Once-reluctant business leader Chuck Sykes helps shape Tampa Bay economy again

Chuck Sykes easily could have carved out a successful and lucrative career running a publicly traded corporation while remaining mostly invisible to the greater Tampa Bay economy.

As chief executive officer of Sykes Enterprises, he was content commuting 21 miles from his New Tampa home to his 31st floor office in downtown Tampa's landmark "Beer Can" building. He's good at running a customer contact/call center business that's grown into a global player with more than 40,000 employees and $1 billion in annual revenues. Last year, he was paid $3 million to head the company.

But then something happened. Soon after becoming CEO in 2004, Sykes became a leader of more than a company, earning a rare reputation as a big-picture guy with an engineer-trained flair for process and detail. By 2011, a Tampa Bay Times survey of area business executives found Sykes named most often among the area's top business leaders.

"I never thought about what makes communities grow," Sykes, 49, acknowledged in a recent interview.

Sykes stands out because the Tampa Bay business world — to be frank — suffers from a thin bench of strong and dedicated business leaders. It's a complaint I'm starting to hear more often.

It's not quantity but quality and stability that is the issue. Many executives are too busy or distracted to take on community leadership roles. There is greater turnover in these more demanding financial times. Recent turmoil in certain industries has aggravated the impact locally.

"No one told me," Sykes recalled of his being named to run Sykes Enterprises, "of the demands of the community."

It started innocently enough. In 2004, a neighbor asked Sykes to serve on the board of Feeding America Tampa Bay, a hunger relief organization, where Sykes learned there are 50,000 people in Hillsborough County alone who don't always have enough to eat. Sykes' wife, Susan, got him involved with the annual Heart Ball, a major area fundraiser for the American Heart Association.

Cautiously, Sykes then wandered into the world of area economic development, eventually rising in the ranks to a two-year stint as chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce in 2010 and 2011. A sports fan, he was the only Tampa-side member of the so-called "A Baseball Community" business task force formed in 2008 to explore ways to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in the area while trying to avoid the at-times nuclear politics of regional rivalry between Tampa and St. Petersburg. And in 2010, he led a regional charge to bring World Cup soccer matches here.

After all that, Sykes paused long enough to refocus attention on his company, under pressure during the grueling recession. He closed operations in Spain and South Africa. The company recently spent $150 million to buy Alpine Access, a business that specializes in providing customer contact agents who work from home rather than in call centers.

That, says CEO Sykes, may be the wave of the future and place less pressure on operating physical call centers where client demand and supply is increasingly volatile.

Recently, Sykes offered his company's expertise in customer service to Hillsborough County. He volunteered some of his employees' time to analyze how the county interacts with its residents and suggest ways to improve it.

In November, Sykes will become chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership, the greater metro area's economic development and marketing organization. His hot buttons? Pushing the group's regional business plan to promote four higher-wage industries: applied medicine, electronics, business and data services, and marine and environmental activities.

Sykes is also a big believer in bringing more entrepreneurship in this area. That's not only critical to job creation in a metro area lacking big corporate headquarters. But it also resonates with Sykes since his father, John Sykes, founded Sykes Enterprises and remains active in building another new business (JHS Capital) in this market.

Chuck Sykes also remains keen on the business community continuing its push for a better mass transit system for the Tampa Bay area. The recent national political conventions — the Republicans in Tampa and Democrats in Charlotte, N.C., where Sykes grew up — highlighted the transportation disparity between the two cities. Charlotte was praised for its light rail in moving large numbers of DNC attendees about efficiently, while Tampa Bay remains one of the nation's larger metro areas that still relies on mediocre bus service and faces growing traffic congestion.

That Hillsborough voters in 2010 rejected a penny tax increase to pay for mass transit did not dissuade Sykes and other business leaders from pressing forward, slowly. Whether it is for mass transit or even possibly a new Rays stadium, Sykes encourages patience, especially in a weak economy where tax increases are, forgive the pun, a third rail.

Stuart Rogel, Tampa Bay Partnership CEO, has worked with Sykes for several years as he's climbed the group's senior ranks. Rogel anticipates a busy, productive year with Sykes as chairman.

"Chuck is focused on making sure any organization he is involved with is working at its full capacity," he says.

"Chuck is somebody who on one hand has an incredible vision to see out into the future and work on big issues, and on the other hand has an attention to detail to make sure we are not missing anything on the day-to day and have the resources to meet big objectives."

Is that all?

Tampa Bay may be delighted Sykes is contributing to its greater business good. But maybe we should send him to Washington instead. The folks up there seem to be desperately in need of someone with the credentials to fix a few pressing national problems.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

Once-reluctant business leader Chuck Sykes helps shape Tampa Bay economy again 09/22/12 [Last modified: Monday, September 24, 2012 7:49am]

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