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Danka's new CEO reveals his vision

Yes, the bottom line must improve, but P. Lang Lowrey III says workers' morale must be lifted as well.

Though he has never met Dan Doyle, P. Lang Lowrey III sees a lot of his father in the empire-building founder of Danka Business Systems.

Like Doyle, Lowrey's father has been a successful entrepreneur, starting a data-gathering system later bought by software company NCR and, now at age 69, a chain of high-end restaurants on the East Coast. But dealing with the financial stress of managing the growth has been more of a challenge for the senior Lowrey.

That's where Lowrey III stepped in for his dad _ and now is stepping in to run Doyle's former company.

"I think what I bring to the table is an employee-focused, client-driven attitude," Lowrey said Thursday in his first sit-down interview since being tapped a month ago as Danka's chief executive.

Lowrey laid out an aggressive plan to move the troubled St. Petersburg company beyond its core business as a major distributor and servicer of copier machines.

He wants to push Danka into creating printing "solutions" early in the electronic process, letting customers print a couple of pages or just a paragraph off a PC from remote locations. He also wants to hire software engineers to help customers connect their older computer systems with new digital machines provided by Danka.

"Once we do that, we'll be able to break out of the pack," he said. "Nobody else is doing that."

First, though, Lowrey has to deal with a nagging restructuring. Danka has until next week to convince short-term noteholders to accept a watered-down return on their investment. As part of the restructuring, Danka hopes to close by June 30 on a sale of its Danka Services International unit, bringing in about $30-million to pay down the debt.

Danka's lenders have been patient through the turmoil. Lowrey anticipates the consortium of banks holding $550-million in long-term debt will amend their agreement with Danka for the 11th time to give the company more time.

Lowrey, an Atlanta businessman with turnaround experience, was brought in after CEO Larry Switzer abruptly left in October after two years on the job. Switzer shares a common heritage with Doyle, his immediate predecessor. After leaving, both accused the Danka board of shortchanging them on severance.

Recently approved as a postulant in the Episcopal Church, Lowrey, 47, intends to eventually become ordained as a priest.

But he has to stay at Danka at least three years to reap the financial benefits of a turnaround through a stock option payout. And he jokes that he could use the money before turning to the priesthood.

Lowrey declined to say how long he will stick around, but he has a self-imposed deadline of getting the company back on track this year.

Toward that end, he's already shaking things up.

He wants customers to start grading Danka on its service performance, evoking groans from some employees. He is trying to cut the lengthy wait for customers who order machines, now as much as 10 days. And he's dispatching senior executives to meet one-on-one with customers.

Faced with morale issues, Lowrey takes a theological approach to entice employees to buy into the restructuring plan.

"People don't cross deserts because they're thirsty, they cross deserts because there's some truth on the other side," he said. "This is a metaphorical desert. If (employees) buy into this plan, they will be motivated."

Despite setting some lofty goals, Lowrey said he is trying to temper his enthusiasm. "Historically, this has been sort of an "over-promise and underperform' company," he said. "The new position will be "underpromise and overperform.' "

In one sign that the highflying old days are over, Danka this week sold its corporate plane, a six-seat Astro, to PrintPack Inc., a company based in Lowrey's hometown of Atlanta. Danka grossed $6-million from the sale and promptly channeled the money toward chipping away at its debt.

There are other indications as well that Danka has a different kind of CEO.

When Doyle ran Danka, the company was a major civic booster, active in the arts and sports as a corporate sponsor and part-owner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. If Danka manages a comeback this summer, as it hopes, Lowrey has a different set of priorities.

He would like to see the company return to civic boosterism, but a Devil Rays suite does not top his agenda.

"I would rather get into the homeless shelters, (investing) where everybody makes a huge difference instead of where we can get the best set of tickets."

_ Jeff Harrington can be reached at harringtonsptimes.com or (813) 226-3407.

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