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Harman's Founder Turns Up the Volume : Electronics: The speaker maker's 74-year-old top executive revamps the firm's marketing strategy. The changes are beginning to work.

February 23, 1993|JAMES F. PELTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sidney Harman, now age 74, has quite a life. Stock holdings worth more than $45 million, thanks to a long business career. Good health. A big house in Marina del Rey. A wife who's in the U.S. Congress. Two young children.

So why is he driving to Northridge each day and putting in long hours in the office? He's trying to rebuild the company that he founded.

Harman International Industries Inc. (HII) makes consumer and professional loudspeakers and other audio gear carrying such familiar brand names as JBL, Infinity and Harman Kardon. The speakers cost anywhere from a mere $100 to $60,000 a pair.

By the late 1980s, HII was plodding along with modest profits, usually 3 cents or less per dollar of sales. Harman, who also was undersecretary of commerce in the Carter Administration, lived in Washington (which technically is still HII's headquarters and where Harman's wife, Rep. Jane Harman, now represents the South Bay area) while his deputies kept watch at the company's operations center in Northridge.

Then, in its fiscal year that ended June 30, 1991, HII's profits disappeared. The worldwide recession, the slump in auto sales--which accounts for 30% of HII's business--and the company's own missteps led to a $19.8-million loss on sales of $587 million.

Harman promptly moved to Southern California to fix things. His former president and likely successor as chief executive, Donald J. Esters, was dismissed. Harman also began changing HII's way of doing business.

"A whole series of matters drove me to the conclusion that the company would not prosper if it continued along the course it was headed," Harman said.

Until Harman moved back to the West Coast, HII was a loose federation of companies, with each catering to a group of audiophiles devoted to either JBL, Infinity or HII's other brands. The result: HII had an inefficient corporate structure stretched across 21 divisions. So Harman has merged them into five units, eliminating duplicated departments--such as accounting--for each division.

The cost savings also mean that Harman can pour more cash into marketing, which he needs because he's also moving many of HII's consumer products more into mass-merchandising outlets (Circuit City, Good Guys and the like) and away from specialty stereo outlets aimed at audio buffs.

The changes are beginning to work. In fiscal 1992, the company earned $3.5 million on sales of $605 million, and in the six months that ended Dec. 31, its profit totaled $1.97 million on sales of $322.1 million, up 8% from a year earlier. Harman also doesn't argue with Wall Street projections that HII will earn about $10 million for all of fiscal 1993.

HII's stock, which went public at $15 a share in 1986 but spent much of the next few years wallowing around $7 or $8, closed Monday at $16.875 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.

Giving the stock a boost recently was no less than Peter Lynch, the renowned former manager of Fidelity's Magellan Fund, the nation's largest stock fund. He recommended HII's stock on grounds that the company's car-speaker business will increase because auto makers, such as Chrysler and Ford, are using more of HII's speakers per car, and because car sales generally are rising.

(Fidelity, incidentally, is HII's largest outside stockholder, with a 10.2% stake.)

HII still has financial problems, though. The company's long-term debt as of Dec. 31 totaled $178 million, or 1.7 times its net worth. Although HII has plenty of cash flow to fund its business, "we're not at all satisfied with our balance sheet," Harman conceded.

Also, Harman has yet to demonstrate that, with the changes he's made, HII can restore even the modest profit margins that it had three or four years ago, said Jeffrey Kessler, an analyst with Lehman Brothers in New York. "The company should be able to get back" to those levels if HII gets "its volume up relative to its increased marketing costs," Kessler said.

But why does Harman himself want to oversee the changes, especially at an age when most people are retired?

Harman said he's "flat-out uninterested in being retired. I don't give a damn how old I am. I can run the pants off everybody working in this place." Harman, who's addressed as "Dr. Harman" by his employees (he has a doctorate in social psychology), is a lean, mercurial, occasionally brusque man who exercises six days a week.

Of course, his enthusiasm for reviving the company may have something to do with his own investment in the business. Harman owns the biggest stake in HII with 25%.

He started the company 40 years ago, later sold it and then, in 1980, bought most of it back. And his current strategy of merging together many of the operations of his various speaker brands is a sharp change from past years.

His old core of customers, Harman said, "liked the imagery of small, specialist companies. They found abhorrent the notion of a big company." They also were willing to pay thousands of dollars to own JBL or Infinity speakers.

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