Kenton County Judge-executive Kris Knochelmann didn’t have the typical college experience at Xavier University during the late 1980s and early ‘90s. While others were dressing casually and soaking in the campus life, Knochelmann, a Ronald Reagan fan who started working in the office of his family plumbing and heating business at age 16, wore a tie to classes.

“I worked full-time, so I didn’t engage in the campus life like I would have. You need to be engaging daily if you’re going to enjoy it,” he says. “[Instead] I would get up, go to school. I’d dress like this. I’d come to work. I’ve always worked in the office.” 

He didn’t go out on plumbing or heating calls, but did bookkeeping and marketing, and answered the phones, took calls and dispatch.

His mother died when he was a baby, and after his father remarried he was the youngest of a blended, nine-child family. But he was five years younger than his next youngest brother, so on one hand, many older siblings raised him. But as he grew into his teens, he was almost an only child who attended the accelerated Covington Latin School, which probably led to his mature outlook.

“By the time I got old enough to be aware, it was just me and my brother Pete,” Knochelmann says. “And by that time he was a teenager and out doing his own thing, and then it was me. I went to Latin school and moved to Riverside Terrace condos down there in a brand-new building, and I was the only kid in that whole neighborhood.”

He moved onto Xavier’s campus when his parents retired to Florida and graduated in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in accounting.

“Really, from my junior year in high school all the way through college, I worked in the plumbing and heating business with my dad and family. Never stopped working here,” he says. “I guess you can kind of say I’ve had one job since I was 16.”

Knochelmann, his brothers and brother-in-law bought the business from their dad, then sold to a publically traded company that later eliminated his job and many others nationwide. He turned down a position that the company offered and within 90 days, he had purchased competitor Schneller Heating, Air Conditioning and Plumbing, where he and wife Lisa work with three of his brothers, three nephews and a cousin.

“We’ve grown by six times in 3 1/2 years,” he says. “God has taken care of me.”

They live in Crescent Springs, across the street from one sister and next door to another.

Now, 44, he has been familiarizing himself with the machinery of a much higher profile position: Kenton County judge-executive, the top executive position overseeing county government, to which he was elected last year.

A self-described political “nerd” and Reagan fan, Knochelmann served on his first board while in high school.

He began helping people run county campaigns, when, at age 19, former Judge-executive Clyde Middleton asked him to serve on the board of the Northern Kentucky Action Commission, an organization founded in the Lyndon B. Johnson-era during the War on Poverty. The board oversaw programs like Head Start, weatherization (protecting the exterior and interior of buildings), senior services and other social services offered by the community agency.

“It was a very big education on the opportunities that people can get by their community,” Knochelmann says. “You know, some things were successful, some things weren’t, but overall you saw a lot of great people doing a lot of good work. And also, I learned how boards operate, how a meeting operates.”

Knochelmann, who once considered being a priest and visited several seminaries, found his calling as a husband and father, and works in his family’s business instead. He belongs to St. Joseph Church in Crescent Springs and is a big fan of Pope Francis.

He notes his board service “wasn’t getting my hands quite as dirty as the day-to-day work, but I got to feel like I was making an impact. While you’re living a full-time life, doing plumbing, heating, air conditioning and those types of things, it allowed me to keep an involvement and be aware of what’s going on.”

“I’m a black-and-white guy when it comes to a lot of social issues, but I’ve always had a mindset of community service,” he says. “It’s not everybody all out for themselves. That’s just not how my faith is. I try to be a strong Catholic. And my faith tells me that it’s not all about me. And if I truly believe that, I believe that we have an obligation to have an impact and make a difference.”

After several years on that board, a board colleague told Knochelmann that he should run for commissioner. He figured he could be a good commissioner, after having worked on campaigns of others who ran for commissioner or judge-executive. So, he ran and won. Nobody opposed him when he sought re-election. Then, he ran for judge-executive.

He steps into the office with hopes to make his mark in several ways, but he’s already proud of the accomplishments the county made during his time as commissioner.

“We got the jail built,” he notes. “Ralph [Drees] led the charge, of course, but we got the darn thing done. And then, in that timeframe, I was real proud of that. Ralph was the judge-executive, and we had to raise taxes, but we added the reserves and did a lot of needed changes in those four years, which I’m very proud of. And I’m proud of the eight years that I’ve served already.”

Helping create financial stability for the county is his proudest accomplishment to date, along with the jail.

“It’s solid,” he says of the city’s financial situation. “Ralph added, I think, $15 million to the reserve balance while he was in office and got it in really good shape. And [recent Judge-executive] Steve [Arlinghaus] added a few more million dollars.”

“I would also say this: We probably have as big of a need in the county as we’ve ever had for resources, when we talk about just a lot of big-ticket items that we could potentially get involved with … But we’re in good shape financially.”

A person with strong longtime friendships, he likes to, “Sit around the fire pit and solve the world’s problems, those kinds of things. I’m a pretty easy, low-maintenance guy,” he says.

Knochelmann loves socializing with people, and enjoys traveling and the beach. 

But the low-maintenance guy isn’t afraid to stand his ground on things he considers critical to the region’s economic or physical health. One such thing is the board of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Knochelmann’s campaign platform included promises to rein in spending practices that had been questioned at the airport. Among them, there has been no limit on the number of board members allowed to attend industry conferences. Knochelmann also recommended the board implement daily caps on how much money the airport pays the board for out-of-town meals.

With new members of the airport’s board being appointed as of July 1, Knochelmann also suggested the board may want to meet less than monthly so it can attract the highest level and quality of corporate leader to serve on the board.

“Maybe 12 meetings a year might be a little bit more than they need,” he said in an interview. “I would encourage them to look at maybe six or nine meetings a year.”

That can help lure some of the region’s highest-level corporate leaders to the board, he believes. “Let’s just say if you’ve got a CEO or a CFO of a very large corporation who’s managing billions of dollars in transactions or customers, it might be an opportunity to say, ‘We want you, but we don’t need you to come every month.’”

This is a critical time for the airport’s attempt to again become an economic driver of the area, he believes, following the loss of a Delta Air Lines hub. With Delta’s use agreement to expire with the airport on Dec. 31, negotiations and decisions by the airport’s staff and board will determine future airline fares and also the selection of cities local businesses and leisure travelers can access.

“It’s very clear that the facts just present themselves to say that, when Delta was a hub, we were able to benefit from their size and pass-through flights that were coming here,” he says. With the loss of the hub, “the workload is dramatically higher, especially on the staff, but even on the board, to set a vision for how do you get through this, and make sure that it turns into the economic engine that it can be, or we would like it to be? And that takes time to get that back and running.”

County Commissioner Beth Sewell calls Knochelmann “a consummate peacemaker.”

“We weren’t family friends, didn’t grow up together, when we first started serving four years ago,” she says, who has know him professionally for 20 years. “I found him to be a very trustworthy, kind person, and over time, you work pretty closely with somebody and you get through some tough things, and you inevitably become friends, or you become enemies, I guess. We became pretty good friends.”

Sewell says he has “a list of 40 items he’s trying to work off of.” She encouraged him to cut it down to three major, doable things. 

“[But] he keeps saying that they’re all intertwined, and if you were to knock off one, it might impact another. So he’s very optimistic and believes he can accomplish every one of them,” she adds.

Sewell is impressed with Knochelmann’s youthful energy and says she can hardly keep up with him. “This administration and this commission intend to engage folks and encourage them to be involved, and help us chart the future,” she adds. 

He has been married 21 years to Lisa, a Notre Dame Academy and Northern Kentucky University grad who also has an accounting degree. They have lived in Covington, Villa Hills and now Crescent Springs, and have three children: Liz, Ben and Drew.

“God sent me a great wife but also gave us three great kids who are just tops,” he says.

Aside from his children—whom he considers more of a blessing than a personal accomplishment—he considers his cooperation with others his greatest overall accomplishment.

“I would think, if that’s an accomplishment, getting along with people and cooperating is something I’m known for,” he says. “The thing is, I’m very much an average guy. Never been a big athlete, never been best in the class. Never been funniest, never been the best work ethic. I’m not the top in any of those areas. I’ve just been able to probably get things by working with others. That’s probably a good way of putting it. “

Here’s the biggest asset he believes he brings to the job: “I come from the mindset that there’s enough smart people … If enough smart people get together who are not egotistical and their own-personal-agenda driven, there’s nothing we can’t get accomplished.”