Priceline Scraps Auto Insurance Plans

Embattled e-tailer and insurance holding company W.R. Berkley Corporation announced Tuesday that they have shelved plans tosell automobile insurance over the Internet, saying that current marketconditions are “not conducive to creating the new business.”

The companies, which are both headquartered in Connecticut, initiallyagreed to the formation of the Priceline Auto Insurance Agency, Inc. inAugust. The business model for the venture was slated to follow Priceline’s”name-your-own-price” brand and allow customers to purchase insurancepremiums through the e-tailer’s site. The offering had been scheduled to launch in the beginning of this year.

The dissolution of the operation, which the companies said is still in theearly developmental stages, will result in the return of its venturecapital to investors.

Original Targets

In August, and W.R. Berkley said that the enterprise wouldhelp them capture a chunk of the competitive US$110 billion vehicle insurance market,one of the largest segments of the insurance industry.

W.R. Berkley also said that merging the respective abilities of the two companies into Auto Insurance would allow consumers tosave money on their auto insurance bills and help participating insurers attract new customers.

The terms of the agreement originally brokered by the two companies calledfor Priceline Auto Insurance to pay Priceline an annual licensing fee basedon revenues generated by the company. W.R. Berkley was going to recruit a supplier base of auto insurance companies to participate in theservice and help the company with insurance underwriting.

Curtailing Expansion

Priceline’s withdrawal from the proposed auto insurance business is thelatest hitch in its expansion plans. Over the past few months, the companyscuttled plans to introduce services to Australia and New Zealand, andcanceled a planned expansion project in Japan.

In December, Priceline also postponed plans to offer a business-to-business service, cellular phone plans and life insurance.

In addition, the company slashed jobs and lost several high profileexecutives last month, including founder Jay Walker, who stepped downfrom his position as vice chairman of the company’s board of directors.

Downward Spiral

Launched in April 1998, the once high-flying Priceline broke new ground on theInternet with its name-your-own-price model for selling airline tickets and travel reservations. However, thecompany ran into problems after it started expanding itsofferings to include mortgages, cars and phone service.

Priceline stock, which went public in March 1999 at $16 per share andskyrocketed to $165 at one point, has been slammed as the company’s woes multiplied. As of early Wednesday, Priceline shares were trading at $1.41.

The announcement that the company was scrapping its auto insurance plans was issued after the close of trading Tuesday.

In the third quarter of 2000, Priceline reported that it lost $2 million, ora penny per share, before special charges, compared with a loss of $12million, or 8 cents, during the same quarter of the previous year.

Although its revenue rose 124 percent from a year earlier to $341 million,the e-tailer predicted lower revenues for the fourth quarter, which will alsoinclude an unspecified restructuring charge.

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