Kirk Umphrey Talks Business

April 1, 2023
Looking back on the big events that shaped a stellar career.

When you grow up pulling cows out of a river, becoming a successful owner, top franchiser, and industry leader in the quick lube industry isn’t actually such a tough feat.

“One of the things that helped my career the most, overall, was growing up on a farm,” confirms Kirk Umphrey, CEO of Lube Management Corp. in Sandy, Utah. “My uncle had a ranch in Idaho, and I’d spend each summer there, working from the day school let out until it started back up.”

On the farm, Umphrey’s father and his uncle instilled a rock-solid work ethic into the young muscle car fan—an asset that has served him well to the present day as he looks back over a long and distinguished career.

Professional Snapshot

Today, Umphrey owns 63 Jiffy Lube stores, having grown his portfolio from 35 after an initial purchase in May 1999.

In 2007, he took controlling interest in a title company to help facilitate all the real estate acquisitions for his Jiffy Lube and other real estate investments.

Then in 2008, Umphrey purchased what would become the first of his Mighty Auto Parts franchises, its initial location ultimately becoming the highest volume franchise in the chain. Looking to become his own supplier for the Jiffy Lube stores, except for the oil, he notes, due to his stores’ contract with Pennzoil. Fast-forward to recent years, however, and he says, “we ended up doing some of the oil too because of the shortage.”

In line with his ability to move where the market leads and to anticipate that movement, Umphrey also opened the first of several successful full-service auto shops in 2012.

“We were turning away too much business in our Jiffy Lube stores, unapproved services we were not allowed to provide, and we knew those customers and wanted to be able to help them,” he says. “So we opened the stores to serve them.”

Not surprisingly, quick lube isn’t the only type of business that Umphrey has excelled at throughout his career. When he started in the business, he was a CPA, a realtor, and a general contractor, as well.

What It Takes

When asked for the traits a person needs to reach the highest levels of success, Umphrey is modest but blunt.

“You obviously need some level of intelligence to be able to move big things forward. Then, you must be hard-working, dedicated, and willing to put in the time,” he notes. “Another big one: you must be willing to ask for help.”

Help oftentimes comes in the form of people, Umphrey has found over time. “If you’ve got good people, lean on them. In an organization as big as mine I couldn’t do it all even if I wanted. People are the key. I selected good people way back in the day when I acquired the stores.”

To lend perspective, many of the people he took on in 1999 are still with him today. And three people who are part of that initial group have worked their way into equity positions.

“Picking the right people, working with them and mentoring them, and providing them with a good work environment is key,” he stresses. “Of course you need good pay, but it’s not just that. You need a good environment, to be flexible, and to treat your people with respect.”

Expanding on that thought, the quick lube industry Midas says any business owner’s success ultimately boils down to three chief components: people, customers, and profit, in that order.

Of these, Umphrey notes, “People are really the key, because customers will like you when you have the right people, and then you can’t help but be profitable.”

Acquire Amiably

On the topic of acquisition, Umphrey offers this important piece of financial advice: “You make your money on the buy, not the sell. So make sure you don’t overpay for an acquisition.”

Another piece of wisdom has to do with treating people respectfully and giving them opportunities once an acquisition is made. Looking back to an earlier time in his career, when he was president of Q Lube, he remembers what it felt like to be on the selling end of the business equation during an acquisition.

Prior to 1998, Q Lube and Jiffy Lube were chief rivals—with Jiffy Lube owned by Pennzoil and Q Lube by Quaker State. Then, at the corporate level of Quaker State, “in negotiations way above my pay-grade,” Umphrey says, the two competitors merged.

“After the initial shock of learning that our primary competitor was buying us, to find out we were becoming Jiffy Lube was a tough pill to swallow,” he admits. But after several months of due diligence, he says, the transition worked out. He was even able to help Jiffy Lube work through some of the business implications of the merger, helping original employees retain positions, retraining them, and helping them to move forward within the organization.

“In Salt Lake, like many other markets, there were Jiffy Lube and Q Lube franchises together with different owners, so we had to figure out how to deal with that conflict, as well,” Umphrey shares.

Following the business merger, and after having worked at Q Lube for 15 years, Umphrey knew literally everyone. “When I bought my stores I hand-picked the people I wanted out of Q Lube—operations, accounting, IT, purchasing, development, etc. And that made the transition fairly simple. It certainly helped move a new business forward.”

One of the associates that Umphrey held onto from the Q Lube days was Justin Soha, now vice president of Lube Management Corp., who has worked with and for Umphrey since 1994. Of Umphrey’s personal acquisitions strategy over the years, Soha notes, “He’s always shopping, always patient and looking for good opportunities, and making sure he has the right people and the right team in place. His business grows when it makes sense, not just for adding more stores or looking good on paper.”

Pay It Forward

In line with treating others respectfully and helping out wherever possible, Umphrey supports and works with charitable organizations that make a difference in the communities they serve.

One of them is the Boomer Esiason Foundation, a patient advocacy leader for the cystic fibrosis community that offers grants and gives a voice to patients and their families.

“One of my partners played football with Boomer back in the day, when the Bengals went to the Super Bowl (XXIII) and played the San Francisco 49ers,” Umphrey says.

In an effort to help raise money for the foundation, Umphrey and his partners offered their Jiffy Lube customers in the Utah and Oregon markets a free coupon book, valued at $100, one month out of every year. For every coupon the customers used during a specified time period, their names would go into a drawing to attend a Monday night football game, now the NFL game of their choice, he notes.

To date, the coupon program has raised just shy of $2 million for the Boomer Esiason Foundation, where Umphrey’s football-playing partner is a member of the board.

Consider the Future

Even though Umphrey has a long and successful career behind him, he is still keenly keeping an eye on the road ahead. In the automotive industry, he has learned, one must always be able to change as the industry changes.

“Our industry is on the cusp of huge change if electric vehicles are as successful as some hope,” he notes. And Umphrey thinks they will be—although slowly over time.

“We must learn what we can service and figure out how to do it,” he says of the inevitable electric fleet.

Just 20 years ago, he notes, the industry went through a similar transition when vehicles became heavily computerized. “We figured that out and we’ll do the same thing with EV’s,” he notes.

Cultivate a Work/Life Balance

Any words of wisdom gleaned from Umphrey’s vast experience would be incomplete without adding some lessons he learned the hard way. For example, he says his first 15 years in the business took a toll on his personal life because he spent too much time on the road.

“Balance has gotten much easier in the past few years with my children in the business and my three key guys that run the business,” he says. “They’ve stepped up through the mentorship program, and I’m a figurehead at this point.”

Today, he and his second wife enjoy time with their five grown children and six grandchildren. “And three of our kids haven’t started having kids yet,” he says of the growing brood.

In a cabin up above Salt Lake, the whole gang rides snow mobiles, which Umphrey describes as “enjoyable as anything you can do.” Golfing and time on a houseboat at Lake Powell are other pastimes they love.

And today, as always, Umphrey is a fan of muscle cars, collecting his favorites from the 1960s and 1970s.   

About the Author

Carol Badaracco Padgett

Carol Badaracco Padgett is an Atlanta-based writer who covers the automotive industry, film and television, architectural design, and other topics for media outlets nationwide. A FOLIO: Eddie Award-winning editor, writer, and copywriter, she is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and holds a Master of Arts in communication from Mizzou’s College of Arts & Science. 

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