After 25 years working shirt-and-tie managerial jobs for companies like McDonalds and Speedway SuperAmerica and Gordon Food service, James Mobley cashed in an early retirement and hit the road with his then-wife and two boys.
For seven months, the family traveled across the country. The odometer on their Volkswagen Westafalia increased over 17,000 miles while the crew rolled through 22 states and 20 national parks.
During the road trip, James had time for reflection about his career and the future, which gave way to a realization: “Why are you wearing ties?! You don’t even like ties!”
He loved rock climbing, and more than anything, he simply wanted to grow a beard. But he was forced to maintain a “professional” appearance, and his boss would scold him for not being “available” every time his weekends were filled with clipping bolts in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge.
“On that trip, I finally realized how mentally tweaked I was, and how every second was ‘gogogo!’” James said. “I decided then that when we returned home, I’d do something different that aligns with my passions.”
His criteria for a new life and new career was simple: it has to be something he was passionate about; he didn’t want to wear a tie; he couldn’t make decisions based on money, because he already determined that money couldn’t buy happiness; and if wanted, he had to be able to grow a beard.
Drawing on his years of helping to build halfpipes for friends and home building improvements, James decided he wanted to build climbing gyms. He loved the sport and found solace in its community. So, why not?
Now, James is a foreman on the Vertical Solutions team, and we couldn’t be happier that he’s a part of the VS community. While working on The Front Climbing Club’s South Main construction site in Salt Lake City, we were able to steal a few minutes out of James’ busy day to chat about his transition out of a six-figure job and why helping others make their dreams a reality gives him profound happiness.
Vertical Solutions: How did you first get into the industry?
James Mobley: I first discovered outdoor climbing in the Red River Gorge in Slade, Kentucky. I immediately knew I wanted a job near the mecca. I moved from southern Michigan to Cincinatti, Ohio, literally just to be closer to the Gorge.
After the road trip, I applied to work as a sales rep for Petzl and Black Diamond with no luck. But I always built things, just never professionally. I loved climbing and wanted it in my life, so I thought I could help build climbing communities like the one I was a part of.
My resume was all shirt-and-tie experience, so no one picked up the phone. After six months annoying Eldorado, they said I could come out on my own dime and work with them for a week. If they liked me, they’d potentially make an offer. I borrowed money from friends and went out there!
How long did you work with Eldorado before discovering VS?
I was with Eldo for about three years. After going through leadership changes and a spell of no contracted work, I was cut from their team. I was devastated.
Meanwhile, I was going through a divorce. I thought my life was ending. But I truly love building communities and helping people, so I wanted to keep doing what I loved.
Again, I applied to a bunch of different companies and Rockwerx called me back right away. Within weeks I was on a build, but I didn’t feel like it fit me. So, I transitioned to something closer to home and the Red.
I was up late one night looking at different climbing holds and who makes them. I rep Voodoo on the side and discovered that Proxy pours their holds. A “We’re Hiring” button appeared, which I clicked on and it brought me to the Vertical Solutions website.
How long have you been with VS? Why do you like the company?
For about three and a half years now.
After I applied John called me back right away. We weren’t on the phone for that long, but he said he’d love to have me.
I pumped the brakes though because I wanted to make sure it was the right company culture. I wanted to see the shop and other facilities, but I was broke. So, they flew me out to Salt Lake City, and I stayed with Dustin and John for the weekend. I realized they have an empire that’s a turn-key setup for anyone who wants to build a gym – from pads and holds to walls.
And I loved the culture of craftsmanship and attention to details. These standards aligned with how I am!
Did you start out as a foreman?
I began by supporting and owning different parts of a build, but never owned an entire project. My first job was in Tennessee at The Crag, working under Derek.
After a few projects, I ran my first build at Armadillo Boulders in San Antonio, Texas, which was about a year and a half ago.
Describe your position.
I’m not just working long hours building a gym. I’m also helping to set the foundation for people to have a career and do what they love while providing for their family, which is a transition I made, too.
I feel pretty honored to be able to help clients make their dream a reality and do it in a timely fashion while ensuring everyone is happy and the work is quality. There are always bumps, which some people can’t handle. But I thrive on that.
Even the most stressful days are not stressful compared to what I used to do. I overlooked nine stores and nine managers, 18 assistants and on any given year, 200-plus employees. I always had to make sure customer service, operations, HR, inventory and other sectors were running smoothly, all while being profitable.
As a foreman, I'm in the trenches working side-by-side with the team, leading by example. I work to set the pace in the mornings and the ultimate goal is to ensure we have a group of people who can think and solve problems on their own.
What are some logistical challenges you face throughout every project?
Construction always goes longer than you think – there are so many variables.
A lot of times we’ll show up to a job site and will discover we shouldn’t be there yet. There can be a lot of miscommunication among different contractors. One time we went to a location and the floor wasn’t finished yet, even though we were told it was. The building slab had areas cut out showing the ground, which made it difficult to start a project.
What does the client relationship look like for you?
Usually the scenario for these gym owners is that they put everything on the line to make it happen. If it doesn’t work out, they will quite literally be living out of a cardboard box.
So, I always hope to be on a build from the beginning to the end. I’m always working to foster a trusting relationship and put extra energy into making sure the client is happy and taken care of.
What’s it like traveling for work and being away from home?
It’s really hard. I’m not sure I’d be able to do it if my boys were younger. But, I'm able to stay in touch with them through regular video chats, text messages and social media contact.
About a year ago I was in California helping to build Flowstone. My next job was in my hometown. So, I flew one of my boys out West. We drove across the country together, stopping at different places along the way. I try to get my kids involved as much as possible while working.
What are the projects you’re most proud of?
Armadillo Boulders, because it was my first project running the whole thing. I was able to take what I liked and did not like from how the previous foremen operated and created my own way.
I’m also proud of Climb Time, because I was able to help build the climbing community in my own hometown.
You’ve been working in the industry for seven years now. How have you seen it change?
I find it ironic that now Eldo and Walltopia are trying out the wood look. It’s great that everyone is trying to create what we do, but they can’t do it the same way.
If there is any day that I’m stressing or not feeling on my game, I’ll go on the VS website and watch the “Never the Same” video. It reiterates why I do what I do and why we’re different from every other company.
You had to forge your own path by completely switching careers in the middle of your life. What advice would you give to someone else who wants to do the same?
It doesn’t matter if you’re building a climbing gym or working at a gear shop. I just think if more people made it a point to go out of their comfort zone and follow their hearts and passions, then we’d have more happy people in the world.
I had a job that allowed me five weeks of vacation. I made six figures, plus benefits, had a company car … the whole deal. I literally couldn’t use all my vacation time. I was purchasing material things – but I wasn’t happy. I was mentally drained.
But now I wake up every day and am excited to go to work. I never tell myself that I don’t want to be here.
I’d tell people not to get obsessed with material things. Keep it simple, and make sure you’re doing what you love.
Thanks to spirited, hardworking people like James, the Vertical Solutions team is a tight-knit family that cares enormously about its projects and clients. Without James’ constant dedication to helping others build climbing communities across the country, our team would operate much differently. Be sure to follow him on Instagram (@climbingpassion) to stay up to date on his current projects and to see where in the world his job takes him next!
This interview has been edited for clarity and grammar.