Subtracting from L-3

In May, Robert LaPenta, the former president and CFO of defense contractor L-3 Communications.

In May, Robert LaPenta, the former president and CFO of defense contractor L-3 Communications, was on his way home from work when he picked up a message on his mobile phone. The company that manages his private jet (he has a fractional ownership) was confirming his flight that evening from Rome to St. Tropez. Only trouble was, LaPenta was in New York and had never called for a plane.

“I called the flight center, and they said, ‘Oh, somebody called, and they sounded like you,’” says LaPenta. “It’s scary that something like that could happen.”

Scary, yes. But the incident also was stirring for LaPenta, who had left L-3 on April 1 to raise a $250 million investment fund, L-1 Investment Partners. The new firm will focus on the biometrics industry, which develops technology that identifies people based on physical characteristics like fingerprints. “It should take more than just flashing a license to get on a plane,” he says.

LaPenta, who turns 60 next month, believes that biometric identification systems will soon secure everything from retail banking to national borders. Industry revenue is likely to grow in excess of 50 percent annually over the next several years, reaching as much as $4.5 billion by 2009, he estimates. Four weeks into his fundraising campaign, LaPenta -- who is investing at least $20 million of his own money in the fund -- had raised about 40 percent of the $250 million. His investment strategy will be similar to that of L-3, which he founded in 1997 with current CEO Frank Lanza, Lehman Brothers and Lockheed Martin. L-3 assembled an array of military and defense electronics companies into a larger entity providing networked technology and equipment for the armed forces. L-1 plans to start by buying a company with a large base in access security, record retention or record management, then make additional acquisitions in biometrics. LaPenta wants to complete the first deal by September.

“We built L-3 into an $8 billion company with 60 divisions, but it became somewhat repetitive to keep adding companies, adding 10 or 15 cents a share, and doing it all over again,” LaPenta says of his decision to leave. “I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial and create something from scratch.”