Maxima Corp. struggles to regain the success that made it one of the nation's biggest black-owned firms WHEN A FATHER & SON SPLIT

February 27, 1994|By Gary Cohn | Gary Cohn,Sun Staff Writer

It was with both despair and resolve that Joshua I. Smith Sr. summoned his only son and heir apparent to the family business.

"Josh," Mr. Smith said sternly, looking squarely at his namesake across a glass table, "you can't talk your way out of this one."

The private meeting, in a third-floor conference room at the headquarters of Maxima Corp. in Lanham, set the stage for a public tragedy involving Mr. Smith and his son, Joshua I. Smith II, that began to unfold two days later.

Forty-eight hours after their faceoff on that rainy, windy Sunday, Dec. 5, Maxima, one of the nation's biggest black-owned companies, which the elder Mr. Smith heads as chairman, filed a lawsuit accusing the younger Mr. Smith and two others of misappropriating at least $675,000 in corporate funds.

To the son -- known by most as "Josh II" -- the act was one of betrayal. "Why does someone at this stage of his life want to destroy his 28-year-old son? It's like selling your mother," he says.

To the 52-year-old father, it came down to a simple matter of right and wrong: "It's a hard decision, but it's a decision that's right."

At the most basic level, the case turns on Maxima's assertion that the younger Mr. Smith, a division vice president, and two others -- David T. Skidmore, a vice president, and Calvin V. Cothran, an operations director of a division -- created an unauthorized company and diverted to it $675,000 from Maxima accounts. All three have been fired.

The defendants say they have done nothing illegal or improper and, in fact, had acted with the company's OK. They have filed a counter lawsuit, claiming they were wrongfully dismissed and seeking $60 million in damages.

They also assert they are the targets of the company's lawsuit because Maxima is in financial trouble, a charge the elder Mr. Smith dismisses as "just totally not true."

The case, however, is about more than lawsuits and counter claims. It pits a father's devotion against his corporate responsibility; a son's love of father against feeling trapped in his shadow; and a company accustomed to quick growth against today's new reality of cutbacks and shrinking federal contracts.

Maxima Corp. was founded in 1978 by the elder Mr. Smith as a one-man firm in Silver Spring with an initial investment of less than $10,000. As the manager and operator of computer systems for such agencies as the U.S. Postal Service, NASA and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, it has become one of the nation's largest black-owned companies, with 730 employees and sales last year of $45 million.

At the same time, Mr. Smith has emerged as one of the country's most prominent and visible black business operators. Maxima's offices are adorned with scores of plaques and other testimonials to Mr. Smith; he serves on numerous civic and business organizations and is a personal friend of former President George Bush.

Joshua Isaac Smith was born on April 8, 1941, in Garrard County, Kentucky. He was the third youngest of eight children of William and Mamie Smith. His father was a teacher and high school principal in Kentucky, but he later had to find manual work because black people were not paid much in those days.

"He was a principal . . . but in order to send his kids to college he had to work as a laborer -- he couldn't make enough," recalls Joshua Smith. "That's just a terrible tragedy."

The family moved from Kentucky to Loveland, Ohio, just outside Cincinnati, when Joshua was a few years old.

William Smith taught Joshua the importance of education and the gift of speaking. And he and his wife instructed their children about values, especially standing up for themselves and doing what they believed was right, no matter what results may await them.

Today, Joshua Smith says of his father, "I probably emulate him more than anybody else."

There were early signs of that.

"I was quite different from my brothers and sisters," Mr. Smith says. "I, even as a young kid, confronted my mother. If I had something to say, I'd say it."

This penchant for speaking his mind helped him go far, but it also would haunt his relationship with his own son.

When he was 16 years old and working as a dishwasher at Brown's Restaurant, Mr. Smith overheard the owner refer to another worker as a "nigger." Mr. Smith promptly slammed two )) dozen plates to the floor and told the 6-foot-4-inch proprietor, Harry Brown, never to use the word again in his presence.

Mr. Smith expected to be fired on the spot. Instead, he earned the respect of his boss.

"I wasn't trying to be brave," Mr. Smith recalls. "I just felt that I had to stand my ground, because if I let him get by that incident from that point on he would use any language and I would have to bow to it. I just felt it was the right thing. When I think something is right, I don't have a problem with it."

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