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John Sykes leaves Olympic post

The founder of troubled Sykes Enterprises quits as Florida 2012 chairman.

By SCOTT BARANCIK and WAYNE WASHINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 2000


TAMPA -- John Sykes dealt a double dose of bad news to the Tampa Bay area this week.

On Friday, the influential local business leader and philanthropist resigned as chairman of Florida 2012, the group seeking to bring the Olympics to the area.

Earlier this week his technical support company, Sykes Enterprises, abruptly informed its 46 call-center employees in Tampa that their jobs would evaporate in January.

The two events share a common thread: Sykes, 64, is under tremendous pressure to focus all his attention on the troubled company that bears his name.

Although Sykes will remain on the executive board of Florida 2012, he will be replaced in the high-visibility role of chairman by Sandy MacKinnon, the former chairman of the Tampa Sports Authority.

"We have put together a winning team that won't lose a beat in this transition," Sykes said in a statement, offering no explanation for his decision to step down. He did not return calls seeking comment.

Although MacKinnon has been involved in bay area sports organizations for years, the president and founder of Yale Industrial Trucks readily acknowledged he doesn't have Sykes' corporate clout.

"I don't get the keys to his plane," MacKinnon joked, a reference to Sykes' corporate jet. The plane was used this week to ferry Florida 2012 officials to Colorado Springs, Colo., where they presented their Olympic bid.

Florida 2012 may have loved John Sykes and the gravitas he brought to its uphill effort, but Wall Street had no use for Florida 2012. To analysts and investors who watched Sykes Enterprises' stock fall from a high of more than $50 in January to an all-time low of $3.44 on Friday, the North Carolina native's many charitable activities seemed a distraction he could no longer afford.

Fran Blechman Bernstein, an analyst with Merrill Lynch & Co., last month openly called for Sykes to give up the Olympic post. "I think he understands that that's what he has to do," she said.

Sykes Enterprises' decision to close its lone call center here was another sign of determination.

With just 46 seats, the downtown office is by far the smallest of the company's 39 call centers worldwide, and one of few not located in low-rent rural areas. Given the slowdown in the computer hardware and software industries, which are Sykes' best customers, such belt-tightening would seem to make good financial sense.

But symbolically, the closure could be seen as a wavering of Sykes' commitment to Tampa, where his company has had its headquarters since 1993.

"We are constantly reviewing all business areas," said Sykes spokeswoman Conway Jensen. "To gain better operating efficiencies in our services, we are consolidating the Tampa facility into our Charlotte facility."

After the call center's shutdown next month, only 189 of the company's approximately 14,500 employees worldwide will be in Tampa. The 46 employees affected are being invited to transfer to a 300-seat call center in Charlotte, N.C., where Sykes started his company, or apply for openings at the Tampa headquarters.

Still, Sykes Enterprises has had outsized influence in the bay area thanks to its past successes and the generosity of its chief executive. He and his wife have given $38-million to the University of Tampa alone.

Although Sykes remains a multimillionaire, his company's problems have much reduced his personal circumstances. As his company's largest shareholder, his stockholdings have fallen from an estimated value of $315-million when he assumed the Florida 2012 chairmanship in June 1998 to about $60-million today.

MacKinnon said he did not think Sykes was forced to step down by his business problems.

"I don't think that he is running from the Olympics to save his business," MacKinnon said.

But he described Sykes as a sensitive man who acutely feels the criticism he has received since Sykes Enterprises ran into trouble.

"My heart goes out to John," he said. "He's taking this very hard, the criticism. His goal, I know, is to get that stock back up."

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