As a teenager, Josh Savage was a handy kid who helped out at his dad's South Side plumbing business.

But Savage never envisioned himself an entrepreneur or owner of the business.

"My dad worked very hard, sometimes seven days a week," recalled Josh Savage of Pete Savage. The elder Savage owned the company for 28 years, spending many nights and weekends wrestling furnaces and kitchen pipes. "My dad said, 'You go to college so you don't have to [work like this].' "

Twenty years later, Savage, 37, is a college graduate. And the owner with his wife, Sheree, of Uptown Plumbing, now located in north Minneapolis.

And they've got a growth story on their hands.

"We're a premium shop that takes care of our customers and our employees," said Josh Savage.

When they bought it in 2010, the residential plumbing, heating and cooling business had sales of $1.8 million and several employees. Now, Uptown employs 50 workers and generates sales of nearly $10 million.

Unlikely owner

Josh Savage, seasoned by work as a mechanic as well as commander of a combat-engineering outfit in the Iraq war, always has enjoyed a challenge.

After high school, Savage attended technical school to become an auto mechanic. He also worked for the U.S. Forest Service. That was followed by an undergraduate degree from St. Cloud State University, where he met Sheree, who was studying graphic design and working nights.

They joined the Minnesota National Guard after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They married in 2004.

"Sheree and I both got to go to airborne school," said Josh about an early adventure in a marriage that also has produced two children.

Josh Savage credits his experience commanding a 42-troop combat engineering outfit in Iraq in 2007-08 with helping him believe that he also could build a successful small business. After all, usually in business nobody is shooting at you. This month, he was named a 2015 Veterans' Voices awardee of the Minnesota Humanities Center. It recognizes veterans who "are thriving and making extraordinary contributions in their communities."

Josh Savage's Minnesota National Guard unit was composed of talented citizen-soldiers: carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other skilled professionals. Every day, during the so-called "surge" that involved a troop buildup and moving U.S. and Iraqi troops into tough neighborhoods to stabilize a deteriorating situation, his unit would drive up to three hours from the Baghdad Airport, escorted by combat infantry, to build or renovate safe outposts.

"I received a Bronze Star for the accomplishments of my platoon," Savage said. "We improved the lives of American soldiers in the worst parts of Baghdad. We'd show up and build hot showers and fix the electrical systems … so soldiers didn't electrocute themselves. We did four times as much as the active-duty unit we replaced in terms of square-footage built, wire and equipment installed. My soldiers had the [civilian] construction experience. My guys were more experienced.

"It was very stressful there. But we were very fortunate. I didn't lose any soldiers. They all came home. That was the greatest accomplishment."

Discharged in 2010, Josh Savage had saved his military pay for a down payment on his dad's business.

He also had a plan to grow the firm, which was tucked into a 350-square foot leased space off Lake Street and four trucks. By 2011, business was growing and Savage moved to a much larger space on Washington Avenue N. The North Side landlord offered a cheaper rate for the 6,000 square feet of space and ample off-street parking.

Teamwork

Sheree Savage, who was moonlighting for Uptown nights at the kitchen table, left a job as director of community and digital services with the St. Paul library system in 2013 to sign on with Uptown as marketing and recruiting director.

"I needed her a lot," said Josh Savage. "We would not be where we are today if she had not come on full time."

Savage also credits Uptown's expansion to quality work by his union plumbers, word-of-mouth referrals and a neighborhood-based marketing plan that relies on community newspaper advertising.

Moreover, Uptown has leased three small buildings, decorated with its name and logo, in south, north and northeast Minneapolis that community groups and even families can rent free of charge for meetings, workshops, community fundraisers and more. Uptown also sponsors several neighborhood farmers markets.

"Our trucks are probably our best advertising," said Josh Savage of the red vehicles adorned with "Uptown Man" and a radiator. "My marketing strategy is … to intertwine with communities like a vine."

Jack Tester, who runs national peer group for a group of independent heating, cooling and plumbing companies, including Uptown, said the Savages have achieved extraordinary growth in a slow-growth industry.

"He's strategic, not a dreamer who can't get past the whiteboard," Tester said. "Josh laid out a detailed plan, and he's executing. He's also a man of the people. Josh dresses like a technician with a blue shirt that says 'Uptown.' He learns by talking to industry people. He knows and learns from his people. And from his mistakes.'