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New Danka CEO spells out agenda

P. Lang Lowrey III wants to improve the company's billing and product mix. And he wants to do it fast.

By JEFF HARRINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Atlanta businessman P. Lang Lowrey III was hired to help Danka Business Systems move out of crisis mode by reducing its debt.

But that doesn't mean the new chief executive of the St. Petersburg copy distributor isn't already planning a few long-term changes.

Like overhauling the company's notoriously poor information-technology system, which has led to costly problems with billings. And investing more in new software and new products that focus on "upstream technology;" in other words, digital copying techniques instead of outdated analog copying machines.

"We won't be spending a tremendous amount of money, but we will be investing in our future and clearly show (investors) a path that we're doing something," Lowrey said in a Wednesday morning conference call with analysts and media.

"This company has the assets ... employees and clients, even in this difficult situation, to find a successful way out," he added.

Though he does not officially begin until March 1, Lowrey began meeting with lenders Wednesday and said a variety of options were discussed. He would not be more specific.

At the outset of the brief question-and-answer session, Danka general counsel Keith Nelson was clearly relieved to move forward.

"I can say we at Danka are excited about having a permanent chief executive on board and I'm looking forward to working with him," Nelson said.

Lowrey, 47, replaces Danka board member and incoming chairman Michael Gifford, who has been acting as interim CEO since Larry Switzer suddenly quit in October.

Danka's chief operating officer through much of its recent crisis, Brian Merriman, was a candidate for the CEO post. However, "there was mutual understanding an outsider might be the best person in this case," Lowry said. "Mr. Merriman has brought a lot to the table and will continue to do so."

Danka, which distributes and services copiers, has struggled with weaker-than-expected sales, higher-than-expected costs and increasing losses. It lost $31.8-million, or 58 cents a share, in its third quarter ended Dec. 31.

The company has acknowledged it could be forced into bankruptcy if it is unable to win further concessions from its lenders by the end of next month.

Lowrey has experience with such situations. He served as president and CEO of business services company Anacomp Inc. as it went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in 1996.

Danka does not necessarily face a similar fate, Lowrey insisted. "No one can assume a Chapter 11 here," he said.

Rather, Lowrey ticked off several top priorities to revive Danka's sagging revenues, such as modernizing the company's business systems, setting a new direction for products and services and improving client relationships.

"I very much want to address the business issues of the company, and I think that will distinguish me," he said.

Lowry said he is relocating to the Tampa Bay area and plans to have his wife and children join him at the end of the school year.

Nevertheless, there were indications he does not view Danka as a long-term assignment. He talked about getting "this job done this year," and he is pursuing another, less wordly job. Lowrey was recently approved as a postulant in the Episcopal Church, the first stage toward ordination as a priest.

If he does not put pressure on himself to move quickly, the remaining investors who track Danka surely will.

Beyond the imminent pressure from lenders, Danka faces an investment community irate over the company's mounting losses.

Delisted from the Nasdaq National Market last year, Danka now trades for less than $1 a share. Shares closed Thursday at 81 cents, up 6 cents.

-- Contact Jeff Harrington at harrington@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3407.

Recent coverage

Danka picks new CEO to stem slide (February 15, 2001)

Danka to fire 1,200 as its losses mount (February 2, 2001)

Companies share in BofA's woes (January 6, 2001)

Bank to help Danka chart path (November 17, 2000)

Danka revises earnings (November 16, 2000)

Danka studies options, including sale (November 10, 2000)

Danka reports huge loss (November 9, 2000)

Danka proves not every deal ends happily (October 27, 2000)

Danka shares plunge as CEO quits (October 13, 2000)

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