 1952 Dixie Foundry produced its first electric ranges.

In 1958, Dixie Foundry acquired Magic Chef, which had been a St. Louis-based manufacturer of gas ranges and an industry leader since the 1930s. Two years later, company officials decided to capitalize on the consumer name recognition of "Magic Chef."

In 1964 the Rymer family gave up its total control of the company's stock in order to raise new capital through a public offering of stock, and during the 1960s the company expanded into air-conditioning manufacturing, microwave ovens and other appliances. It eventually employed nearly 3,000 workers at its factories in Cleveland.

By 1986, the company had become the 249th largest industrial company in the nation, and was sold to Maytag. Whirlpool Corporation acquired Maytag Corporation in 2006. Whirlpool built a new $200 million cooking plant in Cleveland in 2012 to replace the former facility built by Magic Chef.


Inventor Ernest Holmes' tow truck legacy

In 1916, Ernest W. Holmes Sr. installed a hand-cranked rigging system on the rear frame of a 1913 Cadillac sedan to create the world's first tow truck. As legend has it, the device was inspired by the struggles of a crew of men to retrieve a Model T Ford that had crashed into South Chickamauga Creek. Holmes filed for a patent on his idea and founded the Ernest Holmes Co., the original of a number of tow truck companies that have employed thousands of workers in Chattanooga through the years.

Holmes first model featured two booms, or swinging arms, equipped with cables and hooks to allow one cable to hook on to the stranded vehicle and the other around a tree for an anchor. It was known as the 680 because it cost $680, but a bigger hit for Holmes came with his cheaper, 480 model (priced at $480) to help the company survive the Great Depression.

During World War I, Holmes began making military wreckers until the founding inventor died in 1945. Ernest Holmes Jr. continued the family-owned business until 1973 when the company was sold to the Dover Corp. for $16 million.

Jerry and Bill Holmes, the two sons of Ernest Holmes Jr., decided in 1974 to strike out on their own and develop a new hydraulic wrecker for their company known as Century Wrecker.

"The guys at Dover thought we were crazy," Jerry Holmes recalls.

But ultimately, the hydraulic wreckers proved popular and Century Wrecker is now one of the brands for the successor company to Chattanooga's diverse tow-truck enterprises, Miller Industries. The Ooltewah-based company generated $615.1 million in sales last year and is poised to do even better in 2018 as the biggest tow truck maker in the world.

Chattanooga's rich history of inventing and reinventing tow trucks is enshrined in the International Towing and Recovery Museum on South Broad Street in Chattanooga.