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Math Box's Success Inspires Rivals : Other Retail Computer Firms Seek Lucrative U.S. Contact

February 02, 1986|SARI HORWITZ | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In the two years since it won its contract with the General Services Administration to provide personal computers to the federal government through a chain of specially approved stores, Math Box Inc., has become the nation's most profitable publicly owned computer retailer.

The lesson of Math Box's success already appears to have triggered a rush for its lucrative government contract when it comes up for renewal in June. "Over 220 firms have asked the government for copies of the bid," said Robert J. Guerra, Math Box's senior vice president for government relations. "We expect about 30 to 35 strong competitors."

The contract, which was awarded to Rockville, Md.-based Math Box in 1983 in a bidding competition with such retail giants as Xerox, ComputerLand and Radio Shack, called for the firm to set up retail centers where federal agencies could shop for computer equipment and software. Business generated by those centers--Office Technology Plus stores--climbed from zero to $31 million in two years and now accounts for almost one-third of the firm's $100-million annual business.

"We were a very small, $6-million company in Rockville," said Avner Parnes, the company's chairman and chief executive. "We read about this (government) bid and said, 'My God, this is a great opportunity for a young company to go ahead in business.'

Important Stage

"This was a very important stage in the growth of our company," he added.

For the first nine months ended Sept. 31, 1985, Math Box's net income of $2.6 million was 2.9% of its $89.5 million in sales, making it the most profitable of the top eight publicly held computer retailers.

The firm's commercial business also has soared from $6 million in sales for fiscal year 1983 to an expected $70 million for this fiscal year. Since 1983, the company has added 13 new commercial outlets in Washington, Philadelphia and Boston.

Parnes attributes the company's commercial growth--while other computer retailers have suffered--to Math Box's management expertise, regional rather than national concentration and a move out of the personal home computer market.

"We recognized early that the home market was volatile," said Parnes. "While our competitors were trying to be everything for everybody, we decided to concentrate on the business community, which was a very large niche and a fast-growing one."

When former GSA administrator Gerald P. Carmen announced the new contract two years ago, he noted that it took 20 years to bring 18,000 large, general-purpose computers into the government. "Obviously, we cannot afford the luxury of such a long lead time now for the smaller, less expensive personal computers which will be acquired in large numbers by the government," he said.

Federal agencies say that the advantage of the Office Technology Plus stores is that purchases can be made there more quickly and without the red tape involved in ordering from other contractors, according to congressional investigators.

But last month the General Accounting Office issued a report in which it said the government was paying an average of 12.8% more for computer equipment from these stores than it was paying from other government suppliers.

The report, requested by Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), chairman of the House Committee on Small Business, said that the government would have saved $379,000 in May and June of 1985, the two months that were examined, if the computer purchases had been made from other government contractors rather than the Office Technology Plus stores.

The GAO reported that in one case, involving Multimate software, there was a 76% difference--about $232--between Office Technology Plus' price and the price for identical software from other government contractors.

MBI executives said GAO's calculations in that case were "absolutely incorrect" because the agency unknowingly compared four packages of different Office Technology Plus software as a single bundle of Multimate with one Multimate software package from other federal contractors.

Explains the Difference

Math Box also argues that the reason there is a price difference between its products and those of other contractors is because the equipment can be purchased immediately and Math Box offers more service and instruction on how to use its products.

"You can't talk about price as a stand-alone," said Guerra of Math Box. "All of the services we offer--systems consulting support before and after the sale, testing, integrating and servicing the product--cost a lot of money. You're not going to be able to give that kind of service and be a price-only competitor."

The GAO report did note that using Office Technology Plus stores required less time and effort even for buyers who knew what they wanted. If buyers need information on a particular product, they can refer to a single catalogue that lists and describes all Office Technology Plus products, according to the GAO.

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