For nearly a century, four generations of Kings have helped the Burlington, N.C. community with its lighting needs.
“We’ve been a family business for 95 years, starting out in the early 1920s selling home generator power systems and water pumps,” says Jim King Sr., owner of King Electric in Burlington, North Carolina. His grandfather soon expanded the business to include electrical wiring in 1925.
Ranked the 17th largest city in North Carolina, back then Burlington was known for its textile mills. One of its most well-known businesses was Burlington Mills, which employed 200 people in a factory surrounded by a cornfield.
King Electric was always located within Burlington, which began steadily increasing its city limits over time. Downtown is now situated where an oyster bar in the middle of nowhere stood in the 1940s and ’50s. After several moves and expansions since opening up the lighting showroom division in 1951, King Electric moved to its present location on Chapel Hill Road in 1970.
King Sr.’s grandfather was fortunate to have had all three of his sons involved in the business, and the same is true today. Jimmy Jr. is a licensed electrician who has worked at the company for 20 years after graduating college; King Sr.’s youngest son, Brian, joined full-time two years ago after operating his own successful DJ business (which he still enjoys on a part-time basis).
“I’m most proud that I’ve got both of my boys here. As I get older, that means a lot to me,” King Sr. confides. “I’m proud of how they’ve evolved. We don’t want the business to stop. In fact, my uncle (my dad’s brother) is age 78 and still comes into the store every day. It’s hard for most family businesses to [have its members] stay working together, but we don’t step on each other’s toes.”
That politeness could be attributed to both genetic and learned behavior. “My dad treated every human being the same,” King Sr. recalls. “He treated the bus boy at a restaurant as if he were the owner. When he died, countless people came up to me and said how fair and nice he was. He treated people with respect.”
That trait was not lost on King Sr. Many seasoned business owners are guilty of not taking the younger generation seriously – especially when it’s their own children. There are times when doing something the same way because that’s the way it’s always been done just doesn’t make sense anymore. “Once I stopped being bull-headed [about how I wanted to do things],” King Sr. confesses, the business relationship with his sons improved. Another key was realizing that his sons have different strengths. Jimmy Jr. handles bidding and coordinating jobs with the contractors, while Brian works in the showroom with the retail customers. “The boys have meshed their talents together, which has made them even stronger,” King Sr. reveals.
“I’ve always been hands-on in the business, but I’m 65 years old now. I’m used to doing things my way, but when I open my mind and listen to them, they have great ideas,” he states. “It was Brian who talked me into carrying contemporary styles. I didn’t think the look would sell, but it does over and over again – and not just with young people.” What made Brian think it could? Besides interacting with customers daily, he lives an hour away in Raleigh, where he began noticing that people around him were interested in that style.
“I learned that if you show something, customers will ask about it,” King Sr. affirms. “Maybe people wanted contemporary all along, but we just hadn’t been showing it.”
For King Sr., joining the family business was a given. “I worked summers at King Electric when I was in school. I never thought of doing anything else. I was the youngest certified electrician in the state when I was 20 years old. I really enjoy [my job] and meeting people,” he comments.
“So many times customers don’t take the time to tell you the good stuff that you do,” he says. King Electric’s customers, however, are quite vocal about their positive experiences. “We’ve had generations of family shopping here,” he explains. “It’s all about making someone feel good about doing business with you. Having the trust of your customers is important.”
Thriving & Surviving
Five years ago King Electric remodeled the showroom, doubling its size to 4,000 square feet – all the better to showcase the mirrors, artwork, permanent florals, and portable lamps added to the merchandise mix – and built a 5,000-sq.-ft. warehouse. A separate building houses the equipment for the telecommunications division founded in 2002.
When the housing bubble burst, King Electric suffered a significant drop in business. “Every community in the U.S. lost good builders,” King Sr. remarks. “When housing picks up again, we’re going to get a new breed of people who are buying homes and we’ll need to create new customers. That’s why advertising is important,” he states. Having a presence in two local county magazines – Alamance and Alamance Woman – has paid off. The showroom is also targeting younger customers with its advertising. “There are a lot of successful young people in our area,” King Sr. observes.
“We’re seeing a gap in the middle between the starter homes and the upper end. When you start to see local builders building, you know things are coming back.” Until that happens, multi-family housing has been strong. “We do a lot of apartment complexes across the state,” he says. “We work with an electrical contractor who prefers that we do all of the lighting packages for his projects. When it comes to multi-housing, we’re seeing better packages being specified.”
Diversification is crucial. “We’re a premier distributor for Hunter Douglas blinds and listed on the Web site,” King Sr. says, adding, “Our designer is out all day, measuring windows for condos. We also sell rugs and wallpaper. We find wallpaper is definitely coming back. Last year we did a good business in that category,” King Sr. notes. “If a customer wants to have wallpaper, we have a guy who will install it and estimate how many rolls they need. I want to be pro-active and think ahead – that’s why we got into decorative accessories years ago. I was originally reluctant about adding it, but our showroom manager convinced me. She has a design background and gets a commission on what she sells. Turns out, she’s really good at it.”
Another boost to business is a new energy code taking effect in North Carolina. “All recessed cans have to be 100-percent sealed with no air leakage and every new home has to contain 75-percent energy-efficient lighting,” he says. As a result, King Electric will be focusing on promoting LED products. “We’re going to create an ad that mentions that we are experts in LED lighting who can answer customers’ questions about the technology,” King Sr. says. There are also plans to have reps conduct educational training sessions.
King Electric’s renovations have included making the presentation more spacious. “You don’t have to stuff your showroom full of fixtures. You can space the merchandise out and still have it look good. We’ve had handicapped people in here and by [increasing the space] it makes navigating the showroom easier for them,” he says, adding, “I think we’ve done a lot of things right to make our business more viable.”