You may know him for the former Uppy’s Convenience Stores. Or perhaps for Uptown Alley, the upscale bowling center. Or for the 18-story mixed-use residential building just announced for a site next to VCU’s new Institute for Contemporary Art.
You may not know that Steve Uphoff, serial entrepreneur, is also a dedicated aviator and a licensed pilot for 39 years. A former Airport Advisory Board member, he owns a Cirrus and a half interest in a Beechcraft Premier 1A jet, both based at FCI, with an Icon light-sport amphibian on the way.
Uphoff has a low-key manner and looks younger than his 61 years. He recalls he caught the flying bug while in high school in Deerfield Beach, Florida. “My parents bought me an introductory flight, but said that if I wanted to continue, I’d have to earn my own money to pay for it.
“So I worked as a busboy at a local restaurant, the ‘Red Rooster’ and took flying lessons at the Pompano Beach Airport.”
Armed with a pilot’s license and a high school diploma, he applied to the Air Force for a scholarship. They offered it, but with a catch: “They said you passed the tests, but your eyes don’t pass and we’re going to make you a navigator.”
Uphoff didn’t want to sit behind the pilot, so he enrolled and was accepted instead at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, with plans to study aeronautical engineering.
Before his senior year in high school ended, though, “my father dangled the keys to the car and said Steve, do me a favor and drive up to the University of Florida and take a look at their campus before you make a final decision.
“I said sure. No intention of enrolling, of course. I just wanted the day off from school. So I got there and after walking past I think four outside swimming pools with hundreds of co-eds sunning themselves, I thought this was the college for me. I liked being a part of a 35,000-strong campus; Embry Riddle had like 2,000.”
In college, Uphoff majored in mechanized agriculture – essentially engineering – and business. He worked nights and weekends at a gas station, “Campus Amoco,” became a self-taught ASE-Certified Master Mechanic and eventually taught night classes in auto mechanics at the university. Along the way, “I flew from time to time, when I could muster up the money.”
On Monday after his Saturday graduation, he started a 16-year career at Amoco Oil Company. “They were a great mentor and trained me really well,” he recalled.
“Then I went into my own Amoco branded station down in Emporia, built another in Chester, then my wife and I built a Dairy Queen in Petersburg and we just kept building and buying and went through seven successful acquisitions of other oil jobbers and convenience store chains. Then we bought 229 Exxon stations in 2009 and became the largest Exxon distributor in the United States. We brought in a private equity partner and made that partner a lot of money when we sold the stores to Sunoco in 2013.
“We called [the stores] Uppy’s. They became A-1 Plus, which is Sunoco’s brand. Now they’re going to be switched to 7-11. I retained some of the stores here in Richmond and lease them to Sunoco.”
Uphoff said his flying continued during his early years at Amoco, but “Once I had children, I couldn’t get life insurance without a limited payout if killed while acting as pilot in command, PIC. I didn’t want my hobby to affect my kids’ and my wife’s future… I realized that as a pilot you have a responsibility to yourself and to the people you flew with. You couldn’t be a weekend warrior and be a good pilot at the same time.
“So I really stood down from flying for a long time while my [four] children were being raised.
“Then in February, 2005, my kids were grown and I decided to be selfish and start to fly again. I had some money for the first time and I decided to buy an airplane. I didn’t know what to buy and every plane that I brought to my insurance company, they said no, you haven’t flown in a long time and we’re just not comfortable insuring you in this plane.
“Finally they said why don’t you buy a Cirrus? We’ll insure you in a Cirrus. I said what’s a Cirrus? They hadn’t been around that long.
“I bought the plane and they insured me, but required I get an instrument rating.”
Uphoff flew to Duluth, Minn., to take delivery and flew back with a factory instructor pilot. The instructor stayed the week to get Uphoff checked out in VFR flying and to train Becky Luther as a Cirrus Certified Instructor Pilot. Dominion Aviation operated an earlier version of its flight school at the time and Luther was its chief instructor. With her Cirrus factory certification in hand, she trained Uphoff for his instrument rating.
“I didn’t realize how darned hard that ticket is to get,” Uphoff recalled. Despite the demands of his business, though, he applied himself. “Becky is a good instructor, very conscientious. She said she wouldn’t sign me off until she felt comfortable putting my daughter in the back seat of the plane with me flying IFR. It took a while, but I got certified and became an IFR pilot.”
“I remember Steve’s instrument training very well,” Luther said recently. “He earned his rating Dec. 3, 2005.
“Steve has a passion for flying and was an energetic and dedicated student who came prepared for his lessons… He passed his checkride with flying colors.
“Shortly after that he came into my office and said he wanted to buy a jet and the rest is history!”
With help from Dominion Aviation’s Mike Mickel, Uphoff partnered with a local businessman to buy into a Beechcraft Premier 1A, serial #249, in September, 2008. From the start, Dominion has managed the airplane.
“I chose a plane with my partner that’s certified for single-pilot flying because then I could fly in the right seat,” Uphoff explained.
Mickel suggested Jon McCrum, one of Dominion’s staff pilots, to fly for Uphoff and his partner. “We thought he’d be a good fit,” Mickel said. “I interviewed Jon and liked him a lot,” Uphoff recalled. McCrum has been flying for Uphoff and his partner ever since.
Uphoff has opened an Uptown Alley in Changzhou, China, in partnership with a prominent local investor. “I bring my Chinese partners here and I fly them in the jet. It’s not something that you can do in China. They’re worth a lot more money than we are, but for them to fly in a private plane is very, very cool. I’ve taken them down to the Keys fishing and to Wisconsin to our resort and out to Phoenix and Manassas to our bowling centers and they love the experience. It builds confidence with them to fly with somebody in a private plane. They like to do business with people who are successful.
“I’ve taken the jet all over. We’ve been to the Bahamas, Mexico, the Cayman Islands, Canada.” There was also a memorable trip with the family to watch the last Space Shuttle Atlantis launch from Cape Kenney on July 8, 2011. “I don’t take it to China,” he continued, “because it would take multiple fuel stops.”
In the Cirrus “I can go to Wisconsin nonstop. I have a second home up there and a business. I go to Florida and the Keys. We have a business in Homestead and the Keys. I have family in Tampa and I go to Gainesville sometimes, but not nearly enough.”
The Icon will be “just a man’s toy. I live on Lake Chesdin, so I hope I can land on Lake Chesdin while staying away from power lines and boats. It’s just something to play around with. If nothing else, I can sell my [delivery] position for a lot of money.”
Uphoff also has a delivery position for a Cirrus jet – position number 456. It came with the new Cirrus he bought in September, 2011, replacing his original 2005 Cirrus. Will he take delivery? “I don’t know. They’re producing them. It carries five passengers, has a 25,000-foot service ceiling and a single turbine jet engine. I’ll decide by the end of the year. Mike [Mickel] wants me to get it.”
The string connecting Uphoff’s diverse businesses, he said, is that “foremost, we’re a land developer. I like to think we take lemons and make lemonade out of them by finding properties that we feel have potential and then developing those properties to maximize value and give us a return. We have a lot of real estate assets. We’re in seven states and three countries. That demonstrates we’re able to manage properties that are geographically remote. That’s a testament to the good management teams that we fortunate to attract. And having a couple of airplanes does help.”