Carolina connection leads to innovative opportunity

Austin Helms (BSBA ’16) was born for business. His journey as an entrepreneur began early in life and continued as a college student. At UNC Kenan-Flagler, he eagerly dove into the entrepreneurship scene, from developing and testing new ideas to participating in pitch competitions and being selected as a member of the first-ever Adams Apprenticeship cohort. The game-changing program connects “all-in” student entrepreneurs with UNC’s top founders, funders and growth executives, who provide guidance and mentoring to shape, support and speed students’ transition to successful entrepreneurial careers.

We caught up with Helms to learn about his post-grad experiences and how he’s benefited from his journey as an Adams Apprentice so far.

How did you benefit from participating in the Adams Apprenticeship program?
Being a part of the inaugural Adams class, I benefited tremendously from the program. I heard about the program during my junior year (2014) in Jim Kitchen’s class and really didn’t know what to expect. The program allowed me to pitch my startup, Waterless Buddy’s, to tons of local business professionals while also getting to know fellow undergrad and MBA students. That was probably my favorite part – getting to interact with the MBA students. The Adams program made it very easy to connect.

I don’t think I have stopped benefiting from the program. I joked with a few of the Adams folks and said, “It’s going to be awesome to look back one day and remember where we started.” Most of us in the program are aspiring entrepreneurs who want to rule the world – and some of us might very well do so. It’ll be a real treat when we can all come back to the Adams program one day and share those stories.

What was the most valuable part of the Adams Apprenticeship experience for you? 
The people. It’s that simple. The program is filled with ultra-talented members in all facets of business. That answer applies to my entire college career.

How did the UNC network help you connect with Griffin Brothers?
I met Mike Griffin (BSBA ’87), a partner at Griffin Brothers, while competing in the Carolina Challenge. He was one of the judges during the semi-final round of the competition.

During the Q&A section of our pitch, Mike mentioned knowing someone big in the car wash space. Since our business was a waterless car wash, my co-founders and I approached him after everyone had finished to hear his opinion on our business.

Unfortunately, Mike didn’t invest in our company on the spot (I know, shocker), but he wanted to stay in touch and agreed to contact us when he was back in Chapel Hill.

When Mike reached out, the three of us met him at Old Chicago. Long story short, that opportunity helped me develop a relationship with Mike. He became a mentor to me. I would call him to share news about Waterless Buddy’s and he would give me advice. Most of the time Mike would remind me that while he didn’t think the business was sustainable, but it could teach me valuable lessons about entrepreneurship and encouraged me to press on.

Around that time, Mike mentioned something about a job at Griffin Brothers. Over the years, he hired two UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA grads for the position. I knew the job was similar to an entrepreneurial apprenticeship, but he never really got into specifics until the fall of my senior year. One day, I woke up to a text (maybe it was 11 a.m., but it was senior year) that said, “Hey Austin, we have an extra Blue Zone ticket if you want to join us.” Of course I jumped up, threw on my UNC polo and headed to the game. Little did I know, Mike was giving me a little interview. A few weeks later, I had a job offer on the table.

The funny part about this whole situation is that I never saw myself in Charlotte post-graduation. I was dead set on going to the West Coast or working on my own startup. However, the greatest things that have happened to me in my life have been unplanned.

It just so happened that Mike was an Adams Advisor, so the entire situation really came full circle. The program affected me in a way that I never expected.


Describe your job at Griffin Brothers.
I am an entrepreneurial apprentice, which means I do a lot of different things. Griffin Brothers is a family business involved with real estate, country club management, construction and demolition (C&D) waste, and a diverse range of other entrepreneurial endeavors. I tell my friends that this might be the only job in the country where you can be on a landfill and working with a wedding planner in the same day.

I am a project manager for some parts of the business and work directly with Mike and COO John Brown to brainstorm new ideas/businesses for Griffin Brothers to pursue. We also look for businesses that have legacy challenges or companies that “nobody wants to do,” which usually have higher margins. Mike has coined this “BUB” – buying ugly businesses.

Why did this opportunity appeal to you?
It appealed to me for a few reasons:

  • Mike. If you have the opportunity to meet Mike, you quickly learn that he is a great business person who loves to develop young entrepreneurs.
  • It is an opportunity like no other. I told myself that accepting a corporate job was something that would be very hard for me to do. Working for the Griffins makes me feel like I am part of the family. It’s fun – and I could tell that it would be from the little time I spent with Mike beforehand.
  • The diversity of the job. If you would’ve told me that post-grad I would be working with an event space, helping build a farm and driving a compactor on a landfill, I would’ve never believed you. This diversity makes it an incredible opportunity.

I am learning how to manage a large company, deal with conflict and adapt to the market. I plan to own multiple companies, and this experience is helping me build a very strong foundation for my career.

In my first two months with the company, I met a diverse group of individuals and grew my personal network. I believe this is because of the strong family name that the Griffins have created.

What are your short-term and long-term career and entrepreneurship goals?
Short term, my goals are to:

  • Publish a book. I wrote a book during my college tenure. The book is written for future college students who want to make the most of their college journey. It will be published in spring 2017.
  • Find an opportunity to pursue under the Griffin Brothers umbrella. I’m looking for a new business opportunity or a potential BUB.

Long term, my goals are to:

  • Own multiple businesses.
  • Take a brand national. When you think about an industry or a product, I want you think about something that I helped create.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your B-School journey?
Do it now. Whatever idea, concept or business that you want to start, just do it. I don’t run the car wash business I started in college anymore, but I didn’t fail!

How did business school help prepare you to navigate the entrepreneurial journey?
Business school opened doors that wouldn’t have otherwise been opened. I can’t thank Jim KitchenDina RoussetTed ZollerTim Flood and others enough for the impact they had during my time at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

What is the best part about being an entrepreneur? What is the most challenging part?
The best part about being an entrepreneur is watching someone use your product or enjoy your service. The most challenging – yet most rewarding – part is definitely the journey. It’s like running a race. You sweat, your body hurts and you want to give up, but when you cross the finish line it makes it all worth it.

By Austin Helms (BSBA ’16)