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December 2012
Creating Heaven from Earth
By Heather Head

     Like the business he’s founded and runs, Mike Bishop’s friendly and unassuming exterior overlays a rock solid core. He’s a quiet man in a white polo shirt, concerned about his friend who recently experienced a family loss, and conversant on topics of the environment and community service. But under the humble, people-focused exterior is a gutsy businessman who has driven significant innovation and growth in the Charlotte region since 1998.

     His company, Blue Max Materials, may seem unassuming and “earthy” at first, but a quick survey of the surrounds yields an impressive array of all materials earthen. Although the company got its start selling dirt, rocks and sand, it has morphed to provide materials, ideas and support for everything from environmental projects to the construction of large outdoor living spaces.

     The company has innovated technologies and products as well as customer-friendly approaches to keep it growing throughout the economic turmoil that has repeatedly plagued the construction industry.

     Bishop founded the company with another partner, Denton Williams, to meet a need they saw in Charlotte in the 1990s. With his background in the aggregate industry, Bishop observed contractors and landscapers pulling into quarries to pick up materials for their jobs. He watched them maneuver their little trailers among the monster trucks and giant construction equipment of major construction companies. It was very time-consuming, inconvenient, and downright dangerous.

     Furthermore, gravel, dirt and other supplies were loaded “by the bucketful” at other existing material yards, which meant that they were not measured in any meaningful way. Buyers had no way of knowing whether their particular “bucketful” would have enough material for the job. If not, they would have to return to the supplier for another load.

     Williams and Hickman agreed that there must be a better way. “There was a need for a reputable company to come into Charlotte and be able to handle those size customers,” says Bishop. “To get them in and out quickly, do things at an affordable price and with good service.”

     By 1997, the partners had purchased a location on Westinghouse Boulevard and stocked it with fill dirt, compost, gravel, and sand. The operation ran out of a small trailer, manned by Bishop alone.

     Though their February 1998 opening was humble, it represented a significant shift for the industry. Blue Max Materials boasted something that very few mid-level bulk materials suppliers offered at that time: accurate measurements. From the start, they installed a truck scale to measure each load. The innovation introduced legitimacy to the industry, and enabled buyers to accurately estimate jobs.

     Although Bishop describes his company’s growth mainly in terms of meeting customer needs, he admits that the innovation was a good business move for Blue Max Materials too, allowing for accurate inventory controls. The company’s safe environment and convenient locations have been a winning combination that has made Blue Max Materials a popular stop for contractors and landscapers.

 

Paving the Way

     Though success came early and quickly for Blue Max Materials, it was not without challenges, chief among them, says Bishop, lack of staff.

     “In the beginning, there were days when a customer would come in and tell me what he wanted, and I’d lock the door, go out and load him up, then run back down, weigh the customer out, and collect the money,” he laughs. “Meanwhile, the phone was ringing and another customer waiting at the door. It didn’t take long to figure out it was more than a one-man shop.”

     In an industry that was notorious for hiring inexpensive labor, Bishop decided that they would distinguish themselves with a friendly, helpful staff.

     Customers loved it. The building and contracting industry was in boom mode in Charlotte, and Blue Max Materials grew quickly. Within a year and a half, customers were asking for more. In addition to bulk products that they could load in the back of a truck or trailer, they wanted hardscape supplies: pavers, retaining wall materials and natural stone.

     By late 1999, Blue Max Materials had teamed up with the well known hardscape supplier, Belgard Hardscapes, a division of Oldcastle Building Products out of Greensboro. Oldcastle provided not only high quality product lines like Belgard Pavers and Keystone Retaining Walls, they also brought aggressive research and development, a strong marketing presence, and training opportunities for customers. In partnership with Oldcastle’s “Belgard Universities,” Blue Max Materials started offering development opportunities for landscapers to learn the business of hardscape.

     The partnership changed Blue Max Materials; it brought name brand recognition. Commercial landscapers and installers joined the base of customers, which had been primarily general contractors. Expanded training helped develop new landscapers and gave established landscapers new opportunities to grow their business.

     It also opened the door to Blue Max Materials’ partnership with other divisions and products from Oldcastle’s comprehensive building products lines. Blue Max Materials is now recognized as one of the largest independent Belgard Hardscapes dealers in the Southeast.

     By the end of 2000, Blue Max Materials had firmly established itself as a one-stop shop for general contractors and landscapers in Charlotte. Then in 2001, everything changed again. The 9/11 terror attacks and aftermath brought about an industry shift that turned out to be a business transition for Blue Max Materials.

     “We were just really cultivating some of these contractors, and helping them out, when suddenly people decided to stay home and spend their money at home, as opposed to taking vacations,” explains Bishop. Everybody wanted the comfortable, easy access to materials and ideas that Blue Max Materials offered, and business boomed. Blue Max Materials enjoyed several years of growth, adding new product lines, cultivating both suppliers and customers, and further expanding their location in Indian Trail.

 

Sustainability

     But when the bottom started falling out of the economy at the end of 2008, contractors were among the hardest hit. “We went through some painful times,” admits Bishop. “Contractors were having trouble collecting on projects, and in turn we were having trouble collecting from them.”

     Simultaneously, new business from general contractors dropped off and the magnitude of projects fell severely.

     Meanwhile, a new, vastly different market started to open up. Homeowners wanted to save cash by doing projects themselves, and they were showing up at Blue Max Materials wanting to buy materials. Bishop explains that homeowner projects tend to be smaller than general contractor jobs, and they don’t come with the built-in repeat business.

     “Plus, educating a homeowner is a whole lot different than a contractor coming in and telling us what he needs for a job,” says Bishop. “We enjoyed it, but it did require more people for us to provide that level of guidance. We saw that we had to change the way we were doing business.”

     The new environment meant lean times for Blue Max Materials. But the challenges came with gifts as well. Homeowners pay with credit cards and checks instead of invoices, so payment was always prompt and reliable. Blue Max Materials learned new cash flow management practices—running background checks and extended credit checks, tightening up invoicing procedures.

     With a changed business model in mind and looking forward to future economic growth, Blue Max Materials made the bold move in 2010 of purchasing 40 acres near the original facility on Westinghouse. Ground was broken in 2010, a brand new 7,000-square-foot storefront and a 15-acre materials lot opened for business in September 2011, and in October 2012 a grand opening unveiled an Outdoor Living Design Center.

     At first glance, it’s hard to believe the beautiful facility was built amid one of the toughest economic times to ever hit the industry. A concrete paver drive curves gently uphill to reveal a stunning waterfall cascade, a stone-faced building, and an enticing cobble path leading up to an inviting pavilion.

     And, like so much else about the company, the facility is more than just a pretty face. Its user-friendly amenities amply reflect an increasingly important innovation in the construction industry: green building.

     The gracefully curving paver drive represents the latest in water-permeable paving surfaces suitable for both residential and commercial applications. Its deceptively quaint appearance belies its toughness and practicality. Hundreds of tons of materials travel across those pretty little pavers on a daily basis, carried in heavy dump trucks and tractor trailers, sometimes as many as a 100 a day, that would punish the toughest pavement.

     Under the 15,000 square feet of permeable pavers lays a base made of layers of incrementally larger sized clean gravel. This base combined with the attractive gravel filling in the gaps between pavers simultaneously allow water to flow through the gravel while filtering contaminants out of the water before releasing it into the groundwater. The system is so effective a fire truck can pump water into the parking lot without flooding or run-off.

     Bishop says the permeable paver systems may have a slightly higher up-front cost, but on the other hand, they have a 50-year life cycle and can be designed to harvest storm water and reuse it for irrigation. They also provide a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to the bio-retention ponds that developers are otherwise required to install next to new parking lots, allowing property owners to develop this previously unusable acreage. For those who do choose to install a bio-retention pond or a rain garden, Blue Max Materials supplies and blends the products for those as well.

     The Blue Max Materials demonstration of green building materials doesn’t stop at the curb. The main building’s gracious look is in part due to the masonry facade that covers the showroom exterior. This beautiful stone is actually a man-made product from Oldcastle called EnduraMax that installs without the need for a skilled mason, as easily as fitting a jigsaw puzzle.

     It includes an R-13.5 value insulation foam on the back side and can be used in new installations or to provide a face-lift and better insulation to existing structures. It was recently voted one of the top 50 new products in the green industry.

     Inside the building, an attractive lobby and a friendly receptionist greet visitors. Displays of building materials line the aisles, and skilled staff assist customers in making plans and selections. Among the offerings are many additional green materials, including all the supplies necessary to build green roofs.

 

Advancing Outdoor Living

     By far, the most arresting innovation Blue Max Materials has brought to the community is its Outdoor Living Design Center, a beautiful ever-growing installation that attracts visitors from around the region. The center greets visitors with a stunning stone marker and stone steps leading up to a winding pavilion, complete with covered outdoor kitchens, grills, fire pits, lighting, waterfalls, and a peaceful koi pond.

     Each element of the installation is accompanied by signage outlining what materials were used and who designed and installed that section, making it a useful tool for homeowners as well as designers and their clients.

     The Outdoor Living Design Center is made possible by partnerships with landscape contractors and outdoor appliance and furnishing companies in the region who work with Blue Max Materials to select materials and create designs to fit the overall space. These masterpieces serve as a year-round business source for the landscapers, an idea center for visitors, and a place for contractors to bring clients to demonstrate concepts and choose materials.

     Blue Max Materials hosted October’s grand opening and charity event in the space, in partnership with Hands On Charlotte, with chefs from Johnson & Wales and local restaurants, live music and demonstrations. Blue Max Materials also offers the Outdoor Living Design Center space as an event location for community organizations and other interested groups including those they already support like the Eagle Scouts, Alexander Children’s Network, and Thompson Child and Family Focus.

     As Blue Max Materials has grown, they have not gone without official notice. For instance, they worked in partnership with the City of Charlotte to create a planting medium based on soils and sediments native to our area, resulting in Garden Max, a good economical product that is now used in city streetscapes. The product attracted the attention of Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens, which uses Blue Max Materials products throughout their plantings. They also partner with the U.S. National Whitewater Center for many of their materials needs.

     Bishop, who serves as managing partner and 50/50 owner with one of the other founders, says that he does not expect massive growth for his industry or company in the next few years. The economy is still too uncertain. But he is cautiously optimistic and continues to look for new and innovative ways to serve his customers.

     Expect a conservative approach to growth from Blue Max Materials, as its founder continues to focus on the rock solid core that underlies its heavenly exteriors.

 

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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