Jessie J. Knight, Jr.

A Man For All Reasons

By: Timothy Moonstone
Not long ago retired from a leadership position with Sempra Energy, and having led a distinguished and illustrious career in both the private and public domain, Knight is most readily found at a Board meeting, at theatre or supporting one of the many fundraisers that he holds dear to his heart. A Missouri native at birth and a San Diegan by choice, his business acumen, forged over these many years, beginning with a stint in the jungles of Honduras has led him to leadership roles in the major cities within California. We caught up with Knight after yet another of his early am workouts in downtown San Diego.

Q: Please tell me that you were born along the backwaters of the Louisiana Bayou?

A: You are kidding? It was on dry land in Springfield, Missouri, where 1% of the populace was African American and 1% Catholic, of which we were both. My Father was a railroad worker for 35 years. He had a third grade education and worked three jobs to support his six children. He also had a trash hauling business and ran a barber stall. He was an entrepreneur in every sense of the word at his own level and did everything in his power to help educate his children. Mom finished high school and was a homemaker. She too had us studying or there was a price to pay. As a result, 5 of their children, now retired, worked for Fortune 500 companies at the executive level. My one sister who did not follow suit worked for the Justice Department. Each night we prayed as a family and formed a solid bond.

Q: Your Father was busy man. Did you have quality time with him during those years?

A: In Missouri, people are very passionate about baseball and I loved sitting with him on the porch swing listening to Cardinal baseball. If ever that time was cut short, it was because we had schoolwork and that took precedence over baseball.

Q: Are your parents still living in Missouri?

A: My father is and he recently was out to visit with me. My Mom died when I was 17 and my Father never did remarry.

Q: As a child, who provided you with the most positive influence?

A: Both my parents were the most positive. They set the example and the rules.

 "As a young hillbilly, African American Catholic in Missouri, there certainly came challenges."

Q: What challenged you most as a child?

A: Always trying to excel. There was that challenge to be the best that we could be. As a young hillbilly, African American Catholic in Missouri, it presented challenges. 1% were black and 1% were Catholic; you do the math! We were outside the circle of mainstream Missourians.

Q: What was your first job that earned you a keep as a child?

A: Making a dollar a week on my Dad's trash truck and helping paint houses with a fellow who had a painting business.

Q: How did you decide on St. Louis University as your first choice for advanced schooling?

A: I had always gone to Catholic schools and it was one of the best Jesuit Catholic schools in Missouri. The university also had an alliance with the University of Madrid, taking me to Europe, which was a goal and where I earned my Fellowship.

Q: Was it all schooling during those years, including the MBA program at the University of Wisconsin or where there stints of work along the way?

A: The only stint of work would have been an internship with Upjohn in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which was my first taste of corporate life. I did the marketing research for the drug Heparin. It gave me the experience of what the lifestyle of corporate life would be like, which I found favorable, and it gave me insight to how I could wrap my arms around being in the corporate community.

Q: What was your first assigned position after leaving college?

A: My first assigned position was with Castle and Cooke, now Dole Foods Company. That led me to San Francisco. I was to be one of their financial analysts. I was taught the ropes over a six-week period in San Francisco and then shipped off to Honduras. I was the financial analyst there and oversaw the banana operations within that region. And yes, I still do like bananas. Just had one this morning.I stayed three years in Honduras, then returned to the States and worked for Dole an additional seven years, becoming the Director of Marketing for all Dole pineapple products for the U.S. and Canada.

Q: Having left Dole, did you then return to San Francisco?

A: I did. I chose to go from finance into marketing and started work for what then was the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, with the Chronicle and the Examiner. Although they were separate newspapers, I became the liaison between the two. It was a remarkably exciting job, which paid well and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the company. After about 7 years, I felt ready for something new. It so happened that the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce was looking to hire and so I landed a position as executive vice-president. At the time, the Chamber led the investment team to keep the Giants baseball team in the city and was proposing the new stadium. While on my watch, the effort went very well, with the Giants staying and the new stadium being built. 

Governor Pete Wilson had been following the flow of events and thereafter asked that I join his team, which I did for a number of years. He appointed me as the Commissioner of California Public Utilities Commission, where I won unanimous approval by the State Senate, even as a Republican nominee.

Q: What led you to San Diego?

A: I had just finished with my duties on the political side and was deciding where to go. An opportunity was presented to me with the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. They were in need of trying to revive the Chamber and I served as their CEO for seven years.

Q: How did you meet your wife Joye?

A: She was based in Charlotte, North Carolina, but was working on a merger of Nations Bank with the Bank of America and had residence at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. We happened to meet while she was in San Francisco while she led the transition team to merge the banks together. As it turned out, we moved together to San Diego. We actually married in the Marine Corps Recruit Depot chapel here in San Diego.

Q: Your career touched on finance, marketing and public utilities. Is that not an unusual mix or did you find a common core?

A: It is an unusual mix, however,very much aligned in the sense that every situation I have ever been involved with over these many years drew from all three and they proved extremely useful in moving projects forward toward a successful outcome.

"My greatest career challenge came at a relatively young age as a professional manager in the jungles of Honduras."

Q: Was it a hard climb up the corporate ladder or did right timing, right place grease some of the skids?

A: All of the above. Whatever business you are in, the corporate ladder is always a tough climb. Unless you can build wealth and business within the corporate sphere, plan on being on the lower rungs of the ladder. I knew how to move, manage and grow businesses. 

It was a particularly tough environment, working in the jungles of Central America, exacerbated when the industry had a forced restructuring by the Justice Department. The companies had to disinvest in their enormous infrastructure held in Latin America, which was all controlled by the companies in a massive oligopoly. In Central America, the companies owned the airports, charts, shipping, hospitals, farmlands, housing, railroads,etc., that were part of their industry. They then had to restructure and began selling off their infrastructure to the nationals. It was an exciting time for a young guy just coming out of school. It was a great learning curve for managing under fire, and under intense financial scrutiny.  

Q: Did the learning experience in Honduras become a cornerstone for future endeavors and challenges?

A: My tasks thereafter unfolded in a similar fashion. albeit totally different enterprises. It helped me to revitalize the moribund newspaper industry when in San Francisco. The Chamber of Commerce both in San francisco and San Diego benefitted from that experience. Market building, building infrastructure, structuring deals and companies, and protecting business interest were key to success. San Francisco at the time was not very business friendly. With Pete Wilson, there was his effort to try and get competition into the phone industry, which allowed the Internet to expand. I was a big proponent of bringing the competitive aspect of deregulation into the marketplace.

When in San diego, Sempra offered me an opportunity to help build the company, however, I had not finished my work at the Chamber, thus I turned down their offer. About three years later, I did accept another offer from them to join the senior team as EVP of external affairs for all of Sempra's domestic and global holdings. Fast forward three years and I became the CEO for SDG&E, which I held for four years and then returned to Sempra as EVP for external affairs, while holding positions and serving as Chairman of the Board for both SDG&E and SoCal Gas in Los Angeles. Not long ago I chose to retire.

Q: What presented you with your greatest career challenge?

A: Adjusting my life as a professional manager in the jungles of Honduras. I was three years in a very tough environment at a relatively young age while on my first major assignment.

Q: Being Africa American, did it help at times and hurt other times?

A: it certainly never helped me and is something that I never focused on. I don't see where it hurt either. The industries where I worked, you either performed or you did not. You could be blue or pink, it would not have mattered; it was performance that registered with the top tier.

Q: What personal trait do you consider your greatest strength?

A: Empathy.

Q: What was your greatest personal challenge?

A: After a head on collision in college, I was blinded for a short while and still have no vision out of my left eye.

Q: Of the many accolades that have been bestowed upon you, which is closest to your heart?

A: A very personal memento from Seal Team 1 that was given to my wife Joye and I.

Q: You and your wife Joye seem well embedded within the non-profit charity foundations here in San Diego. What led you to be so passionate about the cause?

A: The way that we were brought up. We both came from poverty and have always been taught to give back, and we feel fortunate to being able to contribute and lend a helping hand.

Q: Touching lightly on politics, are you ready to Make America Great Again or are you feeling the Bern?

A: Are you spelling that Burn?

Q: Political correctness has taken on a life of its own. Has the pendulum really swung off the charts in your mind?

A: Absolutely, without a single doubt.

Q: You are a longtime San Diegan. What is the one change you would like to see come to the city of San Diego?

A: That there would be a greater effort to attract big companies to come here.

Q: Certainly doors would open for you should you decide to run for political office. Is there a hat on the rack, yet unworn that has captured your eye?

A Yes, a new Charger's cap.