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trikon

By BENJAMIN MARK COLE Contributing Reporter Trikon Technologies Inc., a manufacturer of machinery used to make advanced semiconductor chips, was once one of the brightest stars in Los Angeles’ firmament of high-tech companies. The Chatsworth-based company went public in 1995, at $14.50 a share, and shortly thereafter warranted a filmed visit from L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who touted Trikon then named Plasma & Materials Technology as emblematic of the city’s high-tech prowess. Times have changed. In recent weeks, Trikon shares have brushed down toward the penny-stock range, at times just a few cents away from going under $1 a share, and in its Nov. 14 Form 10-Q filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Trikon conceded that its financial picture “raises substantial doubts about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.” Company founder, physicist Greg Campbell, 38, left Trikon in November, after its key technologies were licensed to Applied Materials Inc., a much larger competitor. Campbell now works for Lam Research Inc., a Trikon competitor in Fremont, Calif. He declined to be interviewed for this story. Financially, Trikon has been a nightmare. The company lost $94.5 million on revenues of $42.2 million in 1996, and for the first nine months of 1997 reported a loss of $36 million on revenues of $43.7 million. Trikon has yet to post back-to-back profitable quarters since going public, and it recently reported that a line of credit with several unidentified banks, to be used as working capital, has been terminated, as the company was unable to meet certain financial covenants. Typical of what happens after a company’s stock nosedives, Wall Street analysts have abandoned coverage. Even one of the company’s largest stakeholders claims to be in the dark. “I don’t know what’s going on,” said Jeffrey Forrest, president of Forrest Binkley & Brown L.P., a Newport Beach-based investment firm that owns a 7.4 percent equity stake. Individual investors can be found posting notes on Internet bulletin boards asking if anyone knows why Trikon stock has lost more than 90 percent of its value in less than a year, or if it is a good buy at $1 a share. Answers are hard to come by. Even finding someone to talk to at Trikon can be a challenge. Evidently, the company’s fate will be decided from Great Britian, not Chatsworth. The reason stems back to November 1996, when Trikon privately placed about $70 million in convertible bonds and then bought and merged with the British company Electrotech Ltd. According to press releases at the time of the merger, Trikon paid $75 million in cash for Electrotech, and then swapped 5.6 million shares of Trikon stock then worth $70.1 million for all of Electrotech’s stock. Though press releases at the time of the merger presented Trikon as the acquiring company, terms of the purchase and Trikon’s flaccid performance have changed who calls the shots at Trikon, according to one company insider. Calls to Trikon’s in-house public relations officer in Chatsworth were referred to the company’s operational headquarters in Wales. A spokeswoman for Trikon there did not return phone calls, or e-mail inquiries. Trikon’s Web site also refers visitors to Newport, Wales. The company remains legally headquartered in Chatsworth, is traded on the Nasdaq, and files regularly with the SEC. But on Nov. 17, Trikon issued a press release announcing founder Campbell’s resignation as chief executive, and that Chris Dobson, with Trikon in Wales, has become the new chairman and CEO. Moreover, Trikon’s key technology which the company said allowed it to make machines that make better silicon chips was sold on that day to Applied Materials. What happened? How could a company promising enough to garner a major underwriter only two years ago end up in the financial doghouse? From the outset, Trikon competed against major manufacturers such as Applied Materials, which has annual sales in excess of $4 billion. Another competitor, Fremont, Calif.-based Lam Research Inc., has about $1 billion in annual sales. “The (Trikon) sales just never materialized, quarter after quarter, until we ran out of money,” said one former Trikon board member. According to the former director, major chip manufacturers did not want to risk using Trikon’s cutting-edge technology because of the company’s relatively small size and its lesser-known brand name. They preferred instead to stick with larger manufacturers with extensive service and support capabilities. The big buyers of the technologies sold by Trikon and its rivals include such giants as Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Corp. and Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc. Chip manufacturers fear nothing more than putting bad chips out onto the market they would rather use less-glamorous machines of known reliability than the latest and best from a smaller company. Nor was putting these Trikon machines into service a minor proposition its cheapest machine sells for $500,000, and its most expensive machines approach $4 million, not counting training and set-up costs. In short, Trikon had the problem of any small manufacturer trying to convince the world it had built a better mousetrap except its mousetraps cost millions of dollars to build and were marketed to customers with billions at stake. Indeed, Trikon had developed what some observers regarded as superior technology for making high-end silicon chips. Trikon relied on high-density plasma (gas) and radio waves and other technologies to etch channels into silicon. The channels are later filled with conductive metals, such as aluminum or copper. Trikon touted its technology as allowing greater accuracy in production, and smaller channels important, as it allowed Trikon to cram more channels and thus signal-carrying capacity into each chip. Trikon’s technology might well be superior; Applied Materials recently paid $30 million for non-exclusive rights to Trikon’s etch process. The cash infusion is helping keep Trikon afloat and helping it meet certain past-due debt obligations to bondholders. But the licensing also raises a question: Can Trikon survive given that its key technology, which it once touted as the linchpin in its future, is now in the hands of a larger competitor? Trikon, in its latest quarterly filing of financial statements with the SEC, conceded that its very future is at stake. “The company’s history of operating losses, negative cash flows, the termination of the company’s working capital facility raise questions about the company’s ability to survive,” stated the Form 10-Q filing.

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