Thursday, June 23, 2011

Interview: KEH Camera Founder King Grant Jr.

We're starting a new series on the blog called “Questions for King” where you, our readers, can pose questions to King Grant Jr., the Founder and CEO of KEH. To kick it off, we sat down with King to ask him about the founding and growth of the company.

How did you first get involved with photography, and how did that lead to you starting KEH?

I started taking pictures on my own in the late 60s and early 70s as a hobby, mostly pictures of my kids growing up or photographs from family trips. I also had a dark room in my home where I would develop and print my own work.

Then, in the early 70s, I sold a consumer finance business and needed a hobby while I was looking for my next business opportunity, so I started collecting cameras. I had become interested in collecting because I had found that one of my first cameras, which was a Retina 3C, had become a collectible. That fascinated me and so I started going by camera stores to see what they had traded in, looking mainly for Leicas, early cameras, and other collectibles. I eventually had a whole room in my house filled up with cameras— I would offer to show them to guests when they came by, but strangely enough not many people were interested!

My hobby of collecting continued until one Sunday I went to church and the preacher said he was going to talk about idols. And I said to myself, “That sounds sort of dull.” However, the more he talked about what an idol was, the more it started sounding like my camera collection. He defined an idol as anything that comes between you and God, or you and your family. And I knew I had spent an inordinate amount of time looking for cameras, and that it had come between me and my family, so I decided based on that conviction to sell my cameras.

I placed a series of ads in Shutterbug Magazine and ended up selling the cameras to about 400 people. I  kept all of the names, addresses, and records of what people had bought because I thought that might be valuable information someday.

About four years later, after leaving another business, I once again needed something to do. So, I prayed and asked the Lord if I could just buy cameras and turn around and sell them. I felt like the answer was, “That’s fine, but just don’t keep any of them.” So I started the business and it grew and grew until one day I turned around and it looked like I was in the camera business!

How did you decide on the name “KEH”?

I was on vacation with my kids and I engaged them about what we should name the business. They had been sort of pooh-poohing the whole idea so I asked them what they thought about using the first letter of each of their names – King, Eleanor, and Hugh – thinking this would get them more excited. We first came up with HEK (“heck”) but that didn’t sound very good, so we ended up with KEH. They still didn’t care much for it, but that was how we got the name.

Tell me about the growth of the business. What did that look like?

The business started with me buying and selling cameras through Shutterbug ads, using a personal office I had had prior to the camera business. At that time, the business was being run under my personal name “King Grant,” but then after six months we switched over to the name KEH Camera Brokers, which was in 1979.

The next major step in the business’ history was acquiring a company called Atlanta Photo Supply, which gave us our first storefront location. We soon-after moved into a larger building that was about 12,000 square feet and was one of the largest stores in Atlanta at that time. The store was successful but because we were primarily a mail-order business, we would often have someone buying an item on the phone while someone else was trying to buy it at the counter. So given that situation and the increasing success we were having with mail-order, we decided to just be entirely mail-order. We haven’t had a storefront since then, although we do allow people who wish to sell to us, or people with items for repair, to come directly to our offices as a convenience to them.

The next major transition in the business was moving on to the Internet. We had our first website in 1996, which listed products for sale but still required you to order by phone. And then in December of 1999 we went live with a new website that allowed for direct purchasing through the web.

What have you enjoyed the most about starting and running KEH?

Well, I’ve enjoyed watching the company grow, I’ve enjoyed dealing with many customers for as long as 30 years, I’ve enjoyed watching those customers grow in their photography skills and success, and I’ve enjoyed being part of an industry that has such a strong creative dynamic to it. Most importantly though, I have enjoyed seeing our employees grow and prosper.

What’s been the most challenging part about starting and running KEH?

Maintaining an organized and controlled system in the midst of increased growth was definitely one of our biggest challenges. As many people in the camera business could probably attest to, when you start small and only have a handful of employees it is fairly simple. However, with more growth comes more complexity, more people, and more infrastructure, and this makes maintaining organization, efficiency, and profits more of a challenge. Becoming computerized helped, but the business is still many times more complex than someone looking in from the outside would think.

What kind of advice might you have for someone thinking of starting a company?

They ought to find something that they enjoy, try to become an expert in that particular field, and be determined to know more about it than anyone else. They should then try to break the components of their business down to their simplest parts so they can create an organized and automated system that will essentially run itself. Once they get their business organized around a concept that works for them, they should apply their resources toward growing it as fast as they can manage it, and as fast as their resources will allow.  Also, they should try and keep their valuable employees by seeing to it that they make good money.

Thanks for your time King.

Thank you.