A Marketer Looks at Forty

“The story of Sales Factory is really the story of my father.” 


The 40th anniversary of the Greensboro, NC marketing and consumer research firm finds CEO George “Ged” King working from his family’s beach house on Bald Head Island. He’s the fifth person in a long line of Kings to bear that name and the first to graduate from college. A natural progression, according to Ged, who points out that his father preceded him as the first in the family to finish high school.


Anyone with a passing familiarity with the lore of the family business has heard that Sales Factory came to life with the Dustbuster. For its team of 70 marketing strategists, creatives, and data analysts, the world’s most recognizable handheld vacuum has become a symbol of effective consumer listening and meaningful innovation. It was also the senior George King’s first brainchild. 


“My father founded this company in 1984,” says Ged, “but if you really want to begin at the beginning, you’d have to start much earlier, in the mailroom of the Seagram Building.


“Picture a scrappy, Irish Brooklynite. That’s my father. He went to work for Seagram, and before long, everyone realized that he could deliver two floors of mail in the time it took anyone else to deliver one floor. He had this tremendous aptitude and was very talented at drawing and painting. Somehow — and I don’t know how — he got promoted to the art department.” 


Evidence of George’s artistic talent covers the beach house. “Everything you see here is done by my father or my son, who has that same gift.”


George’s work creating product labels for Seagram did more than showcase his creativity. As he submitted designs for market testing, he got his first exposure to consumer research — an interest that only deepened as he accepted a position in advertising and product development at Black + Decker and moved his young family to Baltimore. 


“One of my clearest early childhood memories is visiting the museum at Black + Decker’s corporate headquarters,” says Ged. “There was this life-size spacesuit with a dummy inside holding the Black + Decker moon drill against a backdrop of outer space.




“The space race sparked this huge national interest in tech. The drill that Black + Decker put on the moon was battery-operated — the next big thing. It was my dad’s job to understand the technology, talk to end users, and use those findings to bring new products to market. He actually found that consumers distrusted cordless tools because early battery tech was so bad.”


As George interviewed countless end users about their experiences with power tools, a surprising trend emerged: despite their frustrations with battery-powered drills, people expressed an interest in a lightweight, cordless vacuum cleaner that could allow them to clean small messes without wrestling their upright Hoover. After advocating for his idea for 3 years, the Dustbuster finally went into production.


What happened next was the beginning of an identity crisis for Black + Decker. The difficulties that consumers had with their line of cordless power tools didn’t carry over to household appliances. “The research showed that women were just better at remembering to charge the batteries,” Ged says with a half smile. 


With the overnight success of the Dustbuster, Black + Decker saw an opportunity to move out of the garage and into the home. The company bought GE’s small appliance division, adding its name to a myriad of kitchen gadgets. While the move itself was profitable, the change in image caused power tool sales to plummet. 


“The construction guys didn’t want to use their wife’s toaster brand on the job site,” Ged shrugs, “and the rest is history.”  



The changes to Black + Decker’s business landscape soon brought changes for the King family. George’s experience as both a marketer and consumer researcher had placed him in rooms with too many brilliant creatives who knew a lot about advertising but fairly little about business. After years of commuting to Manhattan to moderate focus groups and shoot celebrity endorsement commercials in CBS Studios, George relocated his wife and children to Greensboro, NC. 


Removed from a culture of flashy ads and boozy boardroom meetings, George saw the need for an entirely different kind of advertising agency: one that based its creative decisions on industry and consumer data. 


George’s artistic talent was uniquely balanced by Irish practicality. “He wanted to bring that user-first mentality to an ad agency — one that drove sales by understanding the user and solving real problems. Hence the name, Sales Factory.” 


Ged sets a scene that many of today’s Sales Factory employees are too young to remember. “It was 1984. There was no internet. Marketing research was done by observation, phone calls, or focus groups. The quant side of the research we do today was my initiative, but the idea that we needed research… that was my dad.”


Ged recalls the earliest days of the company: “My father would start work each day at 10:00. When I was a college student home for the summer, we would go for a huge, long lunch when my mother arrived at noon, and then we would all work until 7:00 or 8:00 at night and go out for dinner. 


George and Lynn


“It was a lifestyle business. I see that so clearly in hindsight. I think profitability was secondary to my parents. Sales Factory was a way for us all to be together, but I don’t think I realized it at the time.” 


Following his graduation from NC State, Ged accepted a marketing role with the Wisconsin-based playset company, Swing-N-Slide. After leading the business to huge growth and a NASDAQ public offering, he decided to return to Sales Factory.


“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says, “but I thought I did. That’s a dangerous combination. From where I’m sitting now, I see that this great victory with Swing-N-Slide was virtually guaranteed because the concept was so good. I was a cocky 23-year-old with a company plane.”


Young and ambitious, Ged was determined to replicate the success he’d had at Swing-N-Slide with his father’s company.


“My dad was content to keep drawing package designs and creating printing plates by hand. We had the capacity to do, maybe, one catalog and 3 package designs in a year. The first thing I did was buy a MacIntosh computer and take on a package assignment. I wanted to prove to my father that the way he and Jack Ketrow were doing art was no longer viable.


“If you ask Jack, I’m sure he’ll tell you that 25-year-old me was an asshole.”



If Jack Ketrow, the first non-family employee of Sales Factory, remembers calling a young Ged King an asshole, he keeps it to himself. 




Jack first met George King when he was working as a freelance designer. After a chance run-in at the home of a mutual friend, the two struck up a partnership that eventually turned into a full-time position. 


“George was insistent that his children get outside experience before coming to work for him,” Jack recalls. “Once George and Ged decided that he would leave Swing-N-Slide for Sales Factory in 1986, I was the one they sent after him. 


“I flew up for a meeting with one of our Chicago-based clients. Ged picked me up at the airport, and afterward, we drove to Madison, Wisconsin, got a U-Haul, and headed to Greensboro with his Miata hitched to the trailer. It took two and a half days.” 


Jack describes a business that relied heavily on in-person networking and general grit. Timely deliverables determined your reputation in the comparatively small, pre-globalization industry community. Despite pulling his share of all-nighters to complete design projects for Sales Factory’s roster of clients, Jack shared George’s preference for hand-sketching concepts.


He points towards an early model MacIntosh desktop, on display in Sales Factory’s lobby. If it is, in fact, the same one that Ged brought in to prove the obsolescence of the old design process, he seems to regard it with nostalgia rather than resentment. “We still have our first computer. I can’t imagine having to do it all the old-fashioned way now, but I do miss the tactile part sometimes.


old imac


“No one was doing research-based marketing back then. It was unheard of. The tools changed the way we operated, but ultimately, having that ability to approach marketing differently saved us from extinction.”


Weathering the changes that took Sales Factory from a six-person family business to a team of 70 has given Jack a singular perspective on the Kings. “Right out of college, Ged was so full of piss and vinegar. And then there was George, who had this tough Brooklyn exterior.” 


He smiles, “I remember once we were traveling by plane to meet with a client. George was terrified of flying but wouldn’t show it.  


“It was the days before in-flight entertainment, so I told him I was going to put my headset on and listen in on the cockpit. I waited a few minutes and turned to him and said, ‘Hey, George, what do you think they mean by Oh my God, oh my God?’ He was white as a sheet.”


Jack trails off, “That was what it meant to know him well. Beneath that toughness was such a kind-hearted individual.” 


He picks a carved wooden box up off his desk and rotates it in his hands, “George gave me this a little more than a year after I came to work for him. He took me to dinner at Lucky 32 and said, ‘Jack, I want you to have this.’ Inside was a check for $1,000. That was so much money to me then.


jacks box


“He was someone who did things like that all the time.”



Within a year of Ged’s return from Wisconsin, George King was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Before his death two years later, it was decided that Ged would take the helm as CEO.


Ged shakes his head. “I wish I’d asked my mother before she passed if he put me in charge so I would get my ass kicked and learn some humility. That had to have been it. There’s no way they actually thought I could do it. 


“The thing about running a six-person company is that, if you screw something up, you’ll quickly become a zero-person company. And that’s exactly what we did.” 


The years that followed George’s death were marked by tragedy. “Jack’s son passed away shortly after my father. Two-thirds of the company was grieving an immediate family member. I didn’t know how to manage a business. In the middle of it all, I got married. We were expecting our first child on December 23rd, 1999 when the bank called to say they were foreclosing on my mother’s house.


“In the space of a few years, I’d gone from flying the company jet plane to begging vendors for extensions. That was the turning point for me.”


matt graduation


Near-ruination gave the newly-minted CEO clarity. When Ged and his brother Matt, who had only recently graduated from college, stumbled onto Char-Broil’s booth at the next National Hardware Show, they were finally ready to present Sales Factory’s data-informed approach to a potential client outside of their father’s business network. 


“We drove back to Chicago to pitch Char-Broil two weeks later. We lied and told them that we flew so they wouldn’t know we couldn’t afford airline tickets. The job was ours.”


That contract pulled the company back from the brink and saved the King family home. 


As more brands recognized the value of research-based marketing, Sales Factory’s business model gained traction. After a partnership with an outside consumer research partner fell through unexpectedly, a mutual friend introduced Ged to Tom Madden, a Professor of Marketing at USC and the inventor of behavioral segmentation. 


“Tom became our marketing research mentor. He was someone who was gathering and analyzing consumer data in all of these brilliant, useful ways. At that time, we were selling our clients on the value of research, but I wanted to be done with relying on outside vendors for that data. He got us ready to carry out that work in-house. 


“Research was our saving grace, along with website building during the dot-com boom. If you think about it, the services that are at the core of our business now: digital marketing and marketing research, didn’t even exist when my father was alive.” 


Ged pauses to look back at his father’s drawings.“Once I stopped trying to be my father, things turned around. I’m not an artist. I’m not a writer. When I relinquished package design and copywriting to people who were better suited to those jobs, the business got better. 


“That was a very important lesson for me, in general. When I was frustrated that Sales Factory couldn’t seem to grow beyond 10 people, I brought in a really savvy colleague to give me some perspective. He interviewed the current employees and informed me that, over and over, I was hiring myself. We may be drawn to people who share our strengths and weaknesses, but that’s not how you build a dynamic team. 


Screenshot 2024-06-20 at 2.16.24 PM“It changed the way I hired.
It changed the way we structured the business.”




Refocused from survival to growth, Ged committed himself to studying how to be an effective CEO. “I recognized the importance of acquisitions. I bought six smaller ad agencies and folded them into ours. It took us from 20 people to 50. Looking around now, we’ve entered a whole new phase of business. We’ve built a team that I trust so completely to manage operations, I’m able to explore my role as an educator.” 


That’s exactly the niche that Ged has carved for himself as an Adjunct Professor of Marketing at Wake Forest University.


When he isn’t lecturing, Ged is pursuing a Master’s in Instructional Design. “Wake Forest initially wanted me to get an MBA, but I’m not interested. I already have an MBA. I’ve almost been bankrupt. I’ve pulled a business back from the brink of destruction. I want to learn something I don’t already know — how to be a better teacher.” 



If there’s a recurrent theme in the consumer behavior forecasts that Sales Factory offers clients and colleagues in its biweekly Consumer Pulse, it’s an ever-accelerating rate of change. The tools that today’s marketers use to reach and understand prospects would be completely unrecognizable to the late George King, but the aim of effective marketing remains the same. 


“I’ve spent my whole life collecting skills and credentials,” Ged remarks. “I think we all want to be smarter than our parents. In my 20s, I thought I was smarter. I was constantly trying to make things different and better. 


“Now, 40 years later, I look around, and I’ll be damned if we aren’t doing exactly what my father was doing. That was the Dustbuster — the recognition that people needed to clean up little spills in their houses. Instead of giving them a drill they didn’t want just because we managed to put one on the moon, he said, Let’s use that technology to solve a problem.


“For all of our technology and education, we’re still asking, Who is the end user and how can brands help them? That’s our legacy.”


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