MaggieMoo's, the Columbia ice cream chain famous for its sassy bovine mascot with thick eyelashes and a pearl necklace, has agreed to sell itself for $16 million and a future full of promise -- licensed toys, children's wear, maybe even a music album.
But perhaps more interesting is the tale of the new owner, NexCen Brands, and the fortunes and failures of that company's founder, Baltimore resident and onetime tech superstar David Oros.
NexCen is the latest iteration of Oros's business ventures. Its current mission is to buy premium brands and retail or restaurant chains and make money through licensing deals and franchising. In addition to the MaggieMoo's acquisition announced this month, the company said it would buy Marble Slab Creamery of Houston for $21 million. The deal is expected to be completed by the end of the first quarter. The company's roster also includes the Athlete's Foot and designer apparel line Bill Blass.
Such deals are a far cry from NexCen's roots as a tech start-up formerly known as Aether Systems preaching the gospel of wireless communications and later as an investment firm focusing on mortgage-backed securities. Oros's role has also shifted from the spotlight to the shadows as his company continues to drift away from his original dream.
One constant has been Oros's inability to turn an annual profit since NexCen went public in 1999. In 2001, the company posted a $1.65 billion loss for the year. According to its latest quarterly report with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the fall, the company is carrying cumulative losses of $779.8 million.
"We were going down the rocks and shoals figuring out what to do," said Edward Mathias, a member of NexCen's board of directors for the past four years and managing director of the Carlyle Group. "Basically, it was trying to come up with a business model that works."
Oros could not be reached for comment for this article. A spokeswoman for NexCen referred all questions to the company's new chief executive, Robert W. D'Loren.
Oros, now 47, founded Aether Systems in 1994 outside Baltimore. A graduate of the University of Maryland Baltimore County with degrees in math and physics, he had spent most of his career creating software for military radar systems. But he had bigger ideas.
This was before the era of BlackBerrys, and the concept of wireless data communication was cutting edge. Oros founded Aether to develop programs that enabled information to be sent to handheld personal devices -- stock quotes beamed to a PalmPilot, for example.
The company quickly wowed the tech community. By 1999, Aether went public to much fanfare. Its stock tripled in price from $16 to $48 on the first day of trading and soon reached more than $300. In the next two years, the company raised more than $1 billion in capital. Some reports calculated Oros's personal net worth to be higher than Oprah Winfrey's at one time.
At least, on paper.
But investors and shareholders soon realized that more people were buzzing about Aether's software than were actually using it. As the tech bubble began to deflate, Aether went into a freefall. By fall 2001, its stock price had dropped to less than $3. Aether was deep in the red.
In fact, Aether had lost so much money that its losses arguably became its most valuable asset, allowing the company to reduce income taxes on future earnings -- as long as the company kept operating.
So it was that Oros's dream ended. Aether hired investment bank Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group to search for "strategic options" for the company. The solution? Investing in mortgage-backed securities.
"This has been a difficult process, believe me," Oros told The Washington Post when the transformation occurred in 2004.
Change didn't stop there, however. The new strategy could not stem the red tide, and rising interest rates battered the value of Aether's holdings. The company continued to lose money. Oros, who had remained as chief executive, searched for yet another answer.
Last summer, Aether bought UCC Capital, which advised companies on acquisitions of intellectual properties such as brands and franchisers and helped them raise money for the deal. The price was 2.5 million shares of Aether common stock, with bonuses of 2.5 million shares and up to $10 million cash if the new business achieved specified financial targets and the stock price exceeded certain levels within five years.
Oros stepped down in June as head of the company he founded but remained chairman of the board. His replacement was D'Loren, who had been president and chief executive of UCC. A few months later, Aether changed its name to NexCen.
Oros is "not very involved in what we're doing on a day-to-day basis," D'Loren said in a phone interview last week. "I think Dave's strategy here is find a group of people who could take Aether systems in a good direction and let them do what they do. And that's what's happening here."
As head of NexCen, D'Loren has moved from guiding and financing mergers to closing the deals himself. Less than three months after Aether bought UCC -- even before the name was changed to NexCen -- the new company announced that it would acquire the Athlete's Foot. By December, it added Bill Blass. MaggieMoo's and Marble Slab soon followed.
The chains both sell premium ice cream that can be mixed by hand on a marble tile with toppings ranging from strawberries to gummy bears. Marble Slab, founded in 1983 in Houston and owned by company president Ronald Hankamer, operates primarily in the South, Midwest and Southwest.
MaggieMoo's stands, or "treateries," are decorated in bright pastels and filled with cartoon characters. The company specializes in kid-friendly flavors such as Choco-Mallo and cotton candy, and recently developed the first ice cream that tastes like Twizzlers.
The chain was founded as a mom-and-pop store in Kansas City, Mo. Cows weren't part of the picture until Maryland powerhouse Richard Sharoff, former president of Vie de France and franchiser of Boston Market locations in Maryland, bought the company and moved its headquarters to Columbia in 1996. He hired a cartoonist to create Maggie's signature stylish look, and the brand took off.
Sharoff and his cousin, Stuart Olsten, former chairman of Olsten Corp., a public multibillion-dollar staffing services company, formed a venture capital firm that acquired controlling interest in MaggieMoo's International. But after a falling out, Sharoff left the company and was replaced as chief executive by Jonathan R. Jameson.
On its Web site, the company says: "Maggie is used to her celebrity life style and has been known to sign a couple of autographs, give her fans a hug, and pose for the paparazzi."
D'Loren said he sees enormous potential in Maggie's story line. He wants to take the concept international by riding the coattails of Athlete's Foot franchises in more than 40 countries. NexCen has similar plans for Marble Slab but said the two chains would keep separate names and brand images.
NexCen hopes to keep up the current pace of acquisitions, buying three to five companies each year, D'Loren said. Mathias said the goal is to become "a very major company in this arena."
"This is not just financial engineering," he said.
But it remains to be seen whether this strategy will be able to reverse the company's fortunes and achieve the goal that has long eluded it: making an annual profit.
The outlook is hazy at best, and NexCen shied away from setting a timetable in its latest quarterly SEC filing.
"The Company presently does not have sufficient objective evidence regarding the Company's ability to achieve profitability in future periods," the filing said.