Sunday, December 4, 2022

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King Electric: lighting up Burlington for 100 years

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Located along Chapel Hill Road in Burlington for over half of its 100 years is King Electric, a mainstay of Burlington’s commercial activity.

Third and fourth generations of the King family are now guiding the company, which was originally started by their grandfather and great-grandfather, Edgar King.

The patriarch started the company in 1922 in downtown Burlington. Its original focus was on selling well pump home power systems, a 20th Century equivalent of the modern generator, explains the company’s current CEO, Jim King. Jim says he can’t remember a time when the company wasn’t known by its current one, simply King Electric.

At 75, Jim King has worked at the company for about 57 years (not counting tagging along with his Dad in his teenaged years), stepping into semi-retirement in December.
All three of the second-generation Kings – Earl, Melvin, and Clarence – worked at the company. Jim’s wing of the family descends from Melvin.

“A lot of time, family businesses don’t make it because the family members don’t get along. One of the things that has helped us thrive is that we have a common desire to see the business be successful. We don’t interfere with other [family members] who are in charge of their respective areas of the business. We trust in each other to do what’s best in their own [areas of responsibility].” – Jim King, CEO of King Electric

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Jim’s cousin, Larry King, 62 – another part of the third generation (Clarence’s son) and the company’s president – focuses on the electrical part of the business, housed in the back part of the Chapel Hill Road facility, and whose trucks can often be seen throughout the county.

The company provides electrical service throughout Alamance County and within “about an hour’s drive” of Burlington.

Jim’s two sons – Jimmy, 53, and Brian, 49, the fourth-generation members, and vice president and secretary of the company – round out the family members currently involved in day-to-day operations.

Is a fifth generation in the offing? Everyone points to Jimmy’s young children, at least a decade or more away from that possibility.

The company has expanded over the past half-century into the lighting, accessories, and home furnishings that occupy the showroom at the front of the building and now account for more than two-thirds of its operations.

Jim offers an example of how much products and prices have changed over the past century: a receipt he found for wiring a two-story house from the 1930’s. Total tab for the whole house: $19.

Jim recalls that when the Chapel Hill Road location opened in 1970, it seemed like “we were out in the country.” Since then, the city has caught up and surrounded them.

The four Kings, interviewed separately, independently express a consensus on how they’ve survived and thrived when other family businesses haven’t: they genuinely like each other.
Jim summarizes his observation on family businesses: “A lot of time, family businesses don’t make it because the family members don’t get along. One of the things that has helped us thrive is that we have a common desire to see the business be successful. We don’t interfere with other [family members] who are in charge of their respective areas of the business. We trust in each other to do what’s best in their own [areas of responsibility].”

Each expresses pride in the 100th anniversary milestone and “lasting through four generations.” Larry adds, “It’s a great achievement for any company.”

Jim says, “Our biggest challenge in the growth of the business is trying to expand, sometimes experimenting with new product lines or services,” although Jim readily acknowledges “not all have been successful.”

“There’s never been a time this wasn’t what I wanted to do. I’ve been coming to work here since anytime Dad would take me [now 43 years, officially]. . .  Each day, something different is going to happen. There’s something new to learn [every day].” – Larry King, President of King Electric

Did any of the four Kings feel compelled to follow in the family’s electrical business dynasty?
No, they say. They simply like the business and their respective roles in it.

“There’s never been a time this wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Larry explains. I’ve been coming to work here since anytime Dad would take me,” now 43 years “officially.”

“Each day, something different is going to happen. There’s something new to learn [every day],” Larry explains.

“I enjoy being here working with family,” Jimmy says. “We’re close-knit.”

In fact, when 5:00 arrives on weekdays or Friday afternoons, the Kings frequently socialize after hours.

There’s only one point of occasional disagreement, and even that appears good natured. Basketball allegiances – or those stemming from other athletic activities – can provide one of the few points of friction.

Jim is an avid Duke fan (posters of coach Mike Krzyzewski and his teams adorn his office walls), and he frequently attends men’s and women’s basketball games at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Duke’s campus.

Son Jimmy, while an East Carolina grad, has adopted UNC-Chapel Hill and its lighter shade of blue. Rivalry games, like this weekend’s Duke-UNC match-up in Durham, can provide temporary ribbing of the other.

Meanwhile, Brian is an Appalachian State grad and seems to avoid most of the basketball rivalry of his father and brother.

One of the aspects of their routine they take pride in is overseeing jobs through “from start to finish,” Jimmy says.

Another source of their success is their customers. “We’ve been blessed with some really good customers,” Larry recalls, a sentiment Brian also emphasizes. “We strive to keep them happy.”

Another strength of the business is that apparently in addition to enjoying one another, they’ve historically attracted employees who enjoy working with them and who’ve often stayed for decades. Jim notes that it’s not unusual to see records of employees who stayed with the company 35 to 40 years or more.

One current example is Barbara Annas, a 40-year veteran with the company, who helps staff the showroom and offers design advice.

That kind of longevity “helps keep the business stable,” Jim notes.

 

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