Sykes: Company, towns both lose
By SCOTT BARANCIK, Times Staff Writer
The 66-year-old founder and chief executive of Sykes Enterprises usually wins praise as a corporate and civic leader, both in his headquarters city of Tampa and in the small towns across the country where he has built his company's tech-support call centers.
But in the past three years, the self-made multimillionaire has taken lumps from shareholders unhappy with his company's lagging stock price and, lately, from communities angered that call centers they welcomed eagerly are being shut down.
A prime reason is competitive pressure to move call centers to lower-wage locations overseas. Last week, after returning from a 35-day overseas business trip that included a meeting with the president of Costa Rica, Sykes sat down with a St. Petersburg Times reporter for three hours to discuss hard times and tough choices. Here are excerpts:
On the decision to close Sykes Enterprises call centers in Eveleth, Minn., and Scottsbluff, Neb.,:
We and the communities took a loss together. And we've already announced ours. Now we're trying to recover some of ours, but when we do that, we help the community. We're not in there trying to put in porno shops or anything such as that. We're in there trying to help recruit companies to go into the area, to take advantage of the people that we trained and the facility that we built.
On making tough choices:
While people will paint us as being a bunch of scavengers, when they really think back and take a look and understand, we've really done a great deal for these communities. Did we stay there as long as we would've hoped to stay there? Absolutely not. But could you or anyone else have forecast in 1999 what would happen to the global economic conditions of the world that would occur?
On anger in Eveleth:
Even if we went up there and gave them everything we had, it still wouldn't be enough.
On corporate pain:
When you speak about the pain that the people feel in Eveleth, what do you think this person feels (pointing to himself) and the shareholders feel when we had to go through and take a restructuring charge in the fourth quarter, that you wrote about, and the reason is because of the losses that we're taking on the shutdown of that facility? So pray tell me where we're making money, or we're taking it away. We took it in the shorts, and we felt it in the real world. All you have to do is look at our stock price.
On the migration of service sector jobs overseas:
As a citizen of this country, as a person who loves his country, I'm greatly concerned. We lost our manufacturing jobs, we lost our timber, we lost our steel. . . . Now we're losing our services. . . . I don't know what the answer is. But I think there is going to continue to be an exodus of more jobs offshore in the service sector, before it slows down.
It would be totally irresponsible, no matter how much I feel, how compassionate I am about this situation, if I just stuck my head in the sand and said, "Well, I'm just not going to go and participate,' and shut down all the facilities and go out of business.
On this report:
If I see something in the newspaper that says, "Sykes picked cities that were in bad economic condition to go in and get their money in order to sell them jobs,' I will be totally upset. As a matter of fact, I'll take a full-page ad in the Tampa Tribune against the St. Pete Times. ... That is not the case. ... We're not the bad company that you want to paint us as.
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