'Parrothead' as savior Rebel: It's too soon to tell, but a deathly ill Columbia company has color in its cheeks thanks in part to a Jimmy Buffet fan who keeps a stuffed parrot in his office.


The signs of rebellion are all around Leonard E. Moodispaw, if you know where to look. His mustache is bushier than most boardroom types would permit. He sometimes wears ties untied and draped around the collar of his dress shirt. He has a stuffed parrot hanging in one corner of his office.

Moodispaw, 55, is a Jimmy Buffett fan or "Parrothead" who likes to say that his life is a quest for Key West. Several weeks ago, he stood in front of the assembled employees of Columbia's Essex Corp. and told them about his latest reckless act:

He was coming to work there.

On April 1, Moodispaw left a thriving job at the government contractor Mantech Inc. to become president and chief operating officer at the financially troubled Essex, which was said to have six months left to live -- and that was 10 months ago.

He agreed to start with no pay at a place that frets over issuing news releases because it hurts to spend $500 to post a page on the public relations wire.

In some ways, Essex fit perfectly with Moodispaw's image of himself as a corporate Parrothead. The company had been cutting its own path for years, fighting to find commercial gold in a device its scientists developed for the covert world of spy technology.

Their patented ImSyn processor seemed ready to revolutionize everything from radar imaging to medical scanners and microscopes, but Essex could not get outsiders to appreciate the possibilities.

With time and money running out, Essex and its white-haired patriarch, Harry Letaw, put everything on the line last year in a final effort to market the technology.

Then, something strange began to happen. At the moment when it was prepared to die going for the big score, Essex began winning contracts for comparatively mundane work, such as writing software.

It continued failing to make big sales of its gadgets, but major government agencies and contractors started showing interest in the technology.

When Moodispaw stood up that day before the company's 50 beleaguered workers, he told them his decision to come aboard was "a measure of my esteem for you all, not to mention affection and respect. I'm not used to jumping on the Titanic."

In the weeks since then, he and Letaw have taken turns bailing water. Essex still hasn't found smooth sailing, but at least it is afloat.

Moodispaw and Letaw met in 1974 while serving on an Anne Arundel County advisory board. Moodispaw was a second-generation spook, having followed his mother into the dark world of the National Security Agency. Letaw, an engineer by training, was an aerospace executive.

The older man impressed Moodispaw with his courtly charm, and they became friends. Letaw rode with Moodispaw's family once to a conference in Virginia, and along the way he helped Moodispaw's daughter finish a high school report. The Moodispaws dubbed him "the world's smartest man."

Dressed even on hot days in suit and suspenders, Letaw was an unlikely ally to the nonconforming Moodispaw, who showed up at NSA with an anti-Nixon bumper sticker on his car. But their lives intersected many times over the years.

Moodispaw left the spy agency in 1978, afraid he would become "one of them" if he remained a bureaucrat. He had earned both a business degree and a law degree in night school, and he went into private legal practice in Annapolis.

He did some civil liberties work and also kept busy handling legal affairs for former colleagues from NSA. One of them talked him into serving part-time as corporate counsel for a group of scientists who had left the agency to form their own company.

The company, System Engineering & Development Corp., was dedicated to developing a technology for processing images from spy satellites.

The technique involved using a laser to make a certain type of calculation far faster than the mightiest digital supercomputer could.

Letaw, at the time, had become president of a Northern Virginia company, Essex Corp., that provided engineering services to defense and space agencies. For example, Essex built the mock-up of the space shuttle cargo bay that astronauts use in underwater training tanks.

Essex was looking for a company to buy, and Moodispaw told Letaw about the commercial and industrial potential of what SEDC was perfecting. Essex bought SEDC in 1989.

Moodispaw hung around for a time as corporate counsel and on the board of directors, then followed his dream to Florida for a couple of years, and wound up back in Maryland working for Mantech.

While Moodispaw flourished at his company, Letaw and Essex began to founder. Defense contracting shrank, and the image processing technology -- which Letaw had come to believe held a huge financial payoff -- was languishing.

Last year, the grandfatherly Letaw finally decided to roll the dice. He invested about $200,000 of his own money into Essex to help keep it afloat. He sold off two-thirds of the company -- the original Essex portions -- to marshal resources for a final push at marketing the image-processing technology.

Some of his executives calculated that they had enough money to last about six months if they couldn't pull off a major sale of their products.

Moodispaw watched with concern. "I was worried about Harry's health, frankly. He was trying to do too much," he said.

Letaw had no major health problems, but when Moodispaw decided to jump into the fracas, Letaw felt relieved at having a fresh back to shoulder some of the burden. He handed over his day-to-day duties as president and kept the big-picture roles of chairman and chief executive.

Letaw and other Essex executives believed that if they could get just one industry to start buying their technology, they could make as big an impact as Ciena Corp., a Maryland company that made a fortune with its innovative telecommunications technology.

Moodispaw, though, preached caution.

"I don't want to abandon the Ciena-like future. I'm a firm believer in that," Moodispaw said. "But in order to get there we have to be here. Let's focus on being profitable and stable."

The ingredients for that were already in place when Moodispaw arrived.

In recent years, Essex has done an increasing amount of work developing software for Motorola and its Iridium project, a constellation of satellites that will offer communications services around the globe.

This year, the pace accelerated. Essex has won $1.8 million in business with Motorola since January.

Sustained by that work, the company began picking up contracts to test its ImSyn technology on government projects.

Essex had always been able to win the odd research award, but now agencies such as the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) were interested in the using the technology on actual programs.

Navy Cmdr. Robert Childs, surveillance technologies team leader for BMDO, believes the Essex processor could help unlock a new generation of missile-detecting radars.

"I'd say it's very promising," he said. "I just hope they can stay in business long enough so the Defense Department gets to leverage off what they're doing in the commercial world."

The commercial potential of the technology remains a dream. But Essex is more hopeful of staying in business than at any time in the past couple of years.

The day Moodispaw told the Essex staff he was joining the company, Essex issued a statement saying it could not file quarterly financial reports because its accountants were unsure that Essex was a going concern.

Since then, the company has hired new accountants and is laboring to get financial reports back up to date.

With the contracts that have come in this year, Letaw and Moodispaw are even allowing themselves hope that profitability is thinkable after losing money every quarter for the past two years.

This month, Essex closed the sale of a building it owned in Huntsville, Ala. For once, Letaw didn't worry about spending money on a news release announcing the deal. Not only did the $1.1 million sale pay off the mortgage on the empty, 33,000-square-foot building, but it allowed Essex to clear three-quarters of its debt.

And it released the company from the shadow of one more cloud of uncertainty.

Their offices are next door to each another -- Letaw's decorated with a few Japanese prints, Moodispaw's festooned with travel photos, coffee mugs and a Key West flag his wife embroidered with the slogan "Don't fritter with me" -- and the two friends and top executives feel a little more hopeful with each development.

Letaw imagines getting the big break and then being able to retire. Moodispaw, who has been finding solace lately in Jimmy Buffett's book "The Pirate Looks at 50," has an even simpler goal. "I just want the company to become stable," said the sometimes-rebel.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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