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Even with the 2,500th worker on board at GEICO’s Amherst customer service center, the insurance giant is keeping the “Now Hiring” sign turned on.

“It ain’t over yet, fellas. We’re going on from here,” said Warren E. Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, which owns GEICO and The Buffalo News. “People go where they’re welcome, and Western New York has its arms out.”

GEICO still has room to expand at the $40 million customer service center it opened in the CrossPoint Business Park in Amherst in September 2005, but company executives declined to set a long-term growth target for the facility.

With 2,500 employees now on the books and room for as many as 3,800 workers at its 251,000-square-foot Amherst center, GEICO CEO Tony Nicely said the insurer, for now, is working toward hitting the 3,000 mark, which would match the insurer’s employment at a customer service center it operates on Long Island.

GEICO executives also praised the local workforce for its productivity and dependability, and said those traits played a big role in the company’s growth over the last 10 years.

“We have a lot of really outstanding people in Buffalo, but the good news is we are still hiring,” said Richard Hoagland, GEICO’s regional vice president in Buffalo.

GEICO, which received $100 million in Empire Zone tax breaks spread over 14 years as part of the incentive package that brought the service center to Amherst, reached its goal of hiring 2,500 workers two years ahead of schedule.

With its rapid growth in the Buffalo Niagara region, GEICO now plays a major role in the Buffalo Niagara economy, going from a company that had no presence here a decade ago to one that now ranks among the region’s 25 largest employers. GEICO alone accounts for one of every 200 private-sector jobs in Erie and Niagara counties.

“It’s great for Western New York,” said Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein. “Western New York is a great place to live if you have a good job.”

GEICO, which advertises that its associates receive starting salaries of more than $30,000 a year, also has become an important source of jobs for local college graduates, who often struggle to find employment here and move out of the area to find positions in their chosen field that also meet their pay demands.

And it was that pool of workers – and the reputation of local workers for working hard and being dependable – that helped attract GEICO to the region in the first place.

“It’s the workforce,” Nicely said. “We’re fortunate to have numerous institutes of higher learning here, and they’re all producing really great people. And people here value a job. They want to work hard. They want to be dependable. They want to show up. They want to service others. That’s what you’re looking for.”

The GEICO Northeast Operations Center in Amherst handles sales, customer service and claims for New Jersey and New England. It also is one of three GEICO locations that sells other types of insurance to customers, including homeowners insurance.

A driving force behind GEICO’s growth in Amherst has been the growth of the insurer’s overall business. Buffett noted that GEICO was the nation’s seventh-largest auto insurance company when Berkshire Hathaway acquired complete control of the insurer in 1996. It now is No. 3, behind State Farm and Allstate, but Nicely noted that its market share, at just under 10 percent, still leaves plenty of room for growth. GEICO is the largest auto insurer in New York, insuring 1.65 million families in the state, and close to 2.5 million vehicles, Nicely said.

Nicely said Buffalo News Publisher Emeritus Stanford Lipsey was a relentless advocate for Western New York as a site for a GEICO customer service center.

“He always told Warren and me that if you located anywhere, you ought to check out Western New York, but more specifically you ought to check out the greater Buffalo area because if you ever located here, you would never be sorry,” Nicely said.

“It took a long time for us to need that growth and need that extra location. And when we were looking around, all over the place, Stan made sure we came here – and we came more than once to take a look at Western New York. Are we happy that he caused us to be here.”

Buffett said the workers at the Amherst service center stand out.

“I, along with Stan, told Tony 10 years ago that if he would locate this service center in Buffalo that he would never regret it, that he would find wonderful people up here, that this would be one of the best performing centers measured by any metric we could come up with,” Buffett said.

“Now you’ve made an honest man out of me,” Buffett told several hundred GEICO’s workers Wednesday. He said Nicely “was a believer then, but he’s really become a believer as he’s watched the development of this office over the 10 years.”

GEICO began hiring locally in March 2004, pledging to have 650 employees by 2006 and 1,800 by 2012 – targets that the insurer easily surpassed.

“They could pick any region to locate these jobs,” said Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy.

“It doesn’t have to be in Amherst or Buffalo. It could be in any one of the other 49 states or different regions … They chose here because of the workforce. They put a stake down in the ground here that really made a huge difference.”

email: drobinson@buffnews.com