Canada's New Brunswick province is the most attractive place in North America to put a financial services call center, according to a consulting firm.

"The most important criteria are labor supply and skills, cost, and the telecommunications infrastructure," said John H. Boyd, president of Boyd Co., a Princeton, N.J., firm that advises companies on facilities siting. "Canada has a sophisticated telecommunications network, with NBTel in New Brunswick, in particular, aggressively servicing bank call centers."

New Brunswick beat out 59 cities that Boyd Co. studied as the cheapest place to operate a call center. It would take $9.4 million a year to run a 35,000-square-foot center with 250 workers providing 24 million minutes of billable toll-free service a year, Boyd calculated.

San Francisco was the costliest place to run such a center, at $14.3 million a year. New York was next, followed by the District of Columbia, Los Angeles, and Stamford, Conn.

Canada's favorable exchange rate and New Brunswick labor supply helped position the province as the lowest-cost locale, Mr. Boyd said. San Francisco has high labor costs, inflated office rents, and high taxes on telecommunications services, he said.

Companies that have recently set up call centers in New Brunswick include Cendant Corp., International Business Machines Corp., Xerox Corp. and Marriott International. Royal Bank of Canada already has a call center there.

Wilmington, Del., is another "hotbed" for bank call centers. because of its favorable banking laws, Mr. Boyd said. Annual operating costs for a benchmark-size call center total $12.76 million, the Boyd study found.

Southwestern cities where inhabitants are bilingual in English and Spanish, such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Tucson, are also proving popular as call center sites.

North American companies are also looking to Europe, where telecommunications costs have dropped dramatically, Mr. Boyd said. "Some companies are setting up call centers in Europe that provide a place for overflow calls and round-the-clock coverage."

Heading the list of favorable European sites are the Tagus Valley in north-central Spain; Dublin; Northern Ireland; and Amsterdam. As a footstep to Asia, Mr. Boyd singled out New Zealand as an attractive location.

Call centers are expected to proliferate as computer companies, banks, pharmaceutical firms, and retailers, including those that sell products through catalogues and the Internet, build them to handle customer orders and requests. Today some 70,000 call centers in the United States and Canada serve the financial services and other industries and employ more than 2.5 million people. By 2003, Mr. Boyd said, there will be 105,000 centers, with more than four million employees

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