Ashurst founder, CEO quits Wilcoxon gives no explanation

firm planning changes

December 10, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The chief executive officer and founder of Ashurst Technology Ltd., Benton H. Wilcoxon, resigned yesterday with no explanation.

The company said in a news release that it was embarking on a "strategic redirection" and that the board of directors will search for a new chief executive.

Company officials did not return phone calls. A statement said that Wilcoxon, who also resigned as chairman and as a director, will remain "available in an advisory capacity."

Ashurst has its Technology Center in Relay and its main office in Kiev, Ukraine. The company is trying to find commercial markets for former Soviet technology, and has an interest in gold and scandium mines in Ukraine.

Scandium is a metal that, when alloyed with aluminum, is said to show promise for commercial uses such as welding wire and sporting equipment. Ashurst has announced a number of partnerships this year, including for marketing scandium-alloyed baseball bats and bike frames with a California sporting goods company and lacrosse sticks with STX Inc. of Baltimore.

Ashurst has struggled financially as it waits for the commercial markets to develop. During the second quarter of 1997, the last period for which it has reported results, the company lost $2.9 million on revenue of $1.1 million.

With Wilcoxon's departure, two executive vice presidents have been appointed to the office of the president and "will be responsible for implementing a comprehensive plan of cost cutting and rationalization which will enable the company to concentrate more effectively on its core businesses," the

company said.

Ashurst made international news last year in a scandal involving a London fund manager who set up shell companies to amass improper amounts of stock in technology firms. Ashurst was the single favorite investment of the disgraced manager, Peter Young of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, who Wilcoxon said last year had impressed him as "probably the most astute investor we've ever had."

Deutsche Morgan Grenfell remains the biggest shareholder in Ashurst, with a 48 percent stake.

Wilcoxon and other company officials said at the time that they had no idea Young was investing so heavily in Ashurst because he did it through various paper companies.

Investigators said last year that Ashurst was not implicated in criminal probes of Young.

Wilcoxon also showed up in the British press in October when he delisted the company from London's Alternative Investment Market and blasted the market for "poor communication" and "overall ineffectiveness."

While its biggest operating center is in Relay in southern Baltimore County, Ashurst maintains a heavy international flavor, with business cards printed in both English and Russian.

Wilcoxon, 47, founded the company in Las Vegas in 1991, then moved it to Canada. Its principal market remains the Toronto Stock Exchange, though the company is now chartered in Hamilton, Bermuda.

Ashurst settled in the Baltimore area last year to take advantage of a research lab that was abandoned by Lockheed Martin Corp.

The company has stakes in several Ukranian mining operations. A scandium mine has been active this year, but Ashurst's efforts to mine gold have gone into a costly stall as the Ukranian government reorganizes its participation in the project.

Ashurst ventured in yet another direction this year when it bought an interest in two New Mexico companies developing technology for micropowders, which are used in electronics and pharmaceuticals.

The gold mine and the micropowder investment together drained about $3.3 million from the company's cash reserves, which sank to $5.3 million during the second quarter of 1997 from $17.6 million the year before.

As part of the restructuring announced yesterday, Ashurst has hired ICE Securities of London as a financial adviser.

Longtime board member William Burton will act as chairman until the board finds a permanent replacement. Burton also is an executive at several other companies, including Magnesium Alloy Corp., International Pursuit and Adex Mining Corp.

Executive vice presidents Stephen Meldrum and Lenna Koszarny will act as joint presidents to oversee the refocusing of the company. "Both the board and senior management believe that the Company will emerge as a stronger, more focused and less complex company as a result of these changes," Ashurst said in its statement.

On the Toronto Stock Exchange, Ashurst stock dropped 7 cents yesterday to close at 46 cents in Canadian currency.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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