How Sykes' shares rose in 2008 while others tanked

Talk about the last company still standing on the stock market battlefield. Here's 2008's Gunga Din of area businesses, which kept its share value while those about it were losing much of theirs.

Only one bay area-based company with a stock price of substance (we're skipping the puny-priced stocks) finished 2008 with its share price higher at the end of the year than at the beginning.

In a stock market meltdown with the Dow, S&P and Nasdaq dropping more than a third in value in one savage year, Tampa's Sykes Enterprises squeezed out a positive stock gain in '08. It started last year at $18 a share, fell as low as $12.34 but closed on the last day of 2008 at $19.12.

Who are these guys? What magic piloted them through one of the roughest market years since the Depression?

Good leadership helped. Chuck Sykes, son of company founder John Sykes, has been CEO of the global call center/outsourcing business since 2004 (when the stock traded at less than $5 a share) after nearly 23 years at the company. Now there are maturing signs Chuck Sykes, 45, is starting to mainstream into leadership positions in the Tampa Bay business community.

Tampa Bay Partnership chief Stuart Rogel recently singled out Sykes to me in conversation as a comer in his regional economic development organization (Sykes is currently working on regional education issues). And Sykes is also the sole Hillsborough rep on the 11-member business group known as "A Baseball Community" charged with finding site options for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium.

But what let Sykes Enterprises defy the crashing stock markets of 2008? Cost-cutting corporations turned to Sykes to handle customer service calls, as both Sykes' earnings and revenues rose last year.

Another secret ingredient? Sykes found itself "in an enviable position during this credit crisis with no debt and a cash safety net of $220.1-million," said Zack's research analyst Tracey Ryniec.

By spreading itself globally, Sykes can pick the best from dozens of call center sites employing some 27,000 employees to maximize returns and keep clients happy. Outside the United States, Sykes claims 23 centers or offices in Europe, 11 in Canada, seven in Central and Latin America, five in the Philippines, two in China and one each in India and South Africa.

In this country, in addition to Tampa, Sykes boasts 12 call centers in North Dakota, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Oregon, Oklahoma, Missouri and Colorado.

Sykes says it handles more than 200-million customer contacts, including phone, e-mail, Web and chat.

If there's a wild card, it's the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS, says Sykes, is looking over several years of company finances, though nothing unusual has been reported.

Sykes Enterprises was founded in 1977 in Charlotte, N.C. John Sykes moved his young company here in 1993 — choosing us over St. Louis and Dallas for Tampa's "progressive" business climate. Sykes quickly became a prominent philanthropist. The University of Tampa John H. Sykes College of Business was named for him in 1997 after a $10-million gift, the school's largest at the time.

Now Sykes, the Second Generation, is in full swing and, so far, looking pretty bright in a very dark-lit economy.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

How Sykes' shares rose in 2008 while others tanked 01/05/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 3:51pm]

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