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CGI Group closing Clearwater site

CGI Group is closing its dwindling operation here at the end of January, eliminating up to 200 jobs and abandoning the high-profile complex in downtown Clearwater it inherited by buying IMRglobal last year.

CGI, an information technology company based in Montreal, never announced its decision to pull out. In fact, a company representative insisted two months ago that a decision to put the Clearwater building up for sale did not imply it was pulling up stakes. At the time, CGI said it was looking to lease space elsewhere in Clearwater to keep an operation here.

Employees found out otherwise during the past two weeks.

CGI spokeswoman Eileen Murphy on Monday confirmed the Clearwater facility will be closed effective Jan. 31. Many details of the pull-out are undecided, she said, including how many of the remaining employees will be offered transfers to other offices and how many will be let go.

Murphy said laid-off employees would be offered "a very generous package" of compensation and training, but she would not release any details. CGI also declined to make the executive overseeing the closing, Mark Stuart, available for an interview.

"Everything is being assessed at this point," Murphy said.

Among the question marks is the fate of a landmark site in downtown Clearwater now being listed for $18.5-million. Clearwater gave IMRglobal $1.8-million in incentives to develop the 14-acre parcel.

The IMR Global Center project was envisioned as a $65-million complex, with a total of 310,000 square feet and a parking garage accommodating 700 vehicles. A pair of three-story buildings, with 130,000-square-feet, opened two years ago. But IMR decided not to go forward with the full project after company revenues tumbled.

John Gerlach of Colliers Arnold, the property's listing agent, said he has received interest in the gated campus at Cleveland Street and S Missouri Avenue, both from potential users and investors. He hopes to solicit letters of intent within a month.

Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst said he was disappointed to see CGI go, but optimistic that another company will come along to take its space.

"Any time you lose something like that it's a blow," he said. "But I think we'll find somebody. I think there's plenty of interest."

Not everyone is convinced finding a buyer will be easy.

Mercedes Angell, associate director with the commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, said the buildings are well-designed and on "a beautiful campus." But buyers may be turned off by the location, she said, because there is no easy interstate access.

CGI's departure marks an abrupt end to what was one of the bay area's most stunning tech success stories.

Satish Sanan, an Indian-born entrepreneur, founded IMRglobal in 1988 with three employees, 900 square feet of office space, a phone and a secretary.

He quickly turned the company into an important niche player in information technology and turned himself into the highest-paid executive in Florida. In 1998, his compensation package hit $54-million as IMRglobal made a national name for itself helping companies prepare for the Y2K computer bug.

Once 2000 arrived, however, IMRglobal had trouble shifting gears to become a more diverse computer consultant.

With revenues drying up, Sanan turned to CGI, agreeing to a $438-million merger. The deal created the fourth-largest independent provider of information technology services in North America.

Sanan gave assurances that the Clearwater operation would grow as a vital cog in the CGI network. He deemed Clearwater the company's new U.S. headquarters from which he personally would oversee all operations in Japan, Australia and India as well as the United States.

At the time, Sanan promised "they are not going to dissect the company and divide it and lay off a lot of people." He vowed: "This office is not going anywhere, and I'm not going anywhere."

Last summer, Sanan quietly left CGI and later said it was "inappropriate" to discuss CGI's cutbacks because he was no longer there.

By September, the company had cut its employee roster in Clearwater in half, from 400 to 200, with many computer technicians relocating closer to customers or to other CGI offices. Many of the remaining employees affected by the cuts are in human resources, accounting and other support functions, CGI's Murphy said.

Murphy said a small "stay-back team" of 20 to 25 employees will remain in Clearwater indefinitely to help with the shutdown.

She also noted that CGI by happenstance will keep a presence in the area despite the closing. Just last week, CGI bought INSpire Insurance Solutions, a Texas insurance software and consulting company with five offices, including a 25-person office in Tampa.

_ Times staff writer Jennifer Farrell contributed to this report, which also used information from Times files. Jeff Harrington can be reached at harringtonsptimes.com or (813) 226-3407.

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