MicroProse founder takes the blame


John W. "Wild Bill" Stealey wishes he hadn't taken his hands off the joystick at MicroProse Inc. last year.

In interviews yesterday, Mr. Stealey, chairman and co-founder of the Hunt Valley-based computer game company, took "full responsibility" for the company's cash crunch, poor earnings and recent management turmoil.

Mr. Stealey returned to the controls last month after the departure of its president and replacement of its chief financial officer. MicroProse has suffered painful drops in its earnings and stock price recently.

In the last year, the company has run through about $8 million in cash, missed game shipment deadlines for the all-important Christmas selling season, and allowed game developers to go over budget.

"Our cash situation is tight," Mr. Stealey conceded. "Everybody in the financial community knows that."

Last week, Mr. Stealey announced a layoff and a restructuring to refocus the company on its core products -- flight simulations, military games and sports games.

Shuan Hong, an industry analyst, praised the changes. "The company is definitely moving in the right directions," said Mr. Hong, who watches MicroProse's stock for Parker, Hunter, a Pittsburgh-based brokerage.

MicroProse is now investigating alternatives, such as debt or joint ventures with larger companies, to raise cash to market eight already-developed Nintendo and Sega games, he said. The company only has enough money to buy cartridges to market two new games.

Mr. Stealey refused to blame his 1992 purchase of the Baltimore Spirit professional soccer team for his lack of focus on the company, adding that the team is mostly run by coach Kenny Cooper.

Mr. Stealey said MicroProse's problems started last year, when the board of directors told him to let a professional manager run the company.

So last May, MicroProse hired a president for U.S. operations, Mark L. Barnett, former president of Baltimore-based Easco Hand Tools Inc., a division of the Danaher Corp.

Mr. Stealey, who still calls Mr. Barnett a friend, said he and Mr. Barnett "spent more time arguing over what decisions I could make and he could make than we did making decisions."

He said he and Mr. Barnett also failed to stop an "overambitious" team of game developers from exceeding budget and missing deadlines for the company's latest flight simulator.

The team spent $1.2 million developing "F-15 Strike Force III" -- more than twice the development cost of an average game -- he said. Although Mr. Stealey believes the late delivery of the game to stores cost the company millions in missed sales, the game is profitable and has sold about 165,000 units.

And, he said, Mr. Barnett's attempt to develop a "total quality management" program also contributed to problems. "We had meetings up the wazoo. . . . I was going berserk" because meetings ate up whole days for large groups of employees.

Mr. Barnett resigned to form an unidentified company last month. He did not return several phone calls.

Mr. Stealey, a 46-year-old former fighter pilot, said that after a year or two he hopes to sell off his holdings and move on to other ventures.

The company's earnings fell to $893,000 in the three months ended Dec. 31, down 61 percent from the same quarter a year earlier. For the nine months ended Dec. 31, earnings were $771,000, down 76 percent from the year before.

MicroProse expects to report annual sales of about $50 million in fiscal 1993, which ends March 31.

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