With the economy mired in recession, some entrepreneurs might think twice before jumping into the construction industry. Not so for Charisma Smith and Obie Chambers.

Earlier this month they bought B&B Supply Company Inc., a 43-year-old firm that supplied drywall for the Hearst Tower, Gateway Village and countless Charlotte-area homes. They named their new company Maxxim Supply Inc.

Not only are Smith and Chambers banking on economic recovery, they also are looking to establish themselves as a minority supplier in an industry where minority participation often means manual labor.

“This was a perfect opportunity for us to get into the commercial and residential supply business in a significant way, with a company that has built a long legacy of quality performance,” said Smith, 36, Maxxim’s president.

B&B employed 20 people and last year had $10 million in revenue. Smith and Chamber said they hope to add workers this year and push revenue to $20 million in 2010.

As a minority-owned supplier, the partners said they will pursue business unavailable to B&B, which was not minority owned. They also want to push beyond B&B’s Charlotte-area roots, looking perhaps toward Fayetteville, Richmond, Va., and Atlanta.

Smith will guide Maxxim’s overall strategy. Chambers will oversee sales and marketing. They already have started talks with some Fortune 500 companies about future construction projects, he said.

Chambers, 36, who moved to Charlotte three years ago from Washington, D.C., said minority participation in major construction projects “seems to have trickled down slowly” in North Carolina and Charlotte.

“There are opportunities here that have already been tapped in the Washington, D.C., area,” he said.

Smith and Chambers said their biggest asset is the employees they inherited from B&B, many of whom are highly experienced in drywall supply. The partners also bring some construction experience of their own.

“When it gets down to it, in business it’s the bottom line,” Chambers said. “Ultimately, it comes down to can you do a good job? Can you get it done on time and can you get it done at the right price?”

Before forming Maxxim, Smith and Chambers both worked at Triangle Contracting Co., a minority-owned firm that does residential and commercial construction. Smith was vice president of operations. Chambers was director of procurement and pre-construction.

Smith moved to Charlotte from Chicago in 1990 to attend Johnson C. Smith University. She transferred to UNC Charlotte after two years and graduated in 1994. After stints at Bank of America and Wachovia, she partnered with college friend and sorority sister Janelle Rayford and the two co-founded Rayford Smith Realty, which they still own.
Chambers moved to Charlotte looking to invest in real estate. He saw Charlotte as a place where aggressive entrepreneurs could still succeed.

“You had certain indicators that you could tell business would be growing here,” he said. “It was sort of a small city that was outgrowing its skin. Coming from another city where I had seen that happen, I was able to pick up on some of the indicators.”

The two met in real estate circles and both eventually landed at Triangle Contracting, which was founded by Janelle Rayford’s father in the Raleigh-Durham area.

Smith and Chambers said they saw an opportunity in the supply business after realizing how few women and minorities were supplying materials for construction projects.

In addition to drywall, the partners said they are looking to expand into other construction products. Among their advisors is Charlotte Bobcats owner Bob Johnson, who, they said, makes himself available as often as needed.

“He brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise,” said Smith. “He’s a very active business advisor.”

“No smoke and mirrors there,” said Chambers.

The partners said Johnson is not an investor in Maxxim.

So what advice do they have for other aspiring entrepreneurs?

“Don’t give up,” said Chambers.

“Work hard,” said Smith. “Stay diligent. Believe in all your dreams and have faith and step out on it.”

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