George T. Jimenez thinks it's time to take a breath.
"Five positive quarters is sufficient time," said the founder and chief executive of AceComm Corp. "Not maybe to declare victory, but to declare that we're out of the funk we were in."
At AceComm, the Gaithersburg telecommunications equipment firm, the roller coaster is headed back up again.
AceComm enjoyed quick success after going public in 1996, with the small company's profits hitting $2.6 million in 1997 on revenue of $33.7 million.
But then the firm caught the Asian flu and it staggered, just as rapidly becoming a textbook lesson on the perils of economic globalization. AceComm sold much of its computer equipment and software to Pacific and Southeast Asian firms, but two years ago, as national economies teetered in the region, AceComm's customers there abruptly curtailed or canceled orders.
The firm's profits quickly turned to losses, hitting $9 million in the year ended June 30, 1998, and its stock dipped, too, to less than $1, a free-fall from the $20-a-share figure it enjoyed in the heady days after the firm went public.
For Jimenez, it's good to be getting business again. "You feel a trend when it's going up and you feel a trend when it's going down," the 63-year-old businessman said in an interview last week. "Today we're concentrating on growth strategies. A year ago we were only thinking about survival."
The firm -- now with 180 employees, 30 fewer than at its peak employment -- earned $542,000 (6 cents a share) in the quarter that ended Sept. 30. And the company's stock price closed at $9.25 on Friday, well above the low point of 93 3/4 cents just 13 months ago.
Hampton Adams, an analyst with the investment banking firm of Volpe Brown Whelan & Co., said, "I think the fault they had was focusing on Asia when everyone told them to focus on Asia and it turned out to be absolutely wrong. AceComm has had good technology for a long time and now they have applications that address the Internet. That's much more interesting to investors and customers."
In the early days after AceComm went public, Jimenez said, the firm did 60 percent of its business outside the United States and 40 percent domestically, a ratio that has now flip-flopped.
He said "there's no real magic" to the company's turnaround. "We've concentrated on markets that were not affected by the Asian downturn," such as Mexico and Canada, where the firm recently expanded its operations in Montreal.
"We will still be there [in Asia] when they recover."
He said there is a movement "around the world to privatize and deregulate national telecom firms. So when that happens it creates new carriers" -- and new business opportunities for AceComm.
But Jimenez hasn't forgotten the troubled times the firm endured. "The major issue for us was to stop bleeding cash," he said. "We had $8 million in the bank" in 1996, a figure that dipped to $2 million and now has been boosted again to $3.6 million.
In addition to paring the firm's staff, Jimenez said he imposed 5 percent to 20 percent pay cuts for several top executives and eliminated his own $160,000-a-year salary for a year and a half. The pay-cutting "allowed us to cut fewer people," he said. He restored his executives' full salaries nearly a year ago and resumed taking his salary about five months ago.
"It was a bad period," he said. "But every time there are lessons. We learned how to operate more austerely. We're more discriminating in which customers we pursue and which kind of products we offer to those customers.
"We have a credit review process now where every outstanding bill is analyzed," he said. "We look at new and existing customers and decide what [credit] limits we will place on those customers.
"We're just paying closer attention to our receivables," Jimenez said. "What we've done is collect our money." He said that 2 1/2 years ago, the firm was owed $16.1 million in outstanding payments, a figure that has now been trimmed sharply to $8.7 million.
Moreover, he said the firm "did two really fortunate things: We did not let our technology go stale and we retained our staff, one of the brightest in this part of the world."
As a result, Jimenez concluded, "we see a recognition by Wall Street that the company is moving back to where we're positioned for growth." Not only is the stock price up, he said, but AceComm now regularly gets calls from investors seeking information about the company.
A Look at ...
Business: Telecommunications equipment firm
Chairman, chief executive:
George T. Jimenez
Ticker symbol: ACEC on the Nasdaq
Web address: www.acecomm.com
Source: Company reports