Remembering Our Founder, Albert S. Knabb

Al Knabb in Wyoming, 1973

Al Knabb in Wyoming, 1973


By Justin Knabb, Vice President

Albert S. Knabb, founder of Specialty Design & Manufacturing, passed away on December 19, 2014.  He resided in Fleetwood, PA, and was born on February 24, 1937.

Albert was a young, talented and ambitious toolmaker in 1967, the year he started Specialty.  With not much more than a $7,000 bank loan, his toolmaker papers and rolodex, Al began his entrepreneurial journey.

Two generations later, I am proud to say Al’s business continues to thrive and stand the test of time.  I am Al’s grandson, and along with my father, Craig (Al’s son), we manage Specialty today– which has now grown into 2 successful businesses, both serving manufacturers and home builders around the country.

Albert loved Specialty Design.  He was active and influential up until his passing.  He was a true visionary in his field — being among the first in our state to provide CNC machining services in the 1970s, selling the groundbreaking Costimator software in the 1980s, starting a gutter manufacturing and supply business from scratch, and attracting top manufacturing talent to join our company.  Albert was truly one of a kind, and will be greatly missed.

I would like to share my eulogy to Albert that I gave at the service to celebrate his life at Zion Spies Evangelical Reformed Church in Oley, PA on December 27:

* * * *

I’m deeply honored to have my time to talk about Al. My Pop Pop, and my friend.

My brother and father also have much to share about Al’s extraordinary life. I’ll focus in on one key thing he was great at: Connecting with people and bringing them together.

Al KnabbI’ll first take us back to a cold February night in 2007. It became dark early, and the roads were icy, and it was one of those nights my grandparents would prefer to just stay in and watch “So You Think You Can Dance.”

But Al couldn’t stay in that night! He had to meet us at the Berkshire Country Club for dinner – me, Tyler, Dad and Fay. The four of us… oh, and also about 75-100 of his friends. As we know, Al loved socializing, but this time it was Shirley pulling him out the door. And meanwhile we were all at the club, anxiously waiting to surprise him.

As you may have guessed, the occasion I’m referring to was Al’s 70th birthday. We were all there to celebrate his life. And all of us were willing to embark on a mini Iditarod adventure to make it happen.

Yes, Pop Pop, only you could bring people together, even under the most extreme of conditions. We came because you were fun, and charming, and unique, and genuine, and caring, and funny.

Oh man, was my grandfather funny. Albert was magnetic. Just think of all the laughs that Albert has given all of us in this room.

Now Pop Pop would interrupt me here and clarify that the clear and undisputed hero of this night was not he, nor us adventurous partygoers, but rather Shirley Knabb. She and only she could achieve the impossible task of convincing him to suit up for a casual dinner on the town, on the coldest, nastiest night of the year.

And succeed she did, as Al’s town car eventually pulled up to the club’s entrance. He dropped Mom Mom off at the door, like the gentleman he was. He parked and then walked up and into the lobby….. SURPRISE!! Al's70th 016

And there it was: that delightful look on his face. A look I have loved my entire life.

His eyes warmed up, a slight and humble smile drew across his lips, and a subtle quiver from his chin… he was getting emotional, or maybe he just bit into a sour lemon.

He revealed that look of appreciation not just that night, but so often. A look that communicates his genuine feelings of happiness, love and gratitude all in one.

There were so many moments like that in that man’s life, weren’t there?

I will picture this image of him forever.

So you may be wondering – was Al truly surprised? Did Shirley pull it off? Did we actually fool this brilliant and clever man?

Well, after Al’s large crowd of friends calmed down, and hugs were exchanged, Al paused. He raised his hand and then pulled a small note from his suit coat.

He thanked us all for coming, and read this aloud:

I figured you were tricking me tonight, when I was sitting on the toilet. [Here are my top 5 reasons why:]

#1. [Shirley,] you never want to go out on a Friday night.

#2. You never want to go out when there’s a chance the driveway will be icy.

#3. The Berkshire never cancels any parties.

#4. Craig wasn’t at work all day. Probably [at home] working on pictures.

And the kicker, #5. “Elsie finishing our call on speaker phone saying ‘[Well], we’ll see you tonight!’”

So was Al surprised? Turns out Al turned the surprise back on all of us.

* * * *

We all knew Al Knabb as a great man, a special man, but I also knew him as the coolest grandfather. He had a palpable presence when he entered a room, yet a profound gentleness that soothed in the best of the times, and the toughest of times. He never took himself too seriously, but he also had more self-respect than anyone. He loved roasting all of us, and he accepted the teasing in return.

Al Knabb and Justin KnabbHe delivered his wit and friendship to us through various means, of course—through colorful emails, through phone calls, through butt dials, through texts, through dinners, drinks, and also through class reunions, which he would work so hard to organize.

Al listened intently, but also led boldly. He was the builder of 2 successful businesses. Al was a salesman extraordinaire, a talented toolmaker, an inspiring leader, a super-connector.

Al was a frequent flyer – at the Riveredge Bar & Lounge, at the Berkshire tap room, the YR Club, and the Fish Pond – all places where he would spend time with his dear friends.

Every other Thursday each summer at the Fish Pond, he would hold court at his favorite table on the patio. Now, maybe this just happened on the nights I joined him, but it seemed that before lobster was served, every single member would make sure to stop and pay Al a visit. Frankly there were nights Tyler and I legitimately wondered: Is our grandfather Don Corleone?

And always the salesman, Al also sold my grandmother on marrying him over 60 years ago.

And while Pop Pop’s trademark humble smile will stick with me forever, so will this other unforgettable image: my grandfather sitting at the head of the dinner table for a holiday meal, in the home that he and Shirley had once designed and built, surrounded by the dogs, cats, family and bounty that he brought together.

Throughout his great life, Albert brought people together wherever he went. I think one of his proudest achievements is that he and Mom Mom built our loving family together too.

* * * *

Al’s social and business gifts became abundantly clear to me soon after I started full-time at Specialty Design, the business he founded 2 miles from this church in 1967. Al Knabb at trade show

He told me it was a proud day for him to live and see the start of 3 active generations of Knabb’s at the business he started. He also told me then—and told me often—the Al Knabb not-so-secret-nor-earthshattering formula for success, “I built this business by building friendships.”

It sure sounded nice. After all, who doesn’t want to make a business justification to meet pals for Tia Marias, right Butch?

But it wasn’t until weeks and months later until I better appreciated his wisdom, appreciated the cost of building those relationships, or appreciated the less glamorous, behind the scenes of the entrepreneurial journey Pop Pop had taken to this point.

Out of nowhere, he began emailing me pages about Specialty’s beginnings. He’s always believed you have to know where you came from in order to know where you’re going.

He wrote about the garage he started in: “It was a strange feeling standing in that old crusty shop, realizing you now had what you always wanted, even though in other people’s eyes, it sure couldn’t have looked promising.”

Original shop, Specialty Design

Original shop, Specialty Design

His words brought to life how others also began to understand the potential in that once-crusty shop. He told me about all the key mentors along the way. The initial banker who took a risk on giving him that first loan. The employees who trusted him for steady work and pay. His son who was inspired to join Specialty the day after he graduated college. The wild stories from the road, from trade shows, from small initial customers, to the large global ones that would expand the business beyond what he thought possible.

The pages kept coming. First he sent me 2 installments. Then 3. Then 6. Pages and pages filled with names, stories, lessons learned, hard decisions made, lives touched, adventures had, dreams built.

I realized 2 things. One, that Al did not just build his business by making friends. Rather, making friends and earning others’ trust was Al’s calling and it was his life. We’re all a part of that story.

And second, I realized that whether Pop Pop knew it or not, he basically became an author that summer.

Later that year, I secretly took Al’s pages, and worked with an online publisher to craft his story into a real hardcopy book.

I titled it “On My Own: The Autobiography of Albert S. Knabb.” I would deliver it to him on Christmas Day 2008. The epic story of a life well lived.

* * * *

And so, there we were again. My grandfather sitting at the head of the dinner table for a Christmas meal, in the home that he and Shirley had once built, surrounded by the dogs, cats, family and bounty that he brought together.

After that dinner and under the Christmas tree, he took my gift and opened the wrapping slowly. I could barely contain my anticipation.

And again, there it was. He held the book, took a pause and looked up. His look said a thousand words all at once. His look took the air from the room.

His eyes warmed, a slight and humble smile drew across his lips, and a subtle quiver from his chin.

Yes, Pop Pop, I am grateful too. Merry Christmas.

Al Knabb 70th birthday

About Justin Knabb

Justin Knabb is VP of Operations at Specialty Design and Manufacturing, a family-run, US manufacturer of custom home building products as well as custom industrial machinery. Justin is a fan of microbreweries, traveling, Apple products, and Philly cheesesteaks. He can be reached at 1-610-779-1357 or here.