Herb King knows all about dreams -- both having them, and chasing them. Though he is now owner and CEO of the company his father started back in the 1960s, he doesn't expect any of his own children to take the helm when he retires. "I chased my dreams, and I want them to chase theirs," he says. "Whatever happens, I just want them to enjoy the journey as much as I did." It was plain to me immediately that King is a man who puts family first, before success, before business, before anything. Despite 45 years of family tradition in the irrigation industry, he just wants his kids to have the opportunity to find whatever makes them happy, wherever they end up in the process. Now that's a good dream to have.
King grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, watching his father chase his own dreams. An avid inventor, nothing gave Lloyd King greater delight than in seeing a problem and crafting a solution. Even if that solution was months in the making, the end result was worth it. To Lloyd King, no problem was impossible -- he refused to take no for an answer.
In the 'land of 10,000 lakes,' Herb King and his three brothers and one sister went swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter -- a picture-perfect postcard of the American childhood. When they became teenagers, he and most of his brothers worked as laborers for their father to help put themselves through school. However, at that point in his life, King never aspired to one day run his father's company. In fact, he wanted to get as far away from the family business as he could.
He decided to attend Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, just north of St. Louis, Missouri. He enjoyed his time on the lush campus, and remembers in particular the incredible views it offered overlooking the Mississippi River. A bit of an over-achiever, he double-majored in English and business, hoping to land a job in sales upon graduating.
A broadcasting company called Katz Communications picked up King in 1969, and he moved to New York, where the company was headquartered. He started out as a sales trainee and began a slow climb up the ranks. Along the way, he married his wife, Sally, in 1970, and was transferred several times, getting the opportunity to live in both Atlanta, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida.
1978 brought King and his wife their first child, Katy. Having grown up in a big family, he wanted a big family, and he and Sally ultimately had five children -- Katy, Peter, John, James, and Molly, who is now almost 20. "I have a wonderful family," King says, emphasizing once again how important his wife and children are to him. "That's my hobby. My family is my hobby."
While he enjoyed the experience of getting to live in different places and see various parts of the country, King and his family eventually settled in Westport, Connecticut. In 1984, he became a regional vice president for Katz, and had responsibility for 300 people in 24 offices around the country.
As 1988 approached and his children grew, King decided he wanted them to attend the same private school he'd gone to. Another move was in order, this time to St. Louis. He didn't have a job waiting for him -- he really had no idea what he'd do when the family got there. He'd been a part-owner in Katz for awhile by then, and thought he wanted to take those assets and buy a company of some sort. He investigated several, but nothing 'clicked.'
To his surprise, his father offered to sell him his business. "I had no idea he was looking to retire until that moment," King says. "We took a look at it, and in 1988, we did buy his company." King Innovation was born. The company then consisted of only three people, and was focused on selling the King Drain, one of his father's inventions.
In the first couple of years, King focused on improving existing products and getting more customers. But he was looking to expand and in 1989, based on customer feedback, he and his team first conceived of the waterproof wire connectors.
At the time, he had no idea it would take him so far. He simply felt, as his father had so often before him, that he was solving a problem that needed to be solved.
In 1995, King decided he wanted to start manufacturing his goods, not just selling and marketing them. The company moved into a 20,000 square foot building -- seven times the size of their previous facility -- and began to build a factory, hiring engineers, finance people, sales people, and more. "Had we known what it was going to take, we might not do it again," he laughs.
"It's quality people who've made our company what it is today," King says. "I never take credit for things I didn't do. I didn't grow this company; they did." King's warm feelings for his employees are obviously shared by them as well. King hopes to continue to expand his product line and improve existing products.
He also continues to enjoy his family -- he and Sally welcomed their first grandchildren less than six months ago. "Jupiter, Florida, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, are suddenly the hot vacation spots for us because that's where the grandkids are," says King, with a practically audible grin on his face.
It's this kind of focus on family that made my chat with Herb King so enjoyable. It can be such a challenge to balance work with home life -- it was fabulous to meet someone who's managed to get the mix just right. Herb King proves that you can still be an enormously successful businessman while maintaining family as your number-one priority.