Painful though it was, after 24 years at the helm of the company he helped start, Garland S. White decided he needed help.
Not that he had a great deal of choice. Datametrics, a Chatsworth maker of military printers, had nearly skidded into bankruptcy and was still heavily in debt 19 months ago when two venture-capital firms agreed to invest $2.75 million in dearly needed cash, but only if White let some new executives run the company's day-to-day operations.
Most entrepreneurs have elephantine egos, but White, 59, an easygoing, raspy-voiced executive, was different. "I guess I had all the normal feelings. But I buried those feelings. Maybe, if you'd gone through what I did," he said with a laugh, "you'd develop a certain amount of realism and humility."
White remains chairman and chief executive, but Joseph P. Gibbs was imported from Eaton Corp. as Datametrics' new president. As White delicately puts it, Gibbs "works the inside, I work the outside."
White now tends to new products and is out talking to customers while Mr. Inside, Gibbs, overhauls the company's disorganized assembly line. Meanwhile, Russell E. Quinn, installed as chief financial officer, has replaced Datametrics' primitive manual accounting system with an automated, computerized system to help chop costs.
"White is still very much involved, but I think he has a significant throttle on him. The venture capitalists are going to pretty well call the shots," said Robert Hanisee, an analyst with Seidler Amdec Securities in Los Angeles.
On some levels, things are improving. Datametrics' order backlog is at $31 million, up from about $21 million a year ago, which helped increase sales 24% to $16.4 million for the nine months ended Aug. 1. Unfortunately, in the same period, Datametrics' profits moved in the wrong direction, down 45% to $858,140. So has the stock. It closed Monday at $3.00, down from a high of $5.25 a share last year.
"I can understand if there's some frustration. It's taking some time," conceded John W. Blackburn, one of the venture capitalists who bankrolled Datametrics. But, he said, "There's no question in my mind we've greatly strengthened the team. And I think you'll see earnings rise in the coming quarters."
For all of Datametrics' problems, its mainstay product line of rough, tough military printers that can withstand severe temperatures, humidity, salt air and jolts from the enemy, remain much in demand. The Army hauls the rugged printers in the backs of jeeps into the battlefield. White says the printers are even radiation-hardened. If a small nuclear charge is set off, assuming any soldiers are still breathing, the printers will keep printing orders and maps.
The printers are used by the Air Force in its missile system, and by the Navy in its Trident submarines to print reams of data on missile launches. A submarine, of course, remains submerged for months at a time, so a printer absolutely, positively has to work. The military requires stringent performance tests, so, among other things, Datametrics shakes, bakes and freezes the printers in its laboratory tests. It helps explain why a single printer can cost $40,000.
The company got its start in 1962 when White, who has a master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, completed a stint working for a friend's new computer firm. "I just got some of the fever to run your own company. I thought, 'Hell, it's not that difficult,' " he said.
With two friends, he set up a consulting firm, and, in 1967, they linked up with another partner who steered them into military computers.
The company hummed along until 1980, when White detoured into the commercial market for computer printers. This is a business with customers totally different from the military and one rife with foreign competition. The detour turned into a disaster: In 1981 and 1982, Datametrics lost $8 million; its negative net worth (more liabilities than assets) ballooned to $4.5 million, and the NASDAQ over-the-counter stock exchange dropped Datametrics because of its shaky finances.
In September, 1983, the Securities and Exchange Commission also charged the company, White and two other executives with various violations, including failing to promptly report losses, and to record returns of its commercial printers. Without admitting or denying the SEC's claims, the defendants consented to an injunction not to violate any future securities laws.
"Basically it was a very disorganized company," said Hanisee.
Meanwhile, White wasn't endearing himself to the company's stockholders. The company went public in 1971 at an adjusted stock price of $1.50 per share. Allowing for inflation, loyal stockholders had earned little, if anything, on their investments.