NC Trend: Entrepreneurship ZoomUp
Griffin Brothers’ ZoomUp is filling a void, one blue-collar business at a time.
The push for younger generations to pursue traditional four-year degrees and take white-collar jobs has led to a blue-collar labor shortage. With the average age of U.S. plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters topping 40, according to market-research firm Data USA, many will likely retire over the next decade. Just how are millennials and Gen Zers going to get their toilets fixed?
The multigenerational void is no threat to Mike Griffin. “As an entrepreneur, I see this as an opportunity: There is constant demand and limited supply of people doing it,” he says. So he’s created ZoomUp, mixing private equity investing with training for blue-collar businesses.
Griffin’s father, Larry, and uncle, Ronnie, formed the first Griffin Brothers Tire Sales store in downtown Charlotte in 1961 and later added nine more locations around Charlotte. Mike joined the family business and helped it expand beyond tires. The company now owns or has partnerships in waste management, real estate, a microbrewery, and a downtown rooftop space for events.
In 2016, the Griffin family sold its tire and auto repair business, while retaining its other operations.
Given his experience in car repair, Griffin had a vision of connecting young leaders with so-called “dirty jobs.” It became a reality when he met Austin Helms while serving as a judge for an entrepreneurship competition at UNC Chapel Hill. Helms was a finalist in the program.
“I instantly fell in love with Austin’s passion, but I hated his business plan,” Griffin says. “However, passion can be more important than a business plan sometimes.”
Helms felt the entrepreneurial bug at age 7, when he started selling candy out of shoeboxes at his sister’s grade school basketball games. He later formed startups such as archery and car-washing businesses.
After the Chapel Hill meeting, Griffin offered Helms an apprenticeship to recruit other young, passionate people to fill gaps in blue-collar occupations. The assignment evolved into what Helms termed ZoomUp: a leg of Griffin Brothers focused on “zooming” businesses through ambitious individuals, or Zoomers, not afraid to get their hands dirty.
ZoomUps share a similar goal “to put a foothold in a particular industry and laser-focus to grow it into a nationwide brand,” Griffin says.
Helms is now majority owner and founder of Ease Plumbing and Air, which is funded by ZoomUp. The business opened in August 2019 when Helms partnered with Derek Thornburg, who had a plumbing license and decades of experience. Ease Plumbing reported $1.35 million in revenue in its first year. It has since expanded into ventilation services by partnering with Cornelius-based Cool Comfort Heating and Air.
“ZoomUp allows me to hire the best people and gives me the financial support to supply clean trucks, brand-new tools and other things your typical business owner may not have,” Helms says.
“Having a family behind you saying, ‘We believe in you,’ allows me to focus on growing the business. ZoomUp is an incredible opportunity for someone who is not scared to get dirty and someone who doesn’t mind getting humbled really early.”
Zoomers are typically 25 to 35 and are college graduates, though a degree isn’t required. Zoomers are then matched with a “recession-proof” business, such as plumbing, HVAC, electrical and septic systems, as a startup, acquisition or investment.
Griffin Brothers holds a 10% to 15% stake in the Zooomer companies, which have added about 100 employees to the overall enterprise.It’s more than just capital, however. Griffin also offers advice, support and encouragement as Zoomers navigate day-to-day challenges.
“In life you have some road humps and potholes. My goal is to help them get over those humps smoother and work around the potholes,” he says.
“Nothing is straight linear — there will always be ups and downs. My goal as a mentor is to help smooth them out and make it less bumpy.”
Jimmy Giler and his wife, Maegan, founded Viva Electric in January 2018, then partnered with the Griffins in March 2019. Viva Electric wants to expand beyond Charlotte next year and has a goal of being “the fastest growing and biggest service-based electrical company in the region.”
“I am not a corporate guy,” Jimmy Giler says. “I like to get dirty, sweaty, cold, wet, muddy — all that fun stuff all tradesmen have to do to provide for their families. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” ■