Picture This, March 2012 — Out of the Box

 Out of the box

A Charlotte company cuts and dresses up cargo containers to provide shelter and exposure for vendors and exhibitors.

More than two years after Charlotte-based Boxman Studios LLC started refurbishing shipping containers, CEO David Campbell isn’t sure what to call the finished product. “A hospitality venue?” he ventures. But he knows what it takes to make them — “lots of torches, lots of welding and lots of loud noises” — and hopes whatever they’re called will replace: canvas awnings, trailers, tents and other mobile means of sheltering vendors hawking trinkets, marketers showing off new products, wedding guests imbibing post-nuptial champagne and anyone else seeking temporary shelter.

Campbell, raised in Bedford, N.Y., came to the Queen City in 1995 to become a stockbroker for Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., which he left after then-Winston-Salem-based Wachovia Corp. acquired the brokerage in 1998. He started Acer Development LLC to sell and develop commercial real estate but abandoned it during the recession. After Acer, he saw a TV show about shipping-container architecture — stacking the 20- to 50-foot-long steel boxes, which are 8 feet wide and high, to build things, a trend that started in the early 1990s. A 20-footer, the most common, weighs more than 2˝ tons.

His first thought was to turn them into dorms and jails. When banks wouldn’t back such an unproven, large-scale endeavor, he scaled back. One of Acer’s contractors had a shipping container he was using for storage, so they sliced it up, just the two of them out in a field, using torches, saws and plasma cutters. The original concept, making movable restaurants to compete with food trucks, ran afoul of city zoning rules, so he shifted to providing temporary shelter for events. “We wanted it to be easier, cheaper and cooler than a tent. But how do you take on the tent, which has been around for 3,000 or 6,000 years or whatever?”

Boxman tries to do that by delivering a modified shipping container where the customer wants it, then setting it up within 30 minutes. On a typical one, electric motors raise and lower hinged sides, revealing a hardwood floor and furniture. Vinyl awnings pop up. At first glance, the shelter’s genealogy is unnoticeable. Boxman can incorporate its customers’ logos into designs, change themes and alter the layouts to suit their needs.

Raw material is relatively cheap. Used containers from importers and other sources cost him no more than $2,000. “We’re an importing nation, and sometimes it’s not feasible to send containers back to where they came from, so we end up with a surplus.” Some of that winds up in two Charlotte warehouses where four fabricators — in all, Boxman employs 13 — spend three to four weeks modifying them.

Campbell, 39, has financed growth with his savings. With distribution sites in Greenville, S.C., and Los Angeles, Boxman has about 10 “hospitality venues” available. It can customize them for sale, but nearly all its business is leasing, at rates that run about $2,500 for the first day, $500 a day thereafter and up to $14,500 a month.

Customers have included NASCAR vendors and sponsors such as Irwin Tools Co., which used a container at a race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. Boxman doesn’t divulge its revenue, but Campbell says the company is turning a profit and will double its units this year. Beyond that, its future is limited only by finding new uses for old boxes. “We’re as much an innovation company as we are a manufacturing and logistics company.”

— Edward Martin