Fast-Growing Chain

Another chain of computer retail stores is being forged during the personal-computer sales slump. This one, Pathfinder Computer Centers of Torrance, claims it will shortly be the biggest chain of company-owned stores in Southern California.

Begun in 1982 as a single store in Encino, the firm now has 10 outlets in the Los Angeles area--some of them acquired from beleaguered proprietors--and has tentative agreements to buy five more area stores. Pathfinder said it also has reached an agreement in principle to buy an eight-store chain based in Albuquerque, N.M.

"We went into the year with five stores and plan to end it with 25," said Donald Hart, vice president for acquisitions, the former chief operating officer of a 44-store chain of computer retail stores owned by Xerox Corp.

The acquisition program got a boost last November from an initial public offering that raised $1.25 million. The company's stock is traded over-the-counter. Pathfinder was originally funded by Santa Fe, N.M., venture capitalist A. David Silver, now chairman.

Pathfinder's latest acquisition is Rainbow Computers, a two-store chain in the San Fernando Valley. It has agreements to buy a three-store Los Angeles chain called Computer Centres and two Computers Plus stores in Orange County. If completed, these deals would bring Pathfinder's revenue to an annual rate of more than $20 million, the company said.

Within six weeks, according to Hart, Pathfinder expects to complete the acquisition of 80% of Computer SuperStores of Albuquerque, whose eight outlets stretch from Midland, Tex., to Phoenix.

In theory at least, that acquisition would take the firm well past its break-even point of 16 stores and into the black, he said. Currently, Pathfinder is recording an operating loss of about $200,000 a month but should be profitable by the October-December quarter, he said.

Pathfinder might be evidence of what analysts are saying about the computer retail business: that large chains are best positioned to survive the shakeout that has spread throughout the computer industry and to exploit what is presumed to be a coming upturn in computer sales.

"We are grabbing some stores that weren't doing very well," said co-founder and Vice President Steven Rork, a former executive at University Stereo and the Federated Group. "By 1986, we think there's going to be a very, very strong market."

Pathfinder's main customers are small and medium-sized businesses. Its biggest line is AT&T;, but the chain also sells IBM and Compaq models.

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