December 17, 2013

"More cowbell": Benefitfocus kicks off $60M Charleston expansion

John McDermott  /  Post and Courier

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley's first official public appearance since undergoing hip surgery was to welcome the largest-ever expansion by a technology business in his city, a plan that's expected to deliver 1,200 jobs.

Gov. Nikki Haley, borrowing a line from a famous Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken skit on "Saturday Night Live," called for "more cowbell."

"We just gained 1,200 more cowbells, so we're very, very excited," Haley said during a day long swing through the Charleston region.The company broke ground on new customer support and training center it will build at its Daniel Island campus, which is being expanded from 13 acres to 40 acres.

When construction is completed, Benefitfocus expects to have 500,000 square feet of office space, more than other tech firm in the region, all arranged within a college-style setting.

"We are creating a community within a community, and it's exciting to see this expanded technology campus come to life," said Shawn Jenkins, CEO and cofounder of Benefitfocus.

The first phase calls for a 145,000-square-foot, four-story customer training and support office or Fairchild Street that would house up to 600 newly hired associates, as the company calls its employees.

The building expected to be completed in early 2015, along with a smaller nearby visitor and conference center that will feature a cafe.

"You know you're getting a big company when you're getting a cafe," Jenkins quipped.

Another 145,000-square-foot office building would follow later for 600 software engineers, designers and other technical staffers the company plans to hire as it expands into areas such as data analysis and mobile services.

Jenkins and Mason Holland, executive chairman, predicted construction could start on that addition in 2015.

The duo launched Benefitfocus in Mount Pleasant 13 years ago with 15 staffers. The firm develops software products that workers use to compare, enroll in and manage their benefits, such as health care coverage. Its main customers are large employers and insurance companies. Sales are on track to exceed $100 million this year.

The company, which now employs about 800 and has offices in the Upstate, California and Oklahoma, went public in September, raising more than $70 million from the stock sale to fuel more growth.

"We're just getting started," Jenkins said.

Riley said the company's latest investment coupled with its future employment projections is a strong endorsement of local efforts to attract more "knowledge-based" jobs for residents through public-private initiatives like the city's Charleston Digital Corridor.

"If, before today, there was any doubt about the Charleston region's role in the knowledge-based, high-tech ... economy in America, today answers that question in the most positive way," he said.

Berkeley County Supervisor Dan Davis pointed to the spin-off effects of adding 1,200 jobs. "All these people need homes. All these people buy groceries. All these people buy clothes," Davis said.He called Benefitfocus "an example of good old-fashioned American work ethic and entrepreneurship."