Longform

The Matrix: Unloaded

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Asher collected and preserved his own cache of databases. In addition, he designed search protocols for confidential databases kept and maintained only for law enforcement agencies. By 1996, his company's name had been shortened to DBT Online, but the firm had amassed 180 computers filling two buildings, which generated reports from billions of records from more than 700 federal, state, and local agencies.

DBT's utility and its success were aided by the suddenly colossal presence of the Internet. The speed and precision of DBT's electronic reports were a highly saleable commodity on the World Wide Web, and that enticed several high-profile investors, including Jack Hight, who had cofounded Electronic Data Systems Federal Corp. in the 1960s. "I personally believe that Hank is an outstanding businessman," Hight testified recently in a civil lawsuit. "There are not a lot of people that I know of that can take an idea from practically nothing and make it into a company, a successful company."

Hight eventually convinced Kenneth G. Langone, a cofounder of Home Depot, to invest in DBT, although Langone had walked away from an earlier chance to become involved with Asher because "he struck me as being utterly unstable," Langone stated in a deposition earlier this year.

Martha Barnett, an attorney who represented Asher while he was at DBT, became a friend. "He's a very creative person who understands the ability of technology to meet the needs of people who need data," she says. "He has created products for the commercial side to help people make money or to plan sales or programming or the million things you can do. I think he is probably a mathematical genius."

Barnett presents the unblemished picture of Asher, the dynamic innovator. "Hank's been able to attract very sophisticated computer specialists, technology specialists, to the companies that he's been involved in," she says. "He has been the creative genius behind the products. He's hands on in the programming, the software and the hardware. He has not just thought it up and told someone else to go do it." As for his personality, she describes him as "a very open, gregarious, friendly individual."

But Asher can be notoriously moody. One Fort Lauderdale businessman who dealt with him in the 1990s says, "Sometimes he was nice, and other times he was just unbelievable. He'd come unglued, a different personality completely."



He could also be rash, a trait that has at times blurred the boundaries between his personal and work lives. Take, for example, his two-month marriage to Teryn McCullough, who had been Asher's employee at DBT. According to court documents, the couple married on October 16, 1996, and was separated a month later. When she sued for divorce on November 20, she was unemployed and pleaded with the judge for emergency support from her estranged husband. Asher "let me go from employment in his company because his previous fiancée is the [chief financial officer] and he did not want her to know that he was dating me," McCullough claimed in court documents. (A prenuptial agreement contained a stipulation that infidelities on the part of either would have financial consequences, including possible stock awards or givebacks.)


It was perhaps Asher's impulsive workplace behavior that began rubbing some DBT board directors the wrong way as they prepared to take the company public on the New York Stock Exchange in the mid-1990s. Asher, who was not only a major stockholder and board director but also DBT's president and chief executive officer, was a by-the-seat-of-the-pants innovator, not a navigator. Some directors believed the best way to steer the DBT ship was with a formal management structure headed by experienced executives. That arrangement didn't leave enough room for such a larger-than-life personality as Asher.

Apparently seeing the writing on the wall, Asher founded a new company, Indar, in 1997, and signed a confidentiality agreement with DBT stipulating he was not to compete with DBT or hire away its employees. Indar was also an online database company, and Asher established it virtually across the street from DBT's Boca Raton offices. This put Asher in the odd position of competing against DBT, a company for whom he still served as an officer and director.



A rancorous battle erupted between Asher and DBT directors, and he was ousted as president and CEO in May 1998, though he retained his director's seat and stocks. Not until a year later would another shock wave force him to sell the stock. Asher was resentful of the heave-ho and continued to disrupt company operations, according to a law suit filed by DBT three years later.

DBT executives were alarmed that Indar was stealing its employees, so much so that it threatened litigation against Asher. In a letter to Asher dated September 4, 1998, DBT's attorney accused Asher of disparaging the company and its management, soliciting employees to join Indar, and actually hiring some of them. The problem was magnified, the attorney wrote, because of Asher's "past history of intimidation and harassment of DBT employees." Asher was forced out of his DBT board seat two months later.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson