Globalize Family Values to Fuel Team Loyalty

Sykes Enterprises spans twenty-four countries, but James Holder says its tight-knit family is what unites and strengthens the customer contact management company

You wouldn’t think of a 50,000-employee, global company as a “family business,” but that’s exactly how general counsel James Holder describes his company, Sykes Enterprises. Started by John Sykes, the customer contact management company is now helmed by John’s son, Charles “Chuck” Sykes. And while the two are different in their approaches and personality style as CEOs, Holder says their commitment to the Sykes family vision has been unwavering.

James Holder, Sykes Enterprises
James Holder, Sykes Enterprises

“The one thing that didn’t change [during the CEO transition] was the familial nature of the company,” Holder says. “And that terminology, if you hung around the office much, you’d hear that phrase a lot: ‘the Sykes family.’ And when we refer to that, we’re not talking about Chuck and his dad and their family, we’re talking about the employees here.”

Sykes Enterprises provides outsourced customer support options to companies in industries ranging from technology to financial services. The company operates more than eighty technical help and customer support centers across twenty-four countries. Maintaining that close-knit, familial culture is tricky, but Sykes Enterprises makes it a priority with the help of new technology.

“Communication is key. The question becomes, how do you do that?” Holder says. “We can do a video conference call with the Philippines, which, depending on daylight savings time, is twelve or thirteen hours ahead, seamlessly. The key is, you have to take advantage of the tools and actually use them.”

Before Holder turned forty, he had never even been out of the United States. Now, he finds himself traveling across Asia, South America, Europe, and more, meeting the Sykes “family” members working in their call centers. “Even with technology, I am 100 percent convinced that nothing takes the place of face-to-face contact,” says Holder, who calls the experience energizing.

“For me, to get out into a call center in Budapest, Hungary, and see what happens, and how those teams work together day in and day out to take care of our clients’ customers, is just amazing to me,” Holder says. “I never go out to a center that I don’t come back with a deeper appreciation of what goes on and the talent we have in the company.”

Holder joined Sykes Enterprises in December 2000 as general counsel, a role he says was not viewed in the most “family friendly” light when he first began.

“When I first started, the legal department was unquestionably viewed as an obstructionist to the operation,” Holder says. “People were always afraid that the answer to everything they brought to the legal team was going to be ‘no.’”

“Even with technology, I am 100 percent convinced that nothing takes the place of face-to-face contact.”

However, Holder’s primary mission has been to use the legal team as a force to help propel the larger company goals forward, and its status has changed. “I think—I actually know—that if you took a survey today, it would be exactly the opposite,” Holder says. “They see us as team players that have exactly the same goals that they do.”

In 2001, Holder took on the role of corporate secretary. His long career path also includes a degree in accounting and experience as a certified public accountant in addition to his legal background, which he says gives him more opportunity to branch out from the traditional general counsel  responsibilities. “Although I never wanted to pursue [finance] as my primary function, it has unquestionably integrated itself into everything that I’ve done in my career,” Holder says.

On top of litigation, regulatory compliance, and contracts, Holder is responsible for global insurance, risk management, workers’ compensation, and global real estate. He’s in a prime position to work on mergers and acquisitions—organizational change strategies that Sykes Enterprises doesn’t shy away from.

In recent years, Sykes Enterprises has averaged a corporate acquisition about once every two years, Holder says. And while the focus is on finding companies whose business model fits Sykes’s own, Holder adds that the culture of the organization acquired is “on even par.” If that part fits, he says, the rest can be done with hard work.

“A great acquisition can propel a company higher, but a bad acquisition and a bad integration can tear a company apart and lead to its failure,” Holder says.

Not surprisingly, Sykes Enterprises is disciplined and works patiently to find companies that value the same family-centric model to which it adheres, according to Holder. He points to one acquisition in particular. About two years ago, Sykes acquired Denver-based Alpine Access and kept the leadership team almost entirely in place. The Alpine team put its money where its mouth was when it came to “family values” almost immediately upon joining Sykes Enterprises.

“[Alpine Access] established a foundation for all US Sykes team members,” Holder says. “Employees of the company contribute to the foundation through donations and payroll deductions—all voluntarily—just to support employees that find themselves in trouble, whether it’s a natural disaster, financial hardship, or medical bills.”

This global culture with a focus on the family environment has definitely caught the attention of its executives, who stay on for a record number of years. Holder himself is moving into his sixteenth year with Sykes Enterprises.

“This isn’t nirvana; no place is nirvana,” Holder says. “But it’s a pretty darn good place to work, where the employees treat each other the same way we treat our clients: we serve each other, and that’s the nature of this business.”