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How workers are classified could affect brokerages' taxes

Those pesky feds are at it again.

Investment News reports that the Department of the Treasury is taking a close look at the dividing line between employees and independent contractors.

That could be bad news for brokerages that rely on independent contractors, such as St. Petersburg-based Raymond James Financial Services and Tampa-based GunnAllen Financial.

Nationally, about 120,000 brokers are classified as independent contractors, which means they are responsible for their own expenses and pay self-employment taxes. The industry has fought off previous efforts to classify these independents as employees, which would require tax withholding.

Stay tuned for the next skirmish.

- HELEN HUNTLEY, Times staff writer

Four local lawyers earn "Bet-the-Company' distinction

The company's lifeblood is on the line. Dangerous commercial litigation is being threatened. Who do you call?

The Best Lawyers in America, which publishes an annual referral list of the best lawyers in a variety of specialties, this year decided to offer a list of "Bet-the-Company" litigators and selected 147 commercial litigators nationally.

Four lawyers from the Tampa Bay area made the cut, which is based on a selection by Best Lawyers in America's managing editor. He makes his selection based on comments by peers of those lawyers.

Those local lawyers are Marvin E. Barkin and William C. Frye of Trenam Kemker in Tampa; F. Wallace Pope Jr. of Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns in Clearwater; and Benjamin H. Hill III of Hill, Ward & Henderson in Tampa.

The Best Lawyers in America already offers a list of the best commercial litigators in the nation. But a spokesman said the "Bet-the-Company" litigators are considered the cream of that crop.

"It's the top echelon," said William Brooks, a spokesman for Best Lawyers. "Their clients would be willing to bet the company based on these attorneys' talents in court. They handle the Enron-type cases. . . . These folks are who those companies go to and say, "I trust you with this.' "

Frye, 68, a commercial litigator who has practiced for more than 40 years, said he was flattered by the honor but struggling to understand what it means.

"I'd have to say that over the course of my career, I've never had a client say the outcome of the case meant the life or death of a company," he said.

- WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times staff writer

Progress boss says takeover would mean "failure'

Is Progress Energy Inc. in play as a possible takeover target?

It's a question on the minds of some Wall Street analysts now that an Internal Revenue Service audit has concluded favorably for the Raleigh, N.C., parent of Progress Energy Florida of St. Petersburg.

Progress is a major producer of coal-based synthetic fuel, which is eligible for a controversial federal tax credit. Through the end of 2005, the utility had racked up $1.74-billion in tax credits. Of that, $819-million have been used, while $922-million have been deferred for future use.

The possibility of a negative IRS ruling, which could have disallowed a large portion of Progress' synfuel credits, made the company virtually untouchable to would-be suitors.

Now that uncertainty has been lifted - at the same time the utility industry is caught up in a new wave of merger activity.

During the company's Feb. 15 earnings conference call with analysts, someone asked if a company acquiring Progress would be able to use the utility's remaining deferred synfuel tax credits. The answer? Yes, but with potentially significant restrictions on the speed at which the credits could be used.

Progress chairman and chief executive Bob McGehee told Progress employees last week that he'd consider it a "failure" if the company were to be acquired, instead of determining its own destiny, Progress spokesman Keith Poston said.

"We are not looking for deals or looking to be acquired," Poston said.

- LOUIS HAU, Times staff writer

Startups offered tips on obtaining venture capital

Looking for venture capital for your startup? You'd do well to heed the advice of a panel of fund managers who spoke at BioFlorida's annual meeting in West Palm Beach on Tuesday.

If a fund has just raised money and is in the early stages of building its portfolio, it might be willing to take risks it won't take later. So never underestimate the "portfolio factor."

Angels investors are critical to keeping companies alive until institutional investors come along, but if you give them too much control, they can doom a future venture deal. So take their money but don't let them take over.

You know what your company is worth. But in the end, what matters is what the venture investor thinks it is worth. Negotiating valuations is messy, emotional and can be a deal-breaker.

And if you get turned down, consider the odds. A partner with Bay City Capital in San Francisco said her fund looked at 1,000 business plans last year. It funded four.

- KRIS HUNDLEY, Times staff writer

Magazine predicts demise of half-dozen jobs by 2016

The latest edition of Fast Company, a magazine that focuses on upcoming trends in the business world, lists six jobs that won't exist in 2016.

They are gatekeepers (TV schedulers, record company talent scouts, Wall Street researchers), bloggers, advertising specialists, auto mechanics, software engineers and Indian call center operators.

As for that last profession, the magazine said this: "American customer service is rescued from oxymoron status as companies realize that being nice to the people with the money is the only way to win."

- TOM ZUCCO, Times staff writer

Research yields potato

with big taste, low carbs

They went and invented the better mousetrap, or in the case of University of Florida scientists and farmers, the better potato.

The big draw with this potato, according to the university, is not just that it's supposedly extra tasty and pretty, but this spud has, yes, 30 percent fewer carbs than regular potatoes.

The potato, created after five years of research that included the largest seed potato company in the world, is called Sunlite.

A group of farmers in the Hastings area is producing and marketing the potato and want to revive demand for Florida potatoes in the wake of the low-carb diet craze. They've formed the SunFresh of Florida Marketing Cooperative Inc. Other contract farmers are growing them in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Delaware, Massachusetts and Virginia.

Dan Sharretts of SunFresh said response to the potato is favorable so far. "We have received a lot of feedback from people on low-carb diets who appreciate that there is a potato out there that they can eat," he said in a statement.

Oh, and it microwaves well, they say.

The potato is available at some local supermarkets. Or to buy a bag online, link to http://www.sunfreshofflorida.com.

- WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times staff writer

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