By John Haughey | Contributing Writer
Sykes Enterprises is often described as a “call center operator,” three flat words that evoke the boiler-room stereotype of headphone-affixed automatons chained to chairs in cubicles, reciting by rote the same script, phone call after phone call.
“Just a call center operator?” Sykes Director of Regional Communications and Public Relations for North America Kimberly Selph scoffs. “I'd say we have evolved exponentially from merely being 'just a call center operator.'”
From its 1977 genesis as a three-person engineering firm in Charlotte, N.C., through its 1993 headquarters relocation to Tampa, Sykes has evolved into a multifaceted corporation with more than 55,000 employees who speak 30 languages. They work in 69 sites in 22 countries that span five continents, including about 7,500 work-at-home associates in 2,000 cities worldwide. The company had $1.46 billion in revenue in 2016.
What began as a service that fielded phone calls and relayed messages now provides administrative, marketing, sales and technology expertise as a business process outsourcing resource for Global 2000 corporations. Among current and former clients: AT&T, Bank of America, OnStar, IBM, Texas Instruments, Office Depot, TeleHealth, Frontier Commutations, Expedia and the U.S. General Services Administration.
Sykes' employees still field phone calls and relay messages, but they also answer questions about wireless home security systems, book hotel rooms, explain how medical devices work, authorize credit card accounts, quote insurance rates, orchestrate sales campaigns and give directions to lost travelers. The company offers marketing, portfolio management, regulatory compliance, patient registration, brand promotion, mobile technology integration and IT support via phone, streaming video, live chat, text messaging and social media.
But what sets Sykes apart, Selph says, is its culture of service, its “Others First” mentality. “We want people who love to serve others to work for us,” she says. “We're looking for the servant heart. We clearly communicate to each and every employee that every transaction matters.”
The culture is a reflection of founder John Sykes, a champion of Tampa's business and philanthropy community for a quarter century. Sykes has donated nearly $40 million to the University of Tampa, where the Sykes College of Business is named for him. A Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame inductee, his accolades include Florida Entrepreneur of the Year, Innovator of the Year, Tampa Police Department Citizen of the Year, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers Citizen of the Year and Florida Free Enterpriser of the Year.
Sykes, chairman emeritus since 2004, remains a frequent presence at Sykes' headquarters in the 31-story Rivergate Tower, the iconic “Beer Can Building,” along downtown Tampa's Riverwalk. Selph says shortly after joining Sykes in January, she met him in a hallway. “He was carrying huge, heavy boxes for a lady,” she said. “That's the type of person he is.”
Sykes will commemorate its 40th anniversary with a “Forty Forward” campaign that launched Aug. 13 — 40 days before the company's Sept. 22 founding date. “It will be 40 days of social responsibility events across the globe to give back to the communities that have given us so much,” Selph said.
Publicly traded since 1996, Sykes ranks third for most employees in Tampa by Tampa-Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. It is eclipsed only by electronics manufacturer Jabil Circuit and Bloomin' Brands, parent company of Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Carrabba's Italian Grill.
Yet relatively few of Sykes' 55,000 employees are in Tampa. Only about 200 work at its headquarters. Sykes biggest regional presence is actually about 40 miles east — in Lakeland.
Of Sykes' 25 centers in 15 states nationwide, three are in Florida, and two of those are in Lakeland. Sykes opened its first Lakeland center on North Lake Parker Avenue in 1998. It opened a second site, a 92,231-square-foot center on Griffin Road — its largest U.S. site — in 2012. (It has since moved some employees to another spot, on Drane Field Road.)
The Griffin Road site proved to be a pivotal milestone for Lakeland's economy. “They created 600 new jobs in 2012, and they've added about 200 more jobs in the last five years,” Lakeland Economic Development Council Business Development Director Ashley Cheek says.
Combined, the two centers employ about 940 people.
City of Lakeland Business Development Manager Jason Willey says adding a “bulk employer” like Sykes to the area's job-generator mix proved Lakeland had the workforce and infrastructure to support large operations. “If we look at Lakeland not long ago, the big employers were Publix, the school board and the hospital,” he says. “Adding Sykes changed the playing field. Today, we have a dozen (large employers) — or getting close to it.”
That list includes Amazon with 1,000 jobs; Rooms to Go with 900 jobs; O'Reilly Auto Parts with 400 jobs; WellDyne with 550 jobs; Stryker with 600 jobs; and DS Services of America with 400 jobs. All of those entities have moved to Lakeland since Sykes opened its second center in 2012.
For Sykes, being close to the Sykes mother ship has its advantages.
Particularly since 2012, says Selph, Lakeland has become an incubator, of sorts, for Sykes' C-suite executive cadre. “Lakeland is unique for its proximity,” she said. “It doesn't hurt to be right down the street from corporate headquarters.”
Model that works
Site Director Matthew Rupe, who manages both Lakeland centers, said his employees engage predominately in customer service and sales, inbound and light outbound, as well as in marketing, advertising, IT software services and “home preservation services to salvage mortgages.” The centers operate from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m., “and a few hours in between,” seven days a week.
Rupe said Lakeland's centers provide outsourcing services primarily for “multiple telecom providers,” including industry rivals. He declined to name the companies, although both are household brands. He did allow this: “When you call them, you're actually getting us on the line.”
Rupe joined Sykes in 2012 after 18 years managing similar business processing outsource centers that also served telecom clients. What separates Sykes from competitors is its investment in training, he says.
Sykes employees train for seven weeks on clients' products and services. “They learn everything about the (product and service) as if they worked for the company. It's expensive, but we do our due diligence,” he says. “Our leaders know how to lead and our trainers know how to train.”
Rupe says managing a large workforce with diverse missions is another challenge. “I've learned a lot about leadership from a lot of sources,” he says, citing books by Aubrey Daniels, often referred to as “the father of performance management,” as especially influential.
Others outside the firm have noticed Sykes' success. The company, for instance, won Career Source Polk's annual “Best Employer To Work For” award in 2015 and 2016. And Sykes is in Lakeland to stay, Rupe emphasizes, hoping to surpass 1,000 employees at Griffin Road soon, among other goals.
The key to that future growth, he says, is in the company's past, by emulating the culture and commitment that made a three-person operation into a 55,000-employee global corporation. “Our employees come first,” he says. “John Sykes was all about taking care of people. People taking care of people. That works for us — that is what we do, what we are.”
AT A GLANCE
History: Founded in 1977, when John Sykes and two employees formed an engineering firm in Charlotte, N.C. Company reorganized and moved to Tampa in 1993. Went public in 1996. John Sykes retired in 2004, and his son, Chuck Sykes, was named president and CEO.
CEO: Chuck Sykes
Employees: 55,000, spread over 69 sites in 22 countries that span five continents.
Stock Symbol: SYKE, traded on Nasdaq.
Revenue: $1.46 billion in 2016, up 14% from $1.28 billion in 2015
Market capitalization: $1.13 billion