Born in Buffalo, ClientLogic has become a big name in the call center industry.
The company founded in 1990 by local entrepreneurs Ronald Schreiber and Jordan Levy has 53 locations and 19,000 workers around the globe, putting it among the major providers of "outsource" customer service.
But in Buffalo, ClientLogic has shrunk instead of growing. It employs about a third of its 1,500-job peak in 2000. Meanwhile, it has flourished elsewhere -- in the U.S., Canada and Europe as well as in low-wage magnets like India and the Philippines.
The Nashville headquarters says that the ups and downs of the customer service business have simply run against Buffalo, and that the doors will remain open here.
"We have had some decrease in work, but at this point we have no plans to close the (Buffalo) center," spokesman Amit Shankardass said.
But several workers fear that the call center at 699 Hertel Avenue will be shuttered early next year, after work for an Internet on-ramp called United Online shifts to another ClientLogic site in India. Company officials wouldn't discuss the contract.
Whether it departs, or continues as a shadow of its former self, ClientLogic qualifies as another example of Buffalo's missed economic opportunities.
"Ron and I are very disappointed not to see the company continue to grow in Western New York," co-founder Levy said. "We founded it here hoping it would continue to grow here."
When he owned the company, one of its two area call centers was in the former Trico building on Washington Street, making the company a symbol of new industry filling the economic gap left be a departed manufacturer. Now, however, ClientLogic has phased out the call center in the Trico building, although it keeps some computer and administrative functions there.
Levy and Schreiber planted the seeds of ClientLogic when they launched Upgrade Corp. of America in 1990. The venture sold upgrade packages for software publishers like Microsoft, an important initial client. It was known for a time as Softbank Services Group before being sold to Toronto's Onex Corp. in 1998 and combined with a competitor to create ClientLogic.
In 2000, when the company considered going public, it had about 7,200 workers, some 1,500 of them in Buffalo. Today's local job count of 455, down from 600 this summer, represents about 2 percent of the global work force.
Workers say 200 jobs will be lost by the shift of United Online work. Shankardass said other customer service programs should absorb most or all of the jobs, meaning few layoffs.
"There's not significant job reduction because a majority of people have been placed on another account," he said.
United Online sells Internet access through brand names Juno and NetZero. A representative wouldn't comment and referred questions back to ClientLogic; Shankardass said he couldn't discuss individual clients.
Regional economic developers are calling on ClientLogic to see if they can encourage a return to growth here, said Charles Webb, executive director of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency. ClientLogic has worked with local agencies and received incentives in the past, he said.
It's not as if the region is inhospitable to call centers. Back-office operations, tele-sales and customer service have become important sectors here that continue to attract growth from other companies, Webb said. Geico is hiring the first of an expected 2,500 jobs it intends to fill in Amherst, and customer service contractor ICT Group announced Tuesday that it is opening a third office here with 230 jobs.
"We know the area serves well for customer service," Webb said. Recruiters for Geico are seeing a high turnout for openings, indicating that the pool of workers is far from tapped out, he said.
ClientLogic positions itself as a global helper for corporations, suited for providing customer service to globe-spanning multi-nationals. Its mix of North American, European, Asian and African locations -- with workers speaking 16 languages -- is key to providing service in any market.
"All call centers are NOT going offshore,"ClientLogic executive Channing Rollo wrote in an essay on the industry published in February. Having a mix of locations is important to clients.
However, the rise of "offshoring," or cross-border outsourcing of customer service work, has coincided with the shrinking of ClientLogic's presence here. In 2003, the company applied for trade adjustment assistance for some workers in Buffalo, a program designed to aid workers whose jobs are lost to competition from abroad. The application was denied because the jobs weren't in manufacturing, the U.S. Labor Department ruled.
In addition to the shift of United Online work, a relatively small group of bilingual support workers for Lexmark were downsized when the jobs were moved to Mexico this past spring, workers in Buffalo said. The group handled calls from Spanish speakers in the U.S. as well as from Latin American countries.