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WellCare emerges on top in a rough year for Tampa Bay stocks

It looks like old times for WellCare Health Plans.

The Tampa company, a onetime stock wunderkind that was sidelined by an accounting scandal and FBI raid four years ago, is back on top again.

Shares in WellCare surged 74 percent in 2011, making the company easily the best-performing Tampa Bay area stock in 2011. The performance was all the more noteworthy coming in a year when local stock losers outnumbered winners almost 2-1.

Of 34 area stocks tracked by the Tampa Bay Times, 22 ended the year with a lower stock price, while only 12 wound up on the plus side of the column. Thirteen companies shed at least 10 percent of their value during the year.

What made WellCare among the few to shine?

It helped being in a great niche.

The company, which provides managed-care services for government-sponsored health plans, reaped the benefits of higher government payments for its Medicare plans to seniors. At the same time, the company's enrollment jumped 10 percent year over year to reach 2.4 million members in the third quarter.

Bottom line: WellCare's net income doubled last quarter and its outlook for 2012 improved.

It's quite the turnaround for a company that ranked among the worst local stocks in 2009 as it dealt with the fallout of an FBI raid and cleaned up its books. Last March, five former executives with the company were indicted, tied to fraud allegations for overcharging for Medi­caid and Medicare costs and then hoarding unwarranted profits.

WellCare's current CEO, Alec Cunningham, attributed the company's strong 2011 to several factors, including a focus on serving special needs like those dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid and growth opportunities in its Medicare Advantage business.

"More people are becoming eligible for Medicare, and they are recognizing the value of the enhanced benefits and budget predictability that our products offer," Cunningham said on Friday.

Coming in as the second-strongest company was auto financing company Nicholas Financial, which has been opening new branches while enjoying rising profits and revenues.

On the flip side, the battle for the hardest-hit stock of the year came down to a virtual draw. With a 31 percent plunge, beverage maker Cott Corp. edged out boat retailer MarineMax for the dubious honor.

Call center operator Sykes Enterprises made the bottom five for the second year in a row.

For Jabil Circuit, Tampa Bay's biggest company by market capitalization, any stock turbulence over the year turned into a wash. The $4 billion electronic parts maker closed with its stock trading at $19.66 a share, virtually unchanged for the year.

The ranking of the five best and worst does not include stocks that began or ended the year trading for less than $1. That left out such ailing stocks as Inuvo, which tumbled all the way from just over $5 a share to 71 cents, an 86 percent plunge. It also eliminated Innovaro, which, despite a last-day-of-the-year surge, closed at just under $1.

To be included, companies also had to remain publicly traded throughout the year and maintain their base of operations in the region.

Those criteria meant two of the top stocks of 2010 — Syniverse Holdings and Walter Energy — weren't around to vie for a repeat. Walter Energy moved its headquarters to Birmingham, Ala., and Syniverse was taken private in a $2.5 billion buyout by the Carlyle Group that closed last January.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or jharrington@tampabay.com.

Best local stock performances

COMPANY CLOSING RISE

1. WellCare Health Plans $52.50 74 percent

2. Nicholas Financial $12.82 27 percent

3. Quality Distribution $11.25 24 percent

4. HSN $36.26 19 percent

5. Paradise $16.50 18 percent

Worst local stock performances

COMPANY CLOSING DROP

1. Cott Corp.$6.26 31 percent

2. MarineMax $6.52 30 percent

3. Kforce $12.33 24 percent

4. Sykes Enterprises $15.66 23 percent

5. Cryo-Cell International$2 17 percent

WellCare emerges on top in a rough year for Tampa Bay stocks 12/31/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 31, 2011 3:31am]
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