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A CLOSER LOOK

Small Businesses : WILL TO LIVE : Technology Company's Once-Ambitious Plans Have Been Dashed, but Persistent Managers, 'Courageous' Investors Refuse to Let Firm Die

January 05, 1988|DAVID OLMOS | Times Staff Writer

For nearly five years, Robert R. Rogers has been on a personal mission to rescue a small technology company called Comparator Systems from the brink of bankruptcy.

The struggle has taken a heavy personal toll on the 59-year-old company chairman, as it did on others who preceded him.

Since 1983, Rogers has had to defer more than $225,000 in salary because the Costa Mesa company couldn't afford to pay him in full. His Newport Beach condominium was repossessed last winter. His elderly mother was nearly evicted from a nursing home because he was always behind on the bills.

"We have literally lived by the hour for four years, wondering if the next day it will all collapse on us," said Rogers, a former Litton Industries executive described by one acquaintance as having "more perseverance than anyone I've ever seen."

Comparator, a maker of fingerprint-comparison machines, narrowly escaped bankruptcy last year by completing an extraordinary $2.5-million refinancing program. The company wiped out $1.7 million of debt by persuading its many creditors to forgo cash and to accept Comparator stock, which hasn't been briskly traded in years. And it raised nearly $1 million through a private sale of stock to several investors, whom Rogers describes as "courageous."

The refinancing program bought time for the struggling company to mount a crucial marketing effort for its Comparator ID-1 machines. As Rogers puts it, "We need some sales--immediately."

Comparator's story is one of a technology company whose once-ambitious plans have been dashed by a series of events. Depending on to whom one speaks, the company's troubles stemmed from poor management in the firm's early days, a sleepy market and years of heavy debts that crippled the company's marketing.

Further, Comparator's product, once at the leading edge of fingerprint technology, is said to be competing against more sophisticated, and less expensive, products of rival companies. The price of Comparator machines ranges from $7,000 to $9,000.

'Rare Exception'

This is also a story of extraordinary commitment by several people determined to transform Comparator's promise into profits.

"It's really quite a remarkable story," said Frank Wheat, an attorney at the Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which handled Comparator's refinancing program.

"Most companies that get themselves into this kind of box usually just disappear," said Wheat, a former Securities and Exchange Commission member who is widely regarded as one of the nation's top securities lawyers.

"This is the rare exception of a company that just refused to die."

Those who know Rogers describe him as a persuasive and determined individual. "The guy's got more perseverance than anyone I've ever seen," said Bradley Dennis, an analyst with R.J. Steichen & Co., a Minneapolis brokerage.

Besides Rogers, two other people who have remained committed to the company are Scott Hitt, chief operating officer, and Hitt's wife, Kay, the vice president. Like Rogers, the Hitts have agreed to defer most of their salaries during the past few years.

Scott Hitt was paid only $10,333 of his $73,000 annual salary for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1986, according to SEC documents. Rogers received only $14,901 of his $95,000 salary.

"If it was just the money, we'd all have walked away a long time ago," said Hitt, 42, a former Marine intelligence officer and private security consultant.

Shareholder Support

Until the recent refinancing plan eased Comparator's financial worries, the money that trickled in through sporadic sales usually went to the creditor who complained the loudest.

"If there was anything left over, we (Rogers and the Hitts) split it in equal shares," Rogers said. "And sometimes there wasn't any left over."

Kay Hitt, a former police officer and medical administrator, said: "We've really been through it in the last four years. But we've got 13,000 shareholders cheering us on."

Said Rogers: "It's been a gamble. We thought we had another baby Xerox or Polaroid. Honest to goodness, I think we have, but we have a lot to do to prove it to the world."

The company was encouraged by recent sales to the California Institution for Men at Chino and the Sheriff's Department in Norfolk, Va. Company officials say they expect to announce additional sales to state and federal prisons soon.

Despite such progress, the firm's future remains in jeopardy.

Most observers give the company six to 12 months to generate significant sales to stay solvent. Moreover, the company is involved in a legal fight with several Orange County businessmen who have purchased the patent on Comparator's machine and are seeking to invalidate a critical licensing agreement with Comparator. If Comparator loses the suit, it would probably be out of business.

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