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    Business has big plans for small town

    TBG Reliance, a software company, will expand soon. The brothers who run the company say Ozona is a perfect fit.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


    OZONA -- This gulfside village is hardly a corporate magnet. But without even trying, Ozona persuaded the Bennett brothers two years ago that a quiet, Old Florida setting would make the perfect home for their fledgling technology business.

    Now, as the company stands on the brink of an ambitious expansion, Rick and Rob Bennett still think Ozona is the right fit.

    "I think it's a little hidden oasis in the most populated county in Florida," Rick Bennett said. "It is a wonderful place to have a corporate campus."

    Few in Ozona even know TBG Reliance Corp. exists. The company headquarters at Orange and Lemon streets has no sign. And employees' casual attire could lead passers-by to assume the gray building, built in the 1940s as a hotel, is someone's home.

    TBG Reliance, which now employs eight people, plans to expand to as many as 50 employees during the next three to five years.

    "We're just now ready for prime time," Rob Bennett said.

    So what exactly does TBG Reliance do?

    Rob Bennett says describing the business to people isn't always easy.

    "We're a virtual private service network," he says.

    The company writes Internet software and rents it to companies to track service calls electronically.

    For example, one of its customers is a company that operates ATMs. Using the company's wewatch.com software, the ATM company can dispatch and track repair calls to fix broken ATMs.

    The software also provides a form of "electronic pestering." It will keep calling for a repair at regular intervals until it gets a response.

    And it's paperless.

    The software also helps companies track and evaluate operations data such as common equipment problems, service repair times and costs. The software provides trend information that can be used to improve efficiency and profits, Rick Bennett said.

    Besides their current contracts, the Bennetts said they are hoping to land a large contract with a gas station chain to monitor its pay-at-the-pump stations. They also have set their sights on the copier industry.

    With such expansion in mind, the Bennetts plan to hire 20 new employees, including programmers, technical support staff, account managers and sales people, during the next year or two.

    County commissioners recently approved TBG Reliance for a special tax refund program afforded to companies that county officials think will encourage the growth of high-wage employment. As part of the program, businesses receive refunds on state and local taxes of up to $3,000 per employee for each new job created.

    In its literature to the county, the company projected that the average salary for those new hires would be about $42,000 a year. The company also has purchased a strip of apartment units on adjacent Bay Street -- formerly used for weekly rentals -- for their company expansion.

    Rick Bennett had been living in East Lake and had come to know the area when the company relocated to Ozona from Kansas City, Mo., in January 1999.

    Bobbie Painter, president of the Ozona Village Improvement Society, said it appears the Bennetts want to be good neighbors.

    "As a business, they seem to want to do the right thing for Ozona," Painter said. "They appreciate Ozona for the same reasons we all do and they seem to want to keep it that way. I think we're fortunate to have them in the community."

    The Bennetts' company is a family affair. In addition to the two brothers, their father, Jack, acts as a consultant and does much of the behind-the-scenes development. He's also the chairman of the board. And their sister, Jill Howard, handles much of the development of Web content.

    The TBG stands for the Bennett Group.

    "That was the primary purpose behind starting the business, to create a business that the family could participate in," Rick Bennett said. "And beyond that, to develop to the point to where the family benefits in a major way."

    As for the two brothers, they said they bring different skills to the business that complement one another. Rob makes most of the financial decisions. Rick handles operations.

    Though they are identical twins, people have no trouble telling them apart these days. Rick carries a few more pounds, and Rob sports a mustache.

    The two plan to live in Palm Harbor. Rick Bennett had lived in East Lake, but Rob has been commuting from Arlington, Va., for the past two and a half years. He flies down Mondays and returns to Virginia on Fridays.

    Their parents have moved even closer, having purchased the old Speckled Trout Marina in Ozona. The marina has had several proposed uses over the years, including a restaurant and a condominium complex. Rob Bennett said his parents plan to use the property as a home.

    With new homes and the company poised for expansion, Rob Bennett said things are starting to get interesting.

    "We've got a small window of opportunity and we need to strike while it's hot," he said.

    -- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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