A few weeks ago, a large rubber mannequin was placed outside the office of John Becker, the chief executive of Axent Technologies Inc. of Rockville. The flesh-colored figure (the mannequin, not Becker) evokes the fun feel of so many technology companies, giving evidence that this fast-growing software firm has a sense of frivolity, that it "gets it."
But the mannequin also serves a practical purpose. The thing is great to punch and Becker often does. He has had some frustration to work out after some recent whacks to the company's stock price.
Shares of Axent bottomed out at $7.68 3/4 on April 6, down from the low $30s at the end of March and a 52-week high of $40.50 in January. The slump coincided with Axent's late-March acquisition of a British network security concern, PassGo Technologies, and news of a disappointing first quarter a few weeks later. Shares of Axent have rallied slightly lately, closing at $12.43 3/4 Friday, up 6 1/4 cents.
Despite its stock zigzag, Axent has become a steady player in the hot area of electronic-security software. The best analogy for Axent's products is the home-security system. Just as home-security systems keep intruders from houses and apartments, Axent's software keeps hackers out of the "electronic property" of businesses.
In a networked age, where volumes of information are embedded in corporate networks and transactions are conducted increasingly over the Internet, electronic security has become an obsession -- at least among corporate technology officers paid to worry about these things.
Such ramped-up concern has resulted in ramped-up revenue for Axent, which reached the $100 million benchmark in 1998, up from $70 million the year before. Founded in August 1994, the company employs 630 people, about 150 in the Washington area.
While many companies make security software, few have grown as much or as fast as Axent. And few are being watched as closely on Wall Street. Sixteen securities analysts are now researching, or "covering," Axent, compared with just three a year ago.
Why the attention? It's largely a product of an aggressive acquisition strategy over the last 14 months. In that time, Axent has acquired four firms that will let it offer a broad array of security products, or "suites," to businesses. The company already sells software to 45 of the Fortune 50 companies.
"Axent is well positioned because of the breadth of products they offer," said David Hilal, a software analyst at investment bank Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. of Arlington. Indeed, with its size and variety, Axent can sometimes wield a built-in advantage over smaller competitors, which can only offer partial protection.
The last thing a company's network administrators want to do is deal with 600 different vendors, said Becker, an affable 41-year-old whose baby face makes him look younger; this would be somewhat akin to using one alarm company to safeguard the front door, another to protect the windows and another to install motion detectors.
Axent fields a services team that helps clients choose its products and diagnose network vulnerability. On average, customers spend $50,000 on Axent software, Becker said.
In other words, this is software for hard-core, back-office techies, not weekend geeks. But Axent's stock performance has won it attention in non-techie circles -- and the latest headlines have not been good.
,3 At the time the PassGo acquisition was announced, on March 31, the value of the all-stock deal was $50 million. Stock prices of acquiring companies often dip when the news breaks, out of investor fears that the cost of buying will drive down earnings. Axent turned out to be an extreme example of that syndrome: Its share price cratered immediately, wiping out nearly a quarter of the company's market capitalization by day's end.
Analysts said Wall Street was troubled by an accounting nuance in the PassGo deal. Axent said the acquisition would be reflected by the "purchase accounting" method. This meant that Axent could write off only a part of the purchase price immediately, not all of it at once, and the rest would continue to saddle the company's earnings for five to seven years.
Becker said the Securities and Exchange Commission has begun insisting on this accounting method, and that it will become far more common. It eventually will be incorporated into Wall Street's expectations, he predicts.
In addition, like many business software firms, Axent has been hurt by the year 2000 computer date problem. Companies have been reluctant to invest in elaborate software tools until they're confident they'll be ready for the millennium. "Y2K has been a diversion of attention and resources away from us," Becker said. That was one of the reasons the company cited for falling short of its numbers in the first quarter.
Becker sees Axent's recent problems as short-term, as does analyst Hilal. "With the growth of the Internet, there's going to be huge demand for secure transaction environments," Hilal said.
Plus, he said, if other large software makers such as International Business Machines Corp. and Computer Associates International Inc. decide to focus more on security products, Axent is now big enough to compete viably. Or it could be an attractive acquisition target.
Either way, Becker said, while short-term headaches are inevitable pangs of growth, security is an enduring issue. Businesses can secure their electronic worlds now or later, "but the issue of security will never disappear," Becker said. "So our niche won't disappear."
A Look at
Axent Technologies Inc.
Business: Provides computer security products and services to companies.
Chairman, chief executive: John C. Becker
President: Brett M. Jackson
Ticker symbol: AXNT on the Nasdaq
Local employees: 112
Web address: www.axent.com
* Includes one-time charges related to acquisition costs
Source: Company reports, Bloomberg News
CAPTION: "The issue of security will never disappear," says John Becker, CEO of Axent Technologies. "So our niche won't disappear."