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Plasma-Therm rebounds after local management buyout

Abdul Lateef, CEO of Plasma-Therm, led a management buyout of the company, formerly owned by Swiss conglomerate Oerlikon.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Abdul Lateef, CEO of Plasma-Therm, led a management buyout of the company, formerly owned by Swiss conglomerate Oerlikon.

Abdul Lateef relishes the many virtues of autonomy.

A year after leading a management buyout of Plasma-Therm, Lateef says he enjoys making decisions focused on the needs of his St. Petersburg tech company, not those of a Swiss conglomerate nearly 5,000 miles away.

He looks forward to becoming more active in the local tech community and in civic projects, such as cosponsoring a new exhibit opening this week at the Dali Museum.

And there's this perk: He gets to put money from the company's recent financial resurgence back into the operation rather than shipping it to a corporate parent.

Plasma-Therm's profits are up "several hundred percentage points" so far this year as it rebounds from a tough 2009 throughout the industry, Lateef said.

Plasma-Therm makes etching equipment that's used to make semiconductor chips. Its machines are behind chips in smart phones and Wii controllers — chips that can tell an iPhone whether it's being held vertically or horizontally; chips that provide "solid-state lighting" to illuminate PCs.

Lateef, a 43-year-old University of Nebraska graduate who received an MBA from the University of Florida, joined Plasma-Therm as a project engineer 12 years ago. He recently talked about the company's new incarnation and the joys of local ownership with the St. Petersburg Times. Here are some excerpts:

How did the management buyout come together?

In reality, the company was being marketed for some time. They had approached a string of buyers as well as investors, and they were having difficulty finding the right buyer because of the industry downturn at the time.

That was the timing for (the local management team) to invest. In January of 2009 we closed on the acquisition. We're 100 percent locally owned now and we were financed by a local bank. That in itself was amazing in light of the timing. The financing came together in September-October of 2008 (at the height of the national credit crunch).

How well has Plasma-Therm's business model held up through the years?

We've had about $50 million in revenues annually over the last 10 years. Some years up and some down. … Last year was definitely the worst we've had in the last 10 or 12 years. But what is important about last year is that while the industry was posting significant losses, we were able to operationally remain positive.

So you still posted a net profit last year?

Just by a hair. In our industry that was significant. Just to break even would have been a huge success.

How are revenues so far in 2010?

We're about 60 percent higher year-to-date in revenues. Just in April, we booked about what we did in revenue all of last year.

What sparked the rebound?

A couple of different factors. There's the return of the market in general. We're seeing more activity, an increase in R&D manufacturing.

Solid-state lighting, which provides LED back-lighting for laptop computers … has been a strong growth segment due to a multitude of reasons. It's a green industry because of the fact that it reduces energy consumption significantly.

A lot of cities have gone to LED lighting for traffic lights. In addition to the significant reduction in maintenance costs, the safety aspect of it is also prominent. With LEDs, you have a multiple-light source; if one goes out, the system is still functional.

If you look at all the newer-model cars, they have much sleeker designs for taillights that are basically enabled by solid-state lighting.

A big story in Tampa are the lights on top of SunTrust (Financial Centre in downtown Tampa). They just recently switched to solid-state lighting. They can change the light (design) now with the push of a button. It used to require a crew of three people to make that switch.

Any other new pursuits?

We're doing a lot of work related to infrared imaging that goes into technology like night-vision goggles used by soldiers in the field. It improves safety because visibility improves tremendously. We enable the production of some of those sensors.

Under your former Swiss owner, Unaxis, the company's name was changed to Oerlikon. Why switch back to Plasma-Therm?

Many of our customers through the years have continued to refer to the Plasma-Therm name. The brand recognition was very, very strong in the market. We've had 35 years of history with the industry. The Oerlikon name was intended to be used (by Unaxis) for the specific direction that they wanted to take us in high-tech (products). It was never a very big brand.

Do you still have a relationship with Oerlikon?

Absolutely. They offer some very complementary products to us. And we still have a landlord-lessee relationship here.

How does local ownership affect your presence in the local tech community?

Now that we're 100 percent locally owned … we want to be a better corporate citizen. We want to be more involved in the tech community. That hasn't been the case before.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jeffmharrington.

fast facts

Plasma-Therm

Business: Manufactures processing equipment that is used in the production of semiconductor chips

Headquarters: St. Petersburg

CEO: Abdul Lateef

History: Incorporated in 1975; formerly traded on the New York Stock Exchange; bought in 2000 by Swiss conglomerate Oerlikon and renamed Unaxis; bought by the management team in St. Petersburg in 2009 and renamed Plasma-Therm

Employees: 85

Plasma-Therm rebounds after local management buyout 05/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 2, 2010 5:59pm]
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