March 5, 2018
Business leaders of the year

Knott built upon his father's success

Photo | File
James M. Knott, Jr.

Large Business Leader of the Year

James M. Knott, Jr., CEO, Riverdale Mills Corp.

Location: Northbridge

Birthplace: Newton

Athletic life: Knott is the 1975 Massachusetts state wrestling champion, out of Wellesley High School.

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Ed Manzi, Chairmain & CEO, Fidelity Bank

Kevin Condron, Chairman, The Granite Group

Barbara Cotter, President & CEO, Struck Catering

Innovative Business Leader of the Year: Amy Lynn Chase, Owner, Crompton Collective, the White Room & Haberdash

Small Business Leader of the Year: Amjad Bahnassi, M.D., Owner, Behavioral Healthcare Service

Nonprofit Business Leader of the Year: Laurie Leshin, Ph.D., President, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Family Business Leader of the Year: Rachel Lopez, President, Resource Management Inc.

Bob Morris, a Cape Cod commercial fisher and lobster trap maker, considers himself fairly insignificant as a one-man operation.

But even with so many larger trap companies out there, Northbridge wire mesh manufacturer Riverdale Mills has always treated Morris like he's running a multi-billion dollar company.

"When I had an issue, Riverdale came right to my house to correct it," he said. "That speaks volumes for me."

Riverdale's main product, Aquamesh, is widely used in the fishing industry, mainly for lobster traps, which Morris makes during the winter.

Riverdale was founded in 1980 by James M. Knott, Sr., a Gloucester native who noticed the Atlantic Ocean wreaked havoc on lobster traps. Knott, now 88, developed a process to create a wire mesh fabric able to withstand harsh underwater conditions.

For over 30 years, James M. Knott, Jr. has worked with his father, holding a variety of financial, technical and operational positions at Riverdale as the firm transitioned from a small startup to what Morris said is a renowned business in the fishing community. Aquamesh is used on 80 percent of lobster traps in North America, James M. Knott, Jr. said.

In 2015, Knott, Jr. took over as CEO. In the last two years, the company's export sales have increased by close to 20 percent and account for nearly 37 percent of the company's gross sales.

"My father watched as manufacturing jobs helped build out the U.S. middle class after World War II, and I believe manufacturing remains a vital sector of our economy," Knott said.

That success is attributable to growth in the Central and South American markets not only for the company's marine products, but also its security fencing, which is featured along 33 miles of the Mexican border between California and Arizona.

That fencing product has been manufactured in the Northbridge facility since 1987 using the same process used to make Aquamesh. The product is used at U.S. Navy bases, nuclear facilities, airports and even the Kuwait-Iraq border.

Riverdale was one of three Central Mass. companies expressing interest in building President Donald Trump's proposed border wall along the Mexican border, but the company was left off a list of finalists. However, Knott said fencing made of Riverdale's WireWall product is expected to be partially incorporated by the selected finalist into Trump's border wall.

Riverdale has grown its European sales, too, where wire mesh to build lobster, crab and oyster traps are becoming the norm, Knott said.

The company has been able to take a bite out of their Chinese competitors and reclaim some client accounts.

Although the company stays true to its manufacturing roots, it continues to improve under Knott's leadership. The company has about 40 machines running about 150 hours each week, so energy conservation is key.

An initiative to invest in new technology will reduce the company's energy demand by 40 percent while increasing capacity and productivity.

In the heart of the Blackstone Valley, an American manufacturing Mecca where old mill buildings and factories are being demolished or repurposed, Riverdale still stands as an iconic symbol of the area's history. The 200-employee company, Knott said, has no plans to leave the 400,000-square-foot facility Knott Sr. purchased in 1979.

Knott takes pride in the 1850 building in which his company operates.

"We're doing it in an old mill building that's been kept up in very good condition with modern technology," he said.

The company exports 40 to 45 percent of what it makes.

"That's what has allowed us to compete in a global marketspace," he said.

It's that commitment to American manufacturing and quality products that attracts clients like Morris, who called Knott Sr. the Benjamin Franklin of creating material for lobster traps.

Morris has made and sold an estimated 9,000 lobster traps using Knott's products and not one of his customers has had a complaint.

"I can honestly say they've without a doubt had the most consistent product through the decades," he said.

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