J. Don Brock, who died Tuesday at 76, was a quiet genius who built a billion-dollar business in the Scenic City.
He founded Astec Industries on a $120,000 bet with a friend over who could engineer a faster way to dry carpet. Brock won the bet, inventing what was then the fastest carpet-drying machine in existence.
He graduated from carpet to the giant machines that make modern life possible. If there are rocks being smashed, holes being drilled or energy being generated somewhere in the world, chances are that Brock had a hand in it. Brock's legacy is impossible to miss. Just slow down the next time there's a road construction project.
By the time he passed away on Tuesday at Memorial Hospital from mesothelioma cancer, Brock had laid claim to 100 patents and created a business that employs 4,000 workers across the globe. Friends called him an engineer's engineer, an inventor's inventor, an entrepreneur's entrepreneur.
Analysts from New York dialed into Astec's quarterly earnings calls just to listen to Brock describe the world economy.
In politics, he pushed for Congress to pass a highway bill that would allow construction companies to plan for the future. He was a poster child for the made-in-America movement.
For his efforts, Brock won awards from associations ranging from manufacturing groups to engineer clubs.
"A lot of people don't know his name, they don't know his background, but he's built virtually a billion-dollar company right there in Chattanooga, and a very profitable company at that," said Dan Frierson, chairman and CEO of the Dixie Group and a director of Astec. "He had an ability. Anybody in the whole paving, asphalt, highway area, they all know who he is and what he's meant really to the country."
The mesothelioma that took Brock's life wasn't a surprise. Astec announced that Brock had the disease in 2012, a requirement for a man with his reputation and in his position at a publicly-traded company. By 2013, he had come to terms with the cancer, one of the only things in his life he encountered that was unfixable. He didn't expect to live to see 2014, but with help from a number of experimental treatments he fought on.
Brock founded Astec in 1972 with a group of associates from other ventures. Thanks to his sharp mind and quick wit, the man associates called "Dr. Brock" was worth $2 million by age 30. Today, Astec is a publicly-traded company that earned $34 million in 2014 from the sale of its mining, energy and construction equipment. Astec has no debt.
Brock found success by taking low-tech machines and applying his considerable engineering talents to upgrade them in meaningful ways. He improved a rock smashing machine by adding chains to bust the little rocks. He made asphalt machines quieter.
His motto was "one step at a time." It's a motto he shared with his son, Ben Brock, who took over as president and CEO of Astec in January 2014.
In an interview granted in the year prior to his death, J. Don Brock admitted that he kept his team of 350 engineers busy.
"They have a saying in engineering: that my dreams are their nightmares," Brock said.
Despite his talents and success, he shied away from the limelight. At a July 2014 event honoring Astec as part of the "I Make America" campaign, Brock stood in the crowd under the shade of a tree, content to watch as his handpicked successors carried on without him.
Brock was active in Graceworks Church on Lee Highway -- a church he helped to start. Though his inventions included advances in everything from mining to the use of wood pellets as an energy source, Brock gave the credit for his abilities to God.
"That's why I have trouble sticking my chest out on patents and stuff, because I feel like it's an idea that just passed through my head," Brock said. "I just got to be the servant who had the fun of doing it."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or firstname.lastname@example.org.