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October 24, 2001 - Birmingham, AL

KRISTI LAMONT ELLIS News staff writer

They don't have a class song, motto, or even a valedictorian, but that won't keep the employees of Group 8760 from celebrating their graduation this week.

Complete with a party.

The software company is heralding its planned move from Birmingham's Entrepreneurial Center to new facilities in Homewood on Friday as a lifestage change worth ceremony, rather than just a change of office space.

"From start-up to established company, Group 8760 has grown during its five years in the center from four employees to 15, and now boasts about 40 customers, including Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. of upstate New York, Westcoast Energy Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia and El Paso Energy Corp., which includes Sonat Inc.

The Birmingham firm, whose name refers to the number of hours in a year, focuses on enabling players in the world of deregulated energy to communicate and do business with one another over the Internet in a secure and standardized fashion.

It's a task made complex by increasingly tight federal security regulations and the variety of computers in use in the industry, and it's also the sort of hard-core technical work that got lost in the fluff of the dot-com craze in the late '90s. However, the focus has served the firm well as it has grown its revenues to about $1.25 million a year and become known as a key standards-setter.

In March, the company launched GISBAgent, one of three products the federal-sponsored Gas Industry Standards Board certified for its members to use in electronic transactions. Cost for software implementation is $100,000, the company says, with an additional maintenance fee of about $12,000 a year.

''We've probably been here longer than we could have,'' says CEO John Williams of the group's time at Birmingham's nationally recognized business incubator. ''It's like leaving home - it's so comfortable that until you have a reason to go you like hanging around.''

Chief Operating Officer Jim Mark agreed. ''Being here has allowed us to get on our feet,'' Mark says.

Williams noted the incubator took care of everything from kitchen and bathroom facilities to providing mail and copy services and a receptionist. ''Now that we're on solid ground, it's time for someone else to take our place in the Entrepreneurial Center and become successful, '' Mark says.

That place is almost 3,500 square feet, part of it storage, making Group 8760 the incubator's biggest tenant. While the firm's reasons for leaving include the need for more and different space conducive to large user group meetings, Williams and Mark say the change isn't just about that.

''The graduation is that we've been able to get through the entrepreneurial period, where most companies fail, to real company status,'' Mark says.

Entrepreneurial Center President Susan Matlock says while the national average for duration of stay in an incubator is about 3.5 years, many businesses have shorter or longer stays.

''This is a place with a great deal of flexibility and ability to work with companies on space issues,'' Matlock says. ''Graduation is a mutual decision between us and the company.

''We try to make sure the company has reached a level of stability where it is profitable and has turned a corner in being able to predict the level of future growth,'' she says. ''The rule of thumb is that they're pretty stable, they've had the opportunity to go through significant ups and downs, and they've learned.''

Copyright, Article by The Birmingham News, 2001. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

The Birmingham News