Calling your shots Featured

7:00pm EDT December 31, 2006

When you are constantly pulled in many different directions, being the boss can be painful.

Tony Holcombe has found that communication is one of the cures, and he tries to divide his time in thirds. The president and CEO of Syniverse Technologies Inc., a provider of technology services to wireless telecommunications companies, makes it a priority to spend equal time with employees, customers and investors.

Holcombe keeps in contact with investors to answers questions, and he holds informational meetings with employees.

“We do small group lunch-and-learn meetings,” he says. “We have a small group of employees, without managers, to have a free exchange of information with me.”

Holcombe also sits down with customers to achieve a personal level of communication. “It’s important for me to get a lot of face time with customers to see what customers are thinking, what they like about us and what they don’t like about us,” he says.“More importantly, where are they going with their business, so we understand what we need to do to support them.”

Holcombe has been at the helm of Syniverse since early 2006 and has been on the board of directors since 2003. Previously, he was president of Emdeon Corp., formerlyWebMD, and president of Emdeon Business Services.

Throughout his career, Holcombe has relied not only on communication but also on employee empowerment, finding the right people and acquisitions to drive success.

Empowering employees
With 1,000 employees, Holcombe realizes he couldn’t do his job effectively if he was micromanaging.

“You really have to build a team who are philosophically in line with where you want to take the company and understand how to deliver results against key objectives,”he says. “Then you have to let those people go do their job.”

Holcombe says he is very results-driven and not so concerned about the activities that lead to those results. Once an agreement is made on the target results, Holcombehands it off to the management team. He then expects managers to hand it off to their teams, and if there aren’t results, Holcombe gets involved.

“I really try to give them the key objectives and let them get it done,” he says.

Holcombe is instituting Six Sigma at Syniverse, which ties directly to employee empowerment because everyone has a part in finding a solution, which keep them involvedand up-to-date.

A management team identifies areas where there is potential for better efficiency or better productivity. The team leader, or black belt, goes to those areas and talks topeople who work in that process about what doesn’t work well.

“Through statistical analysis, we will be able to find where the problems are associated with that particular process,” he says. “The black belt will present some solutions back to the team, and the team will help the black belt to find what will work. Then the team and black belt will come back to senior management and say, ‘Hereis the problem we have identified, and here is the solution. We either need resources or capital or a change in process to implement it,’ and we will sign off on it.”

At a previous company, Holcombe saw firsthand the power of empowering employees to find solutions when a problem arose with an automated call directory system.After the system was installed, the number of calls handled by a human increased, defeating the purpose of the system.

Using Six Sigma, a black-belt team and employees of the call unit jumped on the problem and discovered the system was installed improperly, with a key directionalstep missing.

“One of the really exciting things is you not only help employees solve problems they deal with day in and day out, but they actually come up with the solution,” hesays. “They own the solution at their level, and that is a tremendously powerful concept. Not only did we get rid of the increased calls, but we got rid of the number ofcalls we thought we were going to have to handle manually, anyway.”

Finding the right people
Syniverse’s revenue was $341 million in 2005, and the company is looking to increase that with growth opportunities through the Asia Pacific and European marketplaces.Two years ago, succeeding internationally was much tougher because Syniverse lacked brand recognition. That problem was slowly solved as the company built new business relationships outside of the United States.

Holcombe says succeeding internationally comes from having the right people working for you.

“You’re constantly looking for people,” he says. “If you had an entire team in place and you didn’t want to hire any new people, you’d still be looking for new people. It’s hardto find the top people because they are in demand.

“When you get ahold of a person, you work hard to get them on board and sell them your story. Basically, court them to come work for you and put them in a place they cansucceed.”

Internationally, Syniverse hired local people who had industry expertise and good contacts and who understood their regions. That paid off as Syniverse went from having zero market share in Europe to about 25 percent over a two-year period.

“We invested for the long term, and we waited a couple of years for all that to play out,” he says.

Growth through acquisitions
One way to achieve rapid growth is through acquisitions. But the companies have to be methodically chosen, and the integration has to be handled with care.

If a company is to be acquired by Syniverse, it must meet five criteria: It must have the ability to extend the range and scope of services offered; it must expand and leveragethe customer base; it must increase profitability; it must improve strategic positioning; and it must allow Syniverse to enter new markets and increase the scale of business.Currently, Syniverse is focused on acquiring technology-based companies that can provide products and services to customers not already in the company’s portfolio.

“What we are looking for are companies that have leading-edge-type technology and services that we can not only take and develop, but sell on a worldwide basis wheremaybe we didn’t have the reach to get into a world wide marketplace,” he says.

Holcombe says the company also keeps its eye on competitors that exit the industry.

“There, what we are acquiring is customers,” he says. “We want to bring those customers over to our platform, our services, and build a strong, long-term relationship withthem.”

At that point, Holcombe says it’s important to understand what the customer wants.

“It’s really important you sit down with the customer and go, ‘What are the things that cause you pain? What are the areas where you are trying to control your cost or increaseyour ability to increase your revenue?’ You have to listen very carefully to what they are telling you. Then you have to create a solution for them.”

Holcombe says that once you get past questioning whether you have a good product set or a good financial deal, the thing that can make or break the success of a deal is thecultural integration component.

“It’s something that I, as all CEOs do, have struggled with,” he says. “When we acquire somebody, we want to get to know the management team of the company and the culture of the company pretty intimately.”

Syniverse has weekly integration meetings chaired by Holcombe, at which the company walks through the issues between Syniverse’s people and the people of the ac quiredcompany.

"We have laid out plans, so we are checking off against that,” he says. “We are trying to make sure if there are issues, we deal with it.”

Syniverse recently acquired a company in Hong Kong, and Holcombe spent time there with its senior managers to understand how they work. He says it’s important to spendtime in the offices of the acquired company to answer questions and show support. And potential problems should be addressed immediately.

“When you close that acquisition, my approach has been you really selectively put the pieces of the companies together where it makes sense, and really build some wallsaround areas where you can have some cultural clashes,” he says.

Holcombe wants to leverage the Hong Kong-based company’s development capabilities for product sets in a specific marketplace.

“We build some walls around them and make them more of the development engine for us because that is where their expertise is,” he says. “Rather than us coming in andtelling them how to do things, they’re going to tell us how to do things. We leverage their strengths and give them a bigger role and a bigger marketplace to play. That helpsthem feel like, ‘There is no one here to pound me to tell me how to do stuff.’”

As far as branding acquired companies, Holcombe said that’s decided on an individual basis. The company in Hong Kong will keep its brand but be branded a division ofSyniverse. Time will determine what brand is most advantageous based on what the customer wants to see.

“It’s what is going to give us the best marketplace presence and the best expectation factor from the customer base,” he says.

HOW TO REACH: Syniverse Technologies Inc., (813) 637-5000 or www.syniverse.com