Vista Preys on Acquisitions for Growing IT Business

By Nick Wakeman

Staff Writer

Don't mistake the logo on James Duggan's business card for an eagle. He will quickly point out that it is a peregrine falcon, "the fastest predator in the world."

The former DynCorp executive's new venture, Vista Information Technologies Inc., must fit that mold to evolve into a $300 million to $400 million systems integrator in five years.

Duggan and his partners - Dunlop Scott, a former vice president of investor relations for Wang Laboratories, Billerica, Mass., and Chicago investment firm Golder, Thoma, Cressey, Rauner Inc. - plan to build their company through acquisitions.

Vista officials are eyeing companies that are strong in geographic information systems, local area and wide area networks, and telephony in the initial acquisition stage.

They bought their first company, General Analytics Corp., for an undisclosed amount in March. The company's McLean, Va., offices are now the headquarters for Vista. Several other acquisitions are under consideration, said Duggan, Vista's president and CEO. "We have a lot of frogs to kiss," he joked.

Golder, Thoma, Cressey, Rauner is backing Vista to the tune of $25 million in equity capital and $100 million in debt capital, said Jim Tenbroek, the GTCR associate who constructed the deal creating Vista. Tenbroek is also a director on Vista's board.

The size of the systems integration market and its strong growth attracted GTCR to the Vista venture and technology investments, Tenbroek said.

NationsBank is providing another $25 million line of credit for acquisitions and accounts receivable, Duggan said.

Acquisitions will come at a "voracious" pace, Tenbroek said.

GTCR is familiar with that tempo. It helped Michael Willis build Houston-based CoreStaff Inc. into a $600 million-a-year provider of infotech staffing in four years. During that period, the company made 45 acquisitions, Tenbroek said. "Management is the key. We literally will start with just a management team and acquire companies around them," he said

Duggan's stint at Reston, Va.-based DynCorp attracted GTCR's attention. While there, Duggan built the company's aviation ground services business into a $100 million division. In 1990, he created DynCorp's IT division, which had revenues of $250 million when he left in January 1996.

"Typically, we find people who have built a $100 million business before," Tenbroek said.

Professional services will be a key focus of Vista, he said. "We don't want to invent anything, we don't want to develop software," he said. "We will strictly be a services company."

The goal for Vista is a 50-50 split between government and commercial work, Duggan said.

Outsourcing of network management is a very attractive business to Vista, said Scott, Vista's executive vice president and chief financial officer.

With the high level of skills required for network management in short supply, both the government and noninformation technology companies are turning to outside contractors, he said.

Growing through acquisitions might prove difficult in the current market because the stock market is driving up the valuation of most publicly held companies, said William Loomis, an analyst with Ferris Baker Watts, Baltimore.

Privately held companies look at those high prices and want the same for their companies. "We have seen a number of deals fall apart over pricing," he said.

One of Vista's biggest challenges will be convincing private companies that their asking prices are too high, Loomis said.

Earlier this year, GTCR launched a new $500 million equity fund. Tenbroek estimated a quarter to one-third of the fund will go to information technology investments.

The firm is funding a new venture by some former KPMG Peat Marwick executives called AnswerThink, which will be a software consulting firm, he said. More investments in the greater Washington area are expected.

"Information technology drives increased productivity," he said. "So there is tremendous demand to build systems to drive productivity up."

There also are many small IT businesses that can benefit from consolidating into larger companies, especially in the Washington area, Tenbroek said. The Washington area "is a hotbed of small IT services business, but it has been overlooked and undeserved by venture capital," he said.

Many of these companies are primarily government contractors, which is another plus because "there is some assumption of immediate cash flow" from the government contracts they hold, Tenbroek said.

"This market is changing from solely a government focus to a good mix of telecommunications, software development, government and commercial," Scott said. "It is an attractive place to be."

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