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Business Observer Thursday, Sep. 3, 2009 12 years ago

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A $250 million company with a large Gulf Coast presence is reversing a trend: It's making room for local jobs that were once outsourced overseas.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

A $250 million company with a large Gulf Coast presence is reversing a trend: It's making room for local jobs that were once outsourced overseas.

National tax preparation giant Jackson Hewitt is in the final stages of an image overhaul for its Sarasota campus — a 150-employee office that handles technology for all of the company's franchise outlets.

And there's more good news: the local division, fresh off a $1 million investment in new technology to support its network of 7,000 tax preparers, is getting ready to increase its seasonal hiring effort by bringing once-outsourced jobs back home.

The cleanup started in late 2007, when the Parsippany, N.J.-based publicly company, which had $248 million in fiscal 2009 revenues, brought in Danamichele Brennen to restore order. Brennen comes to Jackson Hewitt and Sarasota from the technology side of the travel and hospitality industries, where her executive career included developing patented software and other computer-based products for travel firms.

When Brennen arrived, the Jackson Hewitt brand name in local circles was reeling from the 2006 arrest of Daniel Prewett, who ran three Sarasota-area Jackson Hewitt Tax Services outlets. Prewett was convicted on money laundering and cocaine trafficking last year and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Brennen now says the Jackson Hewitt technology center, which occupies nearly two floors of an office building off of Fruitville Road, just west of Interstate 75, is finally past the stain Prewett left. “There is no one left from that time frame,” says Brennen. “The whole executive staff has changed over.”

More recently, Brennen also set in motion another positive development for the company. She led an effort to bring back at least 25 seasonal jobs to the Gulf Coast that had been shipped out to the Philippines for two years. “A couple of years ago it was popular to offshore everything,” says Brennen. “That was the model to reduce costs.”

The jobs in the Philippines were essentially call center gigs. If a Jackson Hewitt tax preparer in the field had a question, either about an external tax issue or an internal software or computer problem, he called the hotline and the query was routed to the Philippines.

But earlier this year, Jackson Hewitt brought in RightNow Technologies, a Bozeman, Mt.-based firm. RightNow sold Jackson Hewitt a new software system for its Sarasota center, a package that cost more than $1 million, according to some company estimates.

The system is equipped with a Google-style self-service database that answers 1,500 potential questions from tax preparers. Jackson Hewitt hopes that feature reduces call volume by 50%.

“The tax preparer needs to be as efficient as possible,” says Tim Bechtold, a local Jackson Hewitt executive who was hired in Sarasota soon after Brennen was. “If they get their answers instantly, it's a boost for their business.”

The new software eliminates the need to have more than 50 employees overseas at the ready. Instead, 25 of those jobs, albeit on a seasonal basis, will be moved to Sarasota for assistance in implementing the new software programs.

The tax season begins for Jackson Hewitt in November, so it can train seasonal employees for the onslaught that begins in February. This season promises to be even busier than past years for Jackson Hewitt, as the parent company recently signed a deal with Wal-Mart to place tax preparation centers inside hundreds of the stores nationwide.

Bechtold, who runs the seasonal employment hiring process, says Jackson Hewitt will now look to bring on 125 people for the six-month season. Those employees will work with the 150 year-round employees.

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