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November 2004
Growing Different Directions but not Tired Out
By Casey Jacobus

     The Griffin family’s association with the tire and auto repair business dates back to 1940 and a single store located on West TradeStreet in Charlotte. Today Griffin Brothers is a diversified family-owned business with six tire and auto repair stores in the Charlotte area, five construction and demolition landfills in North and South Carolina, and the management of over 150,000 square feet in commercial properties.

     Griffin Brothers Tire Sales was originally Honest Tire Service, founded by Clarence Harrison and Mark Swearinger in 1928. Larry Griffin’s uncle, Frank Todd, bought Swearinger’s half of the business in 1940. When Harrison died in 1961, Larry Griffin acquired his half. A couple of years later, Ronnie Griffin, Larry’s brother, joined the company. They all continued to operate under the name of Honest Tire until Frank Todd retired in 1965, and Larry and Ronnie incorporated the company as Griffin Brothers Tire Sales, Inc. Both brothers worked at the 1545 West Trade Street location until the late ’70s, when Ronnie branched off and opened a new store. The brothers decided to split the company in 1981. Larry Griffin retained the original building and continued to operate under the Griffin Brothers name.

     The business became a family affair again when Larry’s sons, Mike and Larry Jr., joined up in the late ’80s. Mike started working in the administrative department while still in college at UNC Chapel Hill. After graduating in December 1987, Mike became secretary/treasurer and spent the next two years automating the company. Larry’s older son Larry Jr. had graduated from UNC Charlotte in December 1984 and become a real estate broker. In 1988, he started the family’s development business, Griffin Development Company, Inc., to specialize in building custom homes. Then, in 1989, Larry Jr. joined Griffin Brothers Tire Sales, Inc. as vice president.

     During the next 15 years, Griffin Brothers grew from a small tire store with 15 employees and $1.25 million in revenue to a diversified business employing 150 people and revenues of $25 to $30 million. It also expanded into construction and demolition (C&D) landfill management and into property development and management, adding a variety of miscellaneous holdings in other areas as well.

     “Dad laid the foundation for us to be successful with twenty-five years of hard work,” says Mike Griffin. “It was easier to build on that foundation than it would have been to start from scratch.”

     Larry Griffin taught his sons the value of hard work, integrity and patience. He also taught them how to treat customers, putting their interests first. “Dad always said the minute you stop worrying about your own wallet and worry about the customer’s instead, you’ll be rich,” says Mike.

 

Widening the Tread

     It was a customer at the tire and auto repair shop who convinced Larry Griffin to invest in the landfill business: In 1988, he purchased a 37.5 percent interest in North Mecklenburg Landfill, Inc. In 1993, he purchased the rest of the business and by 1994 Larry Sr. was focusing most of his attention on expanding the C&D landfill division.

     “After 25 years behind the counter of the tire store, Dad fell in love with the landfill business,” says Mike. “He applied the same skills he learned in the tire business to the landfill business.”

     Today the North Mecklenburg Landfill in Huntersville is one of the largest C&D landfills in North Carolina. Griffin Brothers also owns Mining Road Landfill in Lancaster County (S.C.), the Highway 49 Landfill in Cabarrus County, and the Highway 55 C&D Landfill near Raleigh. In 2004, the company opened its fifth landfill, Marion County C&D Landfill, in Mullins, S.C., near Myrtle Beach. Two other projects in South Carolina and Alabama are in the works.

     Mike, who spends much of his time locating sites for new landfills and dealing with public hearings and the politics of getting the necessary permits and approvals, says the landfill business has changed dramatically in the past fifteen years.

     “It used to be landfills were located on farmland way out in the country on rural two-lane roads,” he says. “Now we have to locate sites near the growth with better road access and minimal residential impact. This is very hard to find and much more expensive to acquire. Most people think we accept household garbage, but it is only construction materials or trees and inert debris. I prefer to call it a reclamation effort. The real challenge is educating people on the difference between C&D facilities and garbage landfills.

     Last year Griffin Brothers signed a 30-year franchise agreement with Harrisburg to process the town’s yard waste and opened a composting and reprocessing center for the town of Apex as well as commercial customers. Mike says these private/public partnerships with host towns will be the cornerstone of the company’s future expansion plans. Just this year the company entered into a unique relationship with Marion County which allows it to operate the county landfill.

 

Rolling Along

     When Larry Jr. joined the company in 1989, he took over the tire and auto repair division and immediately began preparing it for expansion. In 1991, Griffin Brothers opened its 12,500-square-foot store in Cornelius equipped with 12 bays, a showroom and offices. Another store in the University area followed in 1996 with a third and fourth opening in Mooresville and Concord in 2000. In 2002 Griffin Brothers added Haefner Tire, an existing store in Lincolnton with over 50 years of experience and a very loyal base of customers, to its inventory. The company’s seventh location  ‰ will open in south Charlotte near Pineville next summer.

     “While our original store is still open on West Trade Street, our new locations are mostly centered in suburban locations,” says Larry Jr. “This reflects the evolution of the business from commercial to retail. During the early ’80s we were servicing more commercial customers with fleets of cars or trucks. Now the bulk of our customers are individuals with 2.5 kids and 2.5 cars.”

     While Mike spends much of his time in the office behind the computer dealing with financial aspects of the business, Larry Jr. supervises the 80 to 90 employees at the tire stores and travels between the six locations. This division of labor is just one of the things that makes the family business run successfully.

     “Because we have multiple businesses, we each have different responsibilities,” says Mike. “That way we don’t step on each other’s toes. We operate pretty independently.”

     “We don’t necessarily see each other every day,” adds Larry Jr. “Although we have lunch together every Tuesday, we basically do our own thing. Mike’s more the financial type, while I deal with the guys in the shop and the real estate.”

 

Treading on Real Estate

     Larry Jr.’s background in real estate helped propel Griffin Brothers into the arena of property development and management. As a licensed real estate broker in North and South Carolina and a licensed general contractor, he is responsible for the daily operations of this division.

     Griffin Bros. Acquisitions, LLC (GBA) was formed in 1996 and developed Waterside Landing, a waterfront community in Iredell County, in partnership with Niblock Builders which contracted all the lots and built the project. Another residential development, Madison Court, followed in 1998. Located in Cornelius, this project had two different builders and price points, Madison Village and McKenzie Place.

     In 1997, GBA started its most ambitious project, which is ongoing today. Waterside Crossing is a mixed-used development on 326 acres at the intersection of Highways 16 and 73 in Lincoln County. It includes a 19-acre retail site anchored by Harris Teeter and Blockbuster, a 15-acre office/medical park, 134 town homes being built by Torrey Homes and Parker & Orleans Homes, and 524 single family homes being built by Niblock Development and Parker & Orleans Homes. It also includes about a dozen out parcels, some of which are being bought by restaurant chains wanting to expand into Lincoln County.

     In 1998, GBA developed a 22,000-square-foot two-story multi tenant office building in Cornelius, of which Griffin Brothers itself occupies 4,000 square feet. It also owns the property on which four Petro Express convenience stores operate in the Charlotte area. And, just this year, GBA acquired a golf course.

     Mike and Larry Jr. grew up in west Charlotte near the Pine Island Country Club, a 132-acre private golf course. In recent years, Pine Island was suffering from the need to make improvements with not enough capital to make them. It was losing members and close to bankruptcy when GBA stepped in.

     “It’s a new endeavor for us,” says Mike, “but we had an emotional attachment to Pine Island. Despite the saturation of the market with golf courses, we believed that if we spent money on improving the facility, we would attract members. It’s the old chicken and the egg thing.”

     GBA plans to tear down the old clubhouse and build a new one, along with a Junior Olympic-size swimming pool. The plans alone have attracted new members with membership growing from 160 to 270 since the beginning of June. Larry Jr., who attended college on a golf scholarship, is particularly eager about the Pine Island project.

     “We’re risk takers,” he notes. “Getting into the golf course business at this point takes some optimism.”

 

Swinging into the Future

     The current Griffin brothers are both highly optimistic about the future. They believe that all three businesses operating under the Griffin Brothers’ umbrella will continue to grow over the next ten years. Three new landfill projects are in the works and a new tire and auto shop is scheduled to open near Pineville in the summer of 2005. Their experience with Waterside Crossing has been a “learning” experience, which Mike says could prove extremely important in the future. And, golf course management is a brand new avenue for the company.

     Larry Jr. has four children, 13, 11 and six-year old twins, while Mike has a 2-year old son and a baby girl on the way. Both indicate they would be happy for any of their children to join the business when the time comes, if they are interested. Continuing to diversify means there will be plenty of opportunities for the next generation. And, the nature of a privately owned family business is that it can react to challenges quickly while holding open certain possibilities until the market is ready.

     “Publicly traded companies are under pressure to develop profits in the short term in a way we aren’t,” says Mike. “Pine Island Golf Course wouldn’t look good on their balance sheets. We’re looking for the long term gain.”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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