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Tampa entrepreneur Sykes still hands-on, even in retirement

Philanthropist and business entrepreneur John Sykes is working on a new venture called JHS Capital Advisors, which he says offers financial advisory services with a customer-first emphasis.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Philanthropist and business entrepreneur John Sykes is working on a new venture called JHS Capital Advisors, which he says offers financial advisory services with a customer-first emphasis.

It takes a few extra minutes to find John Sykes' personal jet hangar tucked behind International Plaza on the edge of Tampa International Airport property. There it is, with big "JHS" letters in green behind a chain-link fence. I get buzzed in, park and who should be holding the front door open but Sykes himself. He's tall and fit looking at 73 years of age, smiling in a white-collared, blue pattern dress shirt and yellow tie. It's old-style hospitality for a multi-multi-millionaire who's not easy for the media to reach, much less sit down and jaw and even joke a bit in his office. We talk for a couple of hours about anything and everything.

It is, I must admit after nearly 20 years at this newspaper, my first real interview with the man who founded Tampa's Sykes Enterprises, whose namesake John H. Sykes College of Business sits on the University of Tampa campus and whose business and philanthropic leadership in the Tampa Bay area have been felt widely since he moved his call center business here from Charlotte, N.C., in 1993.

Technically, I'm here to interview Sykes about his new financial and wealth management business, JHS Capital Advisors. It's emerging quickly in the wake of a briefly promising business marriage and messy divorce between Sykes and Tampa's GunnAllen Financial. Sykes is motivated by his own entrepreneurial fire and experience, and just maybe a need to demonstrate that JHS can be what GunnAllen could not.

But interviewing Sykes about only JHS is like talking to Julia Childs about one recipe or Rays third baseman Evan Longoria about fielding bunts. There is much more to discuss to get a rounded picture.

There's Sykes the banker.

He's a major investor, along with fellow Tampa philanthropist Kiran Patel, in Tampa's NorthStar Bank, which got "four stars" — a strong bill of health — by the bank-rating Bauer Financial service. Sykes says the bank was fortunate to have missed most of the downturn in Florida real estate lending that has decimated so many other financial institutions.

Sykes the race horse breeder.

Sykes at first bought a 1,000-acre Ocala horse farm in 1997 at auction because he wanted a place where his family could gather. Neither Sykes nor wife Susan ride, but that has not stopped them from using the Ocala farm — called Cloverleaf Farms II — to train, breed and sell race horses. Sykes added to his horse empire by purchasing a 600-acre Kentucky commercial horse-breeding farm called Woodford Thoroughbreds based between Lexington and Frankfort.

One promising filly of Sykes' is named Bsharpsonata, in part because the mother also has a musical name. Besides, Sykes deadpans, who would ever name a race horse Bflat.

Sykes the versatile businessman.

In March, Sykes helped launch Prepared Insurance, a homeowners insurance firm in Tampa. In real estate development, his JHS Equity firm focuses on high-ceiling industrial warehouses in the Carolina markets.

Sykes the champion of mass transit.

Given all on his plate, it is surprising to see Sykes agree to join the new Moving Hillsborough Forward coalition to raise money and awareness of area mass transit. Surprising, that is, until Sykes starts talking so passionately about the importance of a rail-based transportation system for Tampa and Tampa Bay's future.

He realizes he probably won't be around to see it all fall into place, but no matter. In Charlotte, where he worked before moving to Florida, light rail is helping the city's economy, he says. And a proper rail system will accomplish the same here, too. Tampa Bay's main road, Interstate 275, can never expand enough to keep up with future traffic, he argues.

• • •

Sykes' latest venture, JHS Capital Advisors, is rising, phoenix-like, out of the GunnAllen ruins.

Just inside the first-floor entrance to the offices at the JHS hangar, Sykes has filled the entryway with photos and clippings of some of his race horses. Upstairs, his comfortable office has mementoes from and a framed photo of the University of Tampa, an institution he took under his wing early and generously. From the hallway, windows offer a view of his two Gulfstream jets — the older "G II," which Sykes has up for sale, and its newer, more efficient and long-range G450 — that he and his executive team use to hop over to Europe or New York for business meetings and events.

The hangar is spotless. Workers are tinkering with and polishing the jets' exteriors. You can eat off the white hangar floor. And the May heat from the open hangar is eased by a giant circular ceiling fan that Sykes, in giving me a brief tour, says with a laugh is literally called a "Big A-- Fan."

After "retiring" from Sykes Enterprises years ago, Sykes joined with Foley & Lardner attorney Marty Traber to explore new opportunities. What quickly emerged was GunnAllen Financial, a brokerage in need of fresh capital and a stronger vision. Sykes invested more than $10 million but later retreated, at a loss, when GunnAllen's previous legal baggage became too heavy.

That's when Sykes decided to build his own financial firm, a task he's pursued quietly but has now officially unveiled as JHS Capital Advisors.

Sykes says St. Petersburg's Raymond James Financial, a regional brokerage run for decades by Tom James, was an inspiration. And James, Sykes says, was both encouraging and helpful. "Tom only wishes he had known earlier about my interest in GunnAllen," Sykes says, so that he could have discouraged the investment.

JHS Capital operates from space in the cylindrical Sykes Enterprises tower at 400 N Ashley Drive in downtown Tampa. But it's exploring office options near Boy Scout Boulevard. The firm is affiliated with RBC (Royal Bank of Canada) to handle the firm's clearing of trades. JHS also is recruiting financial advisers. Many will work as independent contractors.

The uncertainty in the stock markets and the public clamor of Wall Street's self-dealing makes it a good time to offer advisory services with a customer-first emphasis, he said.

Accounts in the range of $350,000 to $500,000 to invest are "our sweet spot," he says, but larger investors are welcome.

Sykes says he's looking for quality, not quantity, and even has a 12-point, five-page code of ethics employees must sign. "I wanted to create what I did not do at GunnAllen," he says, "in an industry that is having trust issues."

• • •

Sykes long ago proved himself a successful businessman with Sykes Enterprises, now a global business. As chairman emeritus at Sykes Enterprises, he remains a large owner. At the end of 2009, he indirectly held more than 5 million shares, valuing his stake in this one company at about $85 million.

The company is now run by a capable CEO and rising star in Tampa Bay economic development circles who just happens to be Sykes' son, Chuck Sykes. John Sykes is not one to gush, by any means, but he's obviously pleased at Chuck's success and growing reputation in the region.

John Sykes praises his son's contributions, though he cautions him — as John tells himself — not to get overextended.

Sykes is now more orchestra maestro than day-to-day executive. He has, for instance, selected experienced people to run JHS Capital Advisors.

"Leadership is managing through other people," Sykes says. Yet he concedes it is his presence, his desire for high business standards, his corporate track record and, frankly, his wealth that set the tone and strategy for his newest ventures.

Sykes typically wakes up at 5:30 a.m. He's an avid walker and, accompanied by his wife, Susan, has favorite routes in South Tampa's Hyde Park. The couple used to walk along Bayshore Boulevard but now the traffic is too heavy. He works with a personal trainer twice a week to build strength and to stretch. He mentions his treatment at Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center following a lymphoma diagnosis. He's been cancer-free for two years.

When Sykes first retired from Sykes Enterprises years ago as a very wealthy man, Susan asked him what he would be doing. It was a classic question from a wife who knew Sykes would not be content under foot at home.

"My desire," says Sykes, reflecting on his wife's query, "is to create a business." Or maybe two or three more.

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

Tampa entrepreneur Sykes still hands-on, even in retirement 05/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 28, 2010 9:45pm]
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