Strong will to succeed

Honors: Kevin M. Johnson struggled to start Commercial Interiors, but found a winning way and recognition as a minority firm of the year.

September 27, 2001|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Kevin M. Johnson was running a lingerie shop in Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall when a conversation with a construction worker led him to the drywall business.

The construction worker was the owner of the company, and he wanted to expand. Johnson knew nothing about construction but a lot about business, so the two became partners.

Three years later, they had a falling out over philosophical differences, but not before Johnson realized there was more money in drywall than lingerie.

Johnson closed his lingerie store that year and maxed out $30,000 in credit cards to start a drywall business, Commercial Interiors. That was 11 years ago.

The Hanover company has grown from 10 employees to 175, and last year had $20 million in revenue. Yesterday, the Baltimore District Office of the Small Business Administration honored Commercial Interiors as the Minority Small Business Firm of the Year.

"It's a very innovative company," said Oliver J. Phillips, SBA director of business development, who also served on the selection committee. "His impact on the job market has been strong. It's a company known for its strong values and ability to keep employees."

But like most small businesses, Johnson had a slow climb to success.

"It wasn't easy," Johnson said yesterday, standing in the foyer at Morgan State University's new Fine Arts Center, one of his latest projects. "The hardest thing was finding working capital and having the money to make payroll and keep the business running."

Johnson sometimes found himself persuading clients to pay him a little early so he wouldn't get behind. The SBA also helped, offering money to guarantee the company's bonding - money used to pay for costs if something happens to the project.

Johnson doesn't worry so much about money these days. He's paid off his credit cards and drives a Mercedes.

As he proved himself, clients began coming back, and his reputation helped to attract bigger customers. He's done work at PSINet Stadium, Baltimore Convention Center and Arundel Mills mall. The company has received a contract to help with renovations of the Hippodrome Theater, a part of the city's west-side revitalization.

Johnson prides himself on the treatment of employees. He said foremen and construction workers should be treated as well as white-collar professionals. Johnson also said he tries to offer above-market pay at his nonunion shop.

"My main philosophy is to treat people with respect and give back to the employees who helped you to get where you were," he said. "Pay them what they're worth, and don't be so selfish and greedy."

Phil McCormick came to work for Johnson nearly two years ago as a foreman. He received a $2-an-hour raise from his previous job, where he had the same position. He said he's impressed with the camaraderie at work.

"If you need to talk to Kevin his door is always open," McCormick said. "It wasn't like that at other companies I worked for."

Commercial Interiors was one of dozens of companies to receive SBA awards this week as district offices across the country celebrate National Minority Enterprise Development Week. The companies will compete for regional and national honors next fall.

"I don't do this for recognition, but it's nice to be noticed," Johnson said.

Patricia A. DeAloia's ITEQ-Integrated Technologies Inc., a professional services company with headquarters in Silver Spring, was the runner-up as the district's Minority Small Business Firm of the Year. DeAloia is president and chief executive officer of the company, which has government and private contracts.

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