A man who can make numbers sing

He's convinced he can transplant his business acumen to City Hall.

As a lad growing up in East Falls, Tom Knox was not the best student. He skipped homework to sell newspapers, shine shoes or caddy at a golf club. So when he aced an eighth-grade algebra test, his disbelieving teacher at St. Bridget's school accused him of cheating.

"I'm getting 60s or 70s in everything else, just passing," recalled the businessman. "Here I get a hundred. So she retested me. And I got 100 again."

The episode was an early sign of Knox's mathematical prowess, a skill he parlayed into a fortune. It also contains a lesson for Knox's rivals in the May 15 Democratic mayoral primary: Do not underestimate Tom Knox and the clout he has derived from numbers.

In the last six months, the multimillionaire insurance executive has surged in the polls from a virtual unknown to the top of the five-way Democratic primary, thanks to the onslaught of commercials that capitalize on his heartwarming rags-to-riches story.

By now most Philadelphians have been exposed to Knox's tale. He grew up in the Abbotsford Homes housing project, on Henry Avenue across from Medical College of Pennsylvania. When his father, a steel rigger, fell ill, Knox joined the Navy to support his family.

In 1962, both of his parents died. Knox was 20 at the time, the eldest of four boys.

Like a modern Horatio Alger hero, the hard-working Knox rose from collecting nickel payments on insurance policies to owning a benefits company. He was such an eager salesman that he crisscrossed the country in his own private jet, pitching group policies to Fortune 100 companies. Later he bought and rehabilitated troubled companies, making millions more.

Along the way, he spent 17 months as Mayor Rendell's "dollar-a-year" deputy mayor for management and productivity, an experience his campaign portrays as instrumental in saving the city from insolvency.

There is some dispute about how much Knox accomplished as Rendell's deputy. There is no doubt he got a taste for politics. Now, he'd like the whole meal.

"I like running the show," said Knox, who is 66.

Knox is betting much of his fortune - he hints that he's worth more than $100 million - on what would be the biggest and most complex turnaround of his life, the $3.6 billion Philadelphia city government.

Thomas J. Knox Jr. is driven, determined, smart and stubborn - even his wife of 31 years, Linda, a real estate developer who is credited with broadening her husband's interests, says he can be set in his ways.

"He's hard to change," she said.

A critical test of whether Knox can translate his business acumen into public service will be whether he becomes flexible enough to manage an organization as diverse as city government, where lifetime civil servants may dig in to outlast a hostile regime change.

Many, but not all, of the Rendell administration officials who recall Knox's days as deputy mayor doubt that he has the political touch to persuade City Hall to fall into line. They say Knox's authoritarian manner, which served him well in the private sector, is more likely to provoke obstinacy than obedience from City Council, union leaders and bureaucrats.

"Tom can be abrasive - he does not suffer fools gladly and can have an abrupt manner," Gov. Rendell said in a written response to questions about Knox, who has donated $120,000 to Rendell's bids for mayor and governor, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from other donors.

Rendell, who says he won't endorse any of the five candidates, declined to answer a question about whether Knox was qualified to be mayor.

Some of the rap on Knox - almost all of it comes from former officials who asked to remain anonymous - is based on resentment at Knox's sacrilege for taking personal credit for team efforts. Knox's ads make it sound as if he personally balanced the city budget.

"When Knox says that they are his accomplishments," says one former official, "it's like nails on a chalkboard for people in the administration."

Even Knox's detractors said he was full of ideas for making government more efficient - he reduced the city's costs for rental properties, vehicles and computer systems. But often the ideas were communicated as orders, not suggestions.

John C. Carrow, whom Knox hired to consolidate the city's computer operations and is now a Unisys Corp. vice president, praises Knox's "strong discipline." Still, he acknowledges his old boss was "not necessarily collaborative."

Knox rubs many people the wrong way.

Author Buzz Bissinger, who wrote about the Rendell administration, has become the de facto voice for the critics. Bissinger said there is a reason Knox is not mentioned in his book, A Prayer for the City.

"He was not the kind of player he's making himself out to be," said Bissinger, who described Knox as "brusque."

Knox's friends say his moments of pique are short-lived.

"All of us from time to time can be abrupt," said Bruce A. Levy, 52, who worked with Knox for more than two decades. "It was never something that has disturbed me personally."

What really irks Knox's rivals is that efforts to point out his flaws are drowned out by his $300,000-a-week ad campaign.

Even more exasperating is that many of Knox's weaknesses - his political inexperience, curt remarks, bull-in-the-china-shop behavior - are attributes his campaign eagerly markets as assets. He is sold as the ultimate anti-politician.

In a race where the other candidates are career elected officials, Knox fashions himself as the outsider, unbeholden to the machine. He is uncharismatic, a wooden speaker, though he has warmed up as audiences have begun to recognize him.

"The worst thing we can do is make him a polished, scripted guy," said Joe Trippi, the political consultant Knox hired to devise his media campaign.

Trippi shrugs at the opposition's efforts to undercut Knox - the most clever ploy seems to be a "Tommy the Loan Shark" heckler who follows the candidate, reminding voters of Knox's ownership of a bank that made high-interest payday loans.

"Fine, I understand they've got to try to take him down," said Trippi, who engineered Howard Dean's dramatic rise in the 2000 presidential race. "But Knox really grew up in the Abbotsford project. People understand what that means."

Knox's unpolished image is actually carefully crafted. His Web site, designed by the same outfit that put together Howard Dean's, is intentionally as sophisticated as a grilled cheese sandwich. While talking, Trippi clicked his browser over to Chaka Fattah's campaign site, with its music and moving parts. "That's way too slick," he said.

When Trippi first met Knox in 2005, the candidate wanted to talk about his business triumphs. Only after many conversations did Trippi extract the stories his 30-second spots have now made famous, such as the tale about Knox's mother, who worked in a knitting mill, crying herself to sleep at night because the family was poor.

To the media consultant, vignettes like that were gold.

"Why aren't you telling people that?" Trippi asked Knox.

During one such conversation, Trippi discovered the kernel of another soft-music TV spot: the 1992 heroin overdose death of Knox's younger brother, Michael. That tragedy helped explain Knox's conviction that the city needs better drug-treatment programs and more vigorous law enforcement. When Knox tells audiences he will tear down drug dens, he delivers the line with real emotion, and it always gets applause.

Knox also told Trippi about an experience that has not appeared in commercials - his eldest son's past problems with drugs and alcohol. Knox said it was off limits: The campaign was not to exploit his son T.J.'s addiction for political benefit.

Then, much to his wife's chagrin, Knox started speaking about his son on the campaign trail - not to large groups, but in more intimate gatherings of voters. That a wealthy family could face such a crisis established a link with the city's struggling masses, who are all too familiar with the miseries of addiction. But to Knox, telling about his pain before small groups does not qualify as political exploitation.

"He's not a politician," insists Trippi. "He doesn't have that sixth sense. That's both kind of weird and frustrating, as well as refreshing."

Sometimes he puts his foot in his mouth.

During a meeting at his office with five black evangelical ministers, Knox began riffing about how much his wife enjoyed vibrant Baptist church services.

"We'll overlook the fact we're all Pentecostals," sniffed one of the pastors.

"Well, it's all the same Gospel!" Knox responded.

Perhaps more serious for Knox were his indiscreet comments directed at Bob Brady, a rival whose nominating petitions he challenged unsuccessfully in court.

On the day the lawsuit was heard, Knox sat in court, filing his nails. He implied that the city's Democratic Party chairman - upon whom he may have to rely if he's elected - was not smart enough to be mayor.

"He doesn't have any mayoral mettle," Knox said, sounding more petty than statesmanlike himself.

Knox later said he was "mad at himself" for saying those things about Brady. "I'm going to try to shut my mouth when it comes to that stuff because my wife gives me heat about it, and I don't like her being mad.

"I don't need to criticize Bob Brady. He does enough by himself."

Knox just can't stop himself.

Knox is a natural with numbers.

Back in the days when computers required 12 hours to run a complex calculation, Knox would ponder an equation and tell his insurance company's key-punch operators the answer before they entered the data.

"In the morning they'd all be amazed that's what it came out at," he said.

Knox forgets names but remembers phone numbers. When asked about a company he broke up and sold 17 years ago, he recites each buyer and the amounts they paid. In the evening he reads financial reports, as if they were engaging mysteries.

"I only read for information, never for pleasure," he says, spitting out the comment as though fiction were for idlers. His wife says he likes Star Trek, Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Bond movies.

Knox does not tell many jokes. "He's not a sunny guy," said one former city official who describes herself as a fan. He played golf four times last year, never breaking 100. His family owns a vacation home in Delaware, but the campaign's obligations keep him from visiting much.

He says his only diversion is leadership of the local branch of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international group of gourmets that meets a half-dozen times a year. But Linda Knox said the dining club is really her passion, and he just goes along.

Part of Knox's skill as a salesman was his ability to analyze opaque insurance material, explain the product in simple language, and then close the deal.

He is sensitive about his schooling (he got a GED in the Navy). He was miffed that an Inquirer story pointed out he lacked a bachelor's degree, but did not mention that he graduated from financial management and insurance underwriting programs at the American College in Bryn Mawr.

"At one time I had four attorneys with their master's in taxes working for me," he said, "and I was telling them how to practice because I would be able to take complex ideas, maybe two or three of them, merge them together and make a better idea that would turn into a tax savings for somebody that would need insurance."

Knox's frugality is legendary. He reviews all campaign costs and signs the checks himself. When told that his campaign staff says he is cheap, Knox's first reaction was to demand of his press aide, half in jest, to know who spoke out of turn.

Later that day, the comment still seemed to bother Knox. In a car, driving to a campaign event, he was describing his management style - how he demands accountability.

"The campaign is too short for me to do a lot of the accountability; it's too fluid of a situation," he said. "But in a business, boy, I'll tell you. Every day I'm looking at the numbers. They tell you how cheap I am, and it's true. Not that I'm cheap, but I watch what I'm spending. . . . They take a cab ride for $4.50 and give the driver a $5 tip. They put it on their expense sheet and expect me to pay for it. They say: 'Why are you looking at a $5 tip?' 'Because I look at everything.' "

By the end of the day, Knox has embraced his inner miser, incorporating penny-pinching into his campaign speech.

"My campaign staff says I'm cheap," he said in Roxborough. "You know what? I am!"

What motivates a man with so much money, at an age when others retire, to take on the aggravation of being mayor?

"I can probably give my money away and get my name on a wing at a hospital or something like that, but I don't need that," said Knox. "I want to do good for a lot of people.

"If I become mayor, I can help a lot of people. That's why I'm spending my own money, running for mayor. I want to be of service. I want to be able to continue working. I'm not ready to retire just yet."

Being mayor would be the capstone on an ambitious career in which Knox has inhabited two different universes that rarely intersect, the blue-collar Philadelphian who has risen to consort with the blue bloods.

He has been laying the foundation for this run for decades.

In 1984, he instructed his wife to find a new house, and she picked a 12,000-square-foot mansion on West Chestnut Hill Avenue. It was occupied by William J. Green, who had just completed his term as mayor.

Green's house wasn't listed, but the couple knocked on the door, introduced themselves and struck a deal. (The Knoxes now live in a Rittenhouse Square condominium.)

In the 1980s, Knox became deeply involved in politics, helping to finance Robert Casey's gubernatorial campaign. He said he was so successful raising money for Casey that Rendell sought him out.

In 1988, Knox bought Kasser Distillers Products Corp., a family beverage manufacturer and distributor in Feltonville. To run the company, Knox hired businessman John Bondur.

Bondur, now retired in Florida, said Knox seemed preoccupied with advancing himself among civic leaders by organizing fund-raisers for organizations such as the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Bondur recalls that Knox and Rendell spent much time schmoozing at the distillery's office at Third and Luzerne Streets.

"With every waking hour - every hour - he worked to position himself socially and with politicians," Bondur said.

Bondur said the distillery was failing from the start, and by the end of 1988, Knox forced Bondur out over disagreements in management style. A few months later, Knox closed the business and sold off its assets.

Knox, in a career he characterizes as an unbroken string of successes, still does not consider Kasser a dud. At the end of the day, he still made money.

Years later, rivals would darkly speculate that Knox had used his political connections to boost sales from the distillery to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, its biggest customer.

But by Bondur's account, what drove Knox was not a patronage contract - but something psychologically deeper.

Bondur said Knox was "enamored" of buying an old-line Philadelphia company. "He wanted to impress people he was a player. . . . He was scrambling for recognition."


The Knox File

Thomas J. Knox

Age: 66

Residence: Rittenhouse Square

Political Party: Democrat

Education: Dropped out of Roman Catholic High School after 10th grade; earned GED in U.S. Navy. Earned certificates from the American College in Bryn Mawr as a Chartered Life Underwriter and Certified Financial Planner.

Business experience: Chief executive officer, United HealthCare of Pennsylvania, 2004-06; Fidelity Insurance Group, CEO and chairman, Oct. 1999-2004; chairman and CEO, Crusader Holding Corp., chairman, Crusader Bank, 1988-2002; state rehabilitator, Fidelity Mutual Insurance, 1993-95; CEO, Knox Group Inc., 1987-92; CEO, Kasser Industries and Gimco Holding, 1988-90; CEO, Preferred Benefits Corp., 1967-86.

Politics and government: Deputy mayor for management and productivity, 1992-93. Unsuccessful Republican candidate for Cheltenham Township Commission in 1978.

Family: Married to Linda Knox. Two adult sons, T.J. and Brandon.


Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald contributed to this article.