A typical starting point when writing a profile on someone is to visit their LinkedIn page. Unfortunately, in the case of Jim Horton, the search turned up 700-plus Jim Hortons. So, either every Tom, Dick, and Harry is named Jim Horton, or there is an overabundance of overachieving Jim Hortons. The latter, it seems. A search under James Horton might have rendered better results. According to Jim, “My given name is James, but the only one that ever really called me that was my mother. And only when I was in trouble.”
A Man of Many Hats
Turns out the one and only Jim Horton at Tactis wears two hats. First, he serves as the Director of Technology on the BPO side of the company. He is also the System Owner of the All of Us Research Program for the National Institute of Health (NIH) account. In fact, that was what he was primarily hired for, to help Tactis get through the ATO process for the All of Us initiative and to get the system stood up in a very quick time. “I kind of have two jobs,” says Jim, “one specific to the NIH program where I'm responsible for maintaining system security and then the overall Technology Director for the BPO side. I work on other initiatives that come into Tactis as well.”
For the uninitiated, Horton explains “the System Owner – typically in the government space – is where they assign a point of contact or points of contact or various parts of the program that they are putting out to bid. The system owner is responsible for all aspects of the systems used to support this program.
The City of Squares
Not to be confused with the other 700+ Jim Hortons, each of whom was no doubt born somewhere, Tactis’s Jim Horton, was born in what is commonly referred to as the City of Squares. As the birthplace of the famous ‘Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers,’ actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and not to mention Jim’s schoolmate, Patrick Ewing, Cambridge MA is where Jim got his start.
According to the Köppen-Geiger classification, Cambridge has ‘no dry season’ yet it turns out to have been a very fertile enclave to start out in, especially when one considers the high concentration of entrepreneurial start-ups plus the high quality of innovation to emanate from the space, notwithstanding the fact that one of the squares, Kendall Square, is today known as ‘the most innovative square mile on the planet.’
The youngest of five, Jim’s dad worked for the confectionary division of Nabisco in Cambridge. Jim’s mom, on the other hand, had it all figured out: Stay-at-home mom when Jim was little; lunch lady when Jim was in elementary school; and lunch lady at Jim’s high school when he transitioned there. A little ‘Big Mother’ one might say. But no, says Jim, “I enjoyed having her there because she would just ignore me. But all her friends that she worked with when I would go to lunch, would already have my lunch ready for me on a tray so I wouldn’t even have to order it. I felt very privileged to have my mom there.”
Mr. Horton's Feeling for Snow
When not in the lunchroom receiving preferential treatment, Jim was out on the field, playing both baseball and football, and running track. But it was the ski club that made the biggest impression on Jim and that would consume most of his time. That’s because when not skiing, Jim was volunteering at an organization in Boston called the Youth Enrichment Service which took inner-city children out to ski resorts on the weekends. Says Jim, “We got to meet a lot of great people … kids that normally would not have an opportunity to get up on a ski slope.” Little did Jim know the role his volunteer ski club experience would play in his life in preparing him for working with people, managing situations, and other mountains that Jim would later have to traverse.
It's not Computer Science. It's a Call Center
Northeastern University welcomed Jim as a computer science major, but after the realization that he did not want to be deskbound as a coder, he switched to business management. “Northeastern was known for its co-op program,” says Jim, “where, once you get to a certain point in your academic level, you can go up and start working with a company as an intern. So, I did that and ended up working for a well-known insurance company in Boston.” The internship turned into a full-time job for him, and he skied that slope for about 18 years. Primarily, his department was responsible for the management of the general agencies around the United States. Says Jim, “We had 26 general agencies around the US. My territory was the West Coast. So, I would travel quite a bit to the West Coast to go out to the general agencies and make sure that they were running efficiently and if they had issues with staffing, we would help them with finding new staffing.”
But it was New England where Jim would dip his toe into the call center world. “Customers would deal with the general agencies directly for support,” he explains, “but from a business model that didn't make sense. It was very costly. So, what the company I was working for - The New England - did was they created a support center. We created a 200-seat call center (big at the time but minuscule compared to what he would later do) and brought in all the functions that were supported at the general agency level and let them focus strictly on sales. I was brought in to build that call center. Because I had a background in technology, I ended up taking over the technology department for that company on the call center side.
Scaling the Summit
Running call centers was the easy part for Jim. Technology was more difficult. Even though he had a background in technology, it was more from a programming perspective. But as a man with a passion for learning, he dug in his heels, taking the time to learn what was best in class at any given time in his career. And so began a few years of what skiers might call buttering – perhaps even carving – where Jim would slide from company to company and help them set up increasingly complicated – technologically-speaking – call centers. Next, he entered the promotional products world working as the Director of Customer Service and Service technology for Gemline. Here he built out their call center and their call center technology teams. Then came a company called Steam Global where Jim primarily focussed on call recording, recording calls, and recording screen capture which helps with data analytics. He focussed on a lot of other systems too, the kind of adjunct systems attached to call recordings, such as workforce management, performance management, and a whole host of other peripheral systems, learning through doing, each step of the way.
Finally, Jim peaked with over 2,000 call centers around the globe, playing host to an astonishing figure of 26,000 agents – a mammoth operation by anyone’s standards. “It was all contract based,” says Jim, “pretty much like what we do at Tactis. So, everything was constantly changing. I was pretty much working with a lot of Fortune 500, and Fortune 1000 companies, providing support for them. Companies like Sprint, Verizon, and Dell Computer, to name a few.”
In 2020, Jim decided to try out a new run and joined Tactis, DC’s top customer experience (CX) agency. “Unlike my experience with larger companies,” says Jim, “that have either thousands or tens of thousands of employees, the thing I really found intriguing about Tactis was that it was a small business. There, the fate of the company really depends on everybody being successful because it’s not a lot of people, so there’s a lot of stress, but there’s also a lot of ability to make the decisions that really will push the company in the direction you want, so you know, I think that was the exciting part for me.
He goes on to say “When you're working in a large company, by the time something trickles down to your level, it’s more of a directive than a collaborative effort. And I think that's what I really enjoy about Tactis. Every day is different. Every day is challenging. It’s never mundane. You learn something new every day because you’re doing things that are different.” I’ve always had that appeal to work face to face with customers and to apply a ‘roll your sleeves up and do your job’ mentality, but there are a lot of other aspects to Tactis, and I think that’s what is interesting for many of the folks that join here. Small businesses are certainly not for everybody, but for me, in the short time I have been here, I find myself being thrilled about it every day. I look forward to waking up and coming to work!”
Learning to Fall
Creating call centers and managing thousands to tens of thousands of people wasn’t always easy. When asked about his management style, Jim falls back on his formative years, teaching kids to ski. His modus operandi was simple: “I treated every student on every trip that we took as their first. I tried not to go in with the preconceived notion that not everybody can ski, and not everybody has the same abilities and I think that helped because when you’re teaching skiing, there are a lot of different attributes to it, right? There’s the fear component. There’s the physical aspect. Some people are just not strong or as physically fit as others. And then there’s the coordination piece of it. So, I think what I tried to do was to make it fun. It wasn’t, you know, loading you up in a chairlift and taking you to the top and pushing you down. It was really all about learning to fall … we taught them how to fall and how to pick themselves up and make it fun. And I think if you can do that and get to steer people away from the fear component regardless of their physical attributes or coordination, they’re going to have a good time and they’ll push themselves a little bit more. You know, some folks never made it off the bunny slope. Others were at the top of the mountain by the end of the day.”
“Some of the things I took away from that volunteer position I applied to not just work, but to life, too. Friendships are like that. Raising children is like that. Everybody is different and you must understand what makes them tick and adjust accordingly to make sure that at the end of the day, they’re having fun regardless of what they’re doing. I mean, even at work. Jobs are stressful, but we try to make it an enjoyable place.” Jim taught his own kids to ski using the same philosophy and each has turned out to be a great skier, but with one son who is autistic, teaching him was always going to be a little bit different. Says Jim, “My son who is autistic has no fear and would just go to the top of the mountain and ski down. It’s ingrained in his being not to be afraid of anything, which is a good thing. But it can also be a bad thing, right?”
When not working, skiing, standing up projects, or running 26,000+ agent-strong companies, Jim finds the time to take care of a small homestead farm. He makes soap, and taffy (known to the rest of the world as toffee!) and raises dairy goats and chickens. “I get a lot of pleasure out of animals,” he explains, “it started off as a petting zoo for my oldest son, who’s autistic. He loves animals, and so we had the space on our property and we’re like, well, you know, let’s build a farm. So, we started out with two Nigerian dwarf goats and that quickly grew. We have six now.” Same with chickens. Jim started off with a half dozen chickens and the next thing he knew, he had 45. “We raised rabbits for a while,” he says, “giant Flemish rabbits so which can grow up to like 20 pounds and be 2 feet long.” The farm taught the kids a few things, but as they grew up their interests changed. So now it’s just Jim down at the farm every morning and every night, opening and closing and feeding and milking. “I still love it,” he says, “but less in the wintertime for sure.” Needless to say, Jim has not bought eggs in a long time. Where others take wine to dinner parties, Jim takes eggs.
Today, Jim, and his wife, find themselves in Paxton, MA, with two daughters and four boys and an ever-growing menagerie of farm animals. As the youngest of five (his wife is the middle child of twelve!) – five kids, a tribe of goats, a colony of rabbits, and a brood of chickens, is about as normal as it gets.