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Incentives help lure business to Oldsmar

A rapidly growing online company recently moved its headquarters to the city's industrial area after receiving a state tax-incentive package that could be worth about $360,000.

Established in November 1999, eAutoclaims outgrew its headquarters in Palm Harbor after posting Internet-speed growth the past two years. The company's revenues grew from $1.7-million in 2000 to $20.2-million in 2001.

For the six-month period ending Jan. 31, the company made about $16-million in total revenue.

"Rocking," said eAutoclaims president and CEO Eric Seidel, who is not related to the local television journalist by the same name. "Just rocking. It really is. It's an exciting atmosphere."

With the growth in revenue, the company cut its net loss for the three-month period ending Jan. 31 to $508,000. That compares with a $636,000 loss for the same period last year, a 20 percent decrease, according to the company's most recent quarterly report.

The publicly traded company _ its stock closed last week at 55 cents a share _ works like "an HMO for your car," Seidel said. The company uses Internet applications to streamline the process of managing auto insurance claims. The firm boasts that it can save insurance companies 9 to 16 percent on each claim.

Earlier this month, the company doubled its office space by moving to a 30,000-square-foot office at 110 E Douglas Road in Oldsmar. By the end of the year, the company expects to employ more than 150 people at its new headquarters, which will include a high-tech network operations center that will house product and data servers and an 18,000-square-foot processing center.

The firm had about 75 employees working in different offices on Alt. U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor. The company was considering whether to relocate to South Carolina, where it has a 24-hour call center, or stay in Pinellas County, Seidel said.

The company decided to stay in Pinellas in large part because of the tax-refund package that it received, he said. To entice the firm to stay, city, county and state officials approved a tax-incentive package called the Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund Program. The state program is designed to lure specific industries.

In order to qualify for tax refunds, companies must fulfill requirements such as creating new jobs and having an average salary that is higher than local salaries. According to city and county records, eAutoclaims employees will be hired with annual pay scales averaging $38,700, earnings that are projected to spur an economic impact of $7.5-million.

The company's expansion to Oldsmar also will result in an economic impact of about $666,000 in new construction and new equipment, according to city and county records.

"They are above-average wages," said Kevin Gartland, president and CEO of the Greater Oldsmar Chamber of Commerce. "They are clean jobs and they are high-tech jobs. They are jobs that we are encouraging to come to the city."

Pinellas County commissioners and Oldsmar City Council members have approved giving the company their share of the state tax refund package valued at up to $360,000. The package calls for the county and the city to split $72,000 of that amount.

The refund program sent an important message to the company, Seidel said.

"It sent a message that this community is serious about attracting and retaining companies," Seidel said. "We are a young company but we are growing fast and it's important for us to know that we have access to the local government and that we have the support to go do things."

The company says it has carved a niche in managing auto insurance claims and aims "to become the rails to run on in the insurance industry," Seidel said.

The firm has created Internet applications that let insurance companies find and use about 3,500 auto body shops nationwide. The process works like this: After a driver gets in an accident and calls the insurance company, an agent can use Internet programs developed by eAutoclaims to find the nearest auto body shop in the network.

Instead of waiting for a claims adjuster or having to get three estimates on how much it would cost to fix the damage, drivers can take their vehicles to one of the network shops for the estimate. That information, including pictures of the damaged vehicle and estimate reports, is retrieved by eAutoclaims, reviewed by its body shop experts and sent to the insurance company.

Typically, Seidel said, the process of performing appraisals after an accident takes about two weeks. With eAutoclaims, that process is down to about five days.

Because the insurance claims information is sent electronically, it's easily analyzed using computer programs, tracked and sent to the insurance company.

"It's the most practical use of the Internet," Seidel said.

The company also inspects all of the shops in its network to make sure they are reputable. It can use the computer to track whether a body shop has consistent problems with customer service or repair work.

Despite the downturn in the economy, eAutoclaims has continued to grow as insurance companies search for ways to streamline their costs, Seidel said.

"For the first time, insurance executives can get real-time reports on all of their losses," Seidel said. "We come with an application that is easy to use, it makes sense and it lowers their losses."

_ Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or quiocosptimes.com.

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