Jim Sykes got his first shot in the CEO's chair in 2014 when he assumed the top job at injection molder Amaray in Pittsfield, Mass.
He'd spent the previous 22 years with the global plastics giant Nypro Inc. in Clinton, Mass., rising through the organization to lead its large consumer and electronics global business unit.
But stepping into the top spot at the much-smaller Amaray, with its own deep-rooted traditions and culture, required switching into listening mode.
"The biggest adjustment for me was about learning and listening on the front end, as opposed to leading, which is what I'd been doing several years prior," he said.
Sykes, 51, was brought in to help diversify Amaray away from its traditional heavy reliance on molding DVD and CD cases — it had been 95-percent plus of its business — and seek out new markets.
He'd been through similar transitions at Nypro, as that company grew from a $100 million injection molder with a health care focus in the early 1990s into a $1.3 billion firm centered around its skill set in plastics manufacturing but active in many markets.
When Sykes became group president of Nypro's consumer and electronics unit in 2012, it had 12,000 employees, annual sales of $440 million and factories in China and Mexico.
He said there's "no question" that managing through those big changes at Nypro, which is now part of global contract manufacturer Jabil Inc., was a key factor in becoming CEO at Amaray.
Today, he said he's energized by the challenges before Amaray, which is about the same size as Nypro when Sykes started there in 1991: "It's exciting, bringing me back."
"Nypro had earned a deep, rich experience as a market-leading supplier serving one primary industry, same at Amaray," Sykes said. "Both companies had about the same level of revenue and a similar number of global manufacturing sites when I started. Both companies were intensely focused on, and committed to, growth and diversification ... and extremely well-positioned to do so."
Becoming a CEO was not a goal early in his career, Sykes said. It only came into focus as a professional ambition later.
But that doesn't mean that early lessons have not stayed with him.
Sykes said the best career advice he's received came from his boss in his first job, at the now-defunct plastics processor CompTech in Erie, Pa.: "Be prepared. The best-prepared side always wins."
He credits that boss, Dave McGuire, the former vice president of sales at CompTech, with hiring him for an "extensive internship introducing a kid with zero plastics knowledge" to technical concepts like computer-aided design and a few of the finer points of value-added selling.
Sykes's career path has perhaps been more of a straight line than many CEOs.
He interned with CompTech in college, took a sales job there for $19,000 when he graduated in 1988, and then went on to Nypro in 1991, including an expat stint in Hong Kong in 2012-2013.
But it's all getting applied at Amaray, which has 150 injection molding machines in two factories in the United States and one in the United Kingdom.
His first goal when he started in April 2014 was to "learn the distinguishing culture and competitive advantages of Amaray."
Amaray has been about as much of the proverbial "big fish in a small pond" as a company can be, with about half the global market in the very niche segment of molding cases for DVDs and games.
But it's also a shrinking market, which is prompting it to seek out new markets where it can apply the same highly automated molding and manufacturing.
It's had some success. About 26 percent of its annual sales today are outside the media packaging market.
"I view myself as a growth leader," he said. "This is where my greatest success has been registered through my career."