Willard Sparks: A humble entrepreneur

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The career of Willard Sparks might aptly be compared to a shooting star, one that burned brightly over an enormous path, yet was gone far too soon. Sparks’ legacy was that of a successful businessman, dedicated to his family and community.

Born on a Dust Bowl-era farm near Dibble, Okla., in 1936, Sparks learned about hard work and developed a passion for agriculture which he maintained throughout his life. Family members and business associates confirm that Sparks was an “advocate for agriculture” long before that term became popular and was well-known as one of America’s leading authorities on agriculture.

He was also described as a visionary, entrepreneur, humanitarian and philanthropist. The oldest of seven children, Sparks was the first in his family to graduate from college, earning a BS and MS in agricultural economics from Oklahoma State University and then going on to earn a PhD in statistical science from Michigan State University. By the time of his death in 2005, Sparks was internationally recognized as an authority on agricultural commodity research and analysis, and his life’s work provided a positive influence throughout the agricultural industries.

“Willard had an extraordinary intellect,” says Denver-based cattleman and long-time business partner Ken Green. “He had an uncanny ability to be engaged in many complicated business transactions at one time.”

Sparks moved his family to Memphis, Tenn., in 1963 where he joined Cook Industries as director of economic research. He later became senior executive vice president and director of Cook’s worldwide Agriproducts Group. While at Cook, he played a dominant role in orchestrating the first large sale of U.S. grain to Russia.

In 1977, he launched Sparks Commodities, later named Sparks Companies, Inc., where research and analysis and consulting specialists served hundreds of the world’s leading agribusinesses. He also became involved with Vining-Sparks, a NASD-registered general securities firm headquartered in Memphis. He also purchased a minority interest in Refco, LLC, one of the world’s largest futures commission merchants headquartered in Chicago, and he held membership in many of the major U.S. commodity exchanges.

Despite his rapidly growing business interests, Sparks maintained his passion for production agriculture, which he began to incorporate into his enterprises. In 1988, he and business partners purchased a feedyard in Liberal, Kan., and later added feedyards in Fort Morgan and Sterling, Colo., and Happy, Tex. These yards were operated under the name Cattlco, LLC.

“By the late 1990s, Cattlco operated with a one-time capacity of about 230,000 head,” according to Cattlco president and CEO David Johnson, who was hired by Sparks and is a long-time employee. “We also maintained pasture and backgrounding operations in Oklahoma, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Missouri.”

“It was an honor and pleasure to work for Willard,” Johnson says. “His integrity and passion for the business to be the best continue to inspire us today. His legacy endures and to be recognized by our industry is a great tribute to Willard. In countless positive ways his life touched many lives.”

Willard had guiding hand

Although the feedyards were involved in custom feeding, Sparks and his partners gradually converted them to 100 percent company-owned cattle.

“Willard believed in owning all of the cattle and maintaining control of the businesses,” Green says. “And we operated the feedyards at full capacity. It worked very well for us.”

Two of the feedyards have been sold, but Cattlco continues to operate the yards in Liberal, Kan., and Fort Morgan, Colo., with a one-time capacity of 100,000 head.

Green describes his friend and business partner as “just an Oklahoma country boy who always maintained his humility despite his success.”

During business meetings, Green says, Sparks displayed a great sense of humor, which he often used to bring out the best in employees and business associates.

“He liked to use humor and banter to keep meetings light when appropriate, but he also worked to draw the views and opinions out of others. He wanted to hear your position,” Green says, “but he also wanted you to defend your posit ion. There was always give-and-take in those business meetings.”

Green believes Sparks’ knowledge of the commodities business and his reputation for accuracy eventually grew to the point “some of the giants in the business wouldn’t make a move until they saw what Willard was doing.” Asked to describe his business philosophy, Sparks once wrote: “Look beyond what everyone else knows, develop a network of people you admire, share what you have with others, and never compromise your principles for a quick buck.”

Sparks’ business success included a variety of companies and business interests, and at the height of his success in the late 1990s, well over 1,000 people were employed by Sparks and his closest enterprises.

One of those employees was his son Robert, who continues as president of RBS Sparks Holdings. Describing his father’s managerial style, Robert says employees and managers were “given a lot of leeway. Dad was not a micromanager. He helped develop the strategies and direction he wanted things to go, and then he allowed his people to do the job.”

Robert says his father “delegated fairly and openly, and he was very generous with employees. There was a lot of opportunity for employees to do very well (financially) if they performed well.”

Those remembrances of Sparks’ managerial style mirror what he wrote about entrepreneurship in 1992: “The single most important point in being a good entrepreneur is the willingness to make a decision and select good personnel. In addition, a great entrepreneur must give people responsibility and then hold them accountable for their decisions.”

Like many successful businessmen, Sparks was also a respected community leader who devoted particular attention to supporting higher education, athletics and the arts. He served as chairman of the Public Building Authority of Memphis and Shelby County, an entity responsible for overseeing Memphis’ famed landmark, the Pyramid arena. The National Agricultural Alumni and Development Association honored him with the Outstanding Philanthropist Award. In 2004, the Memphis Cancer Foundation presented its “Spirit of Life” to him.

Sparks also was a loyal supporter of the University of Memphis and Oklahoma State University. At the University of Memphis he established the Sparks Family Chair of Excellence in International Business, and the Sparks Family Marketing Center in the Fogelman College of Business and Economics. In April 2003, the Bureau of Business and Economic Research was renamed the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research to honor the time, expertise, leadership and financial resources that he contributed to the university.

At OSU, he was a founder of the Oklahoma State 21st Century Center for Agriculture and Renewable Natural Resources, a member of the OSU Foundation Board of Governors, a member of the Dean’s Advisory Committee of the Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, and he co-chaired the Bringing Dreams to Life campaign for the agricultural division.

Sparks also endowed a chair in agricultural economics, and because of his generosity, the Willard Sparks Beef Research Center was opened in 1998. His foundation still provides scholarships to students in the OSU Department of Agricultural Economics.

He received the 1987 Distinguished Alumnus Award from the OSU Alumni Association, the 1996 Distinguished Agriculture Alumnus Award from the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and the 1997 Distinguished Service Award from the Department of Animal Science. In 1998, Sparks received an honorary doctorate in social science at OSU, the ninth person since 1927 to receive such an honorary degree. The OSU Alumni Association also named him to its 2005 Alumni Hall of Fame.

For his achievements and contributions to business, agriculture and cattle feeding, Sparks was inducted posthumously into the Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame during a ceremony in Denver, Colo.

One of Sparks’ employees once described him in this manner: “The measure of this remarkable man is that he never allowed his success to take away his compassion and generosity.”

Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame

Feeders from around the country and voted for the top two. Merck Animal Health sponsors the program and held a reception in early August to formally announce the Hall’s 2012 inductees: Robert “Bob” Rebholtz and Willard Sparks.

The Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame also recognizes the critical role of feedyard employees with the Arturo Armendariz Distinguished Service Award. The 2012 recipient is Hector Pacheco. The 2012 Industry Leadership Award recipient is Dr. Terry Klopfenstein. Drovers/CattleNetwork is proud to present profiles of the inductees, offering a glimpse at the business strategies that contributed to their long-term success.

Other 2012 Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame Members:

Bob Rebholtz: Passion and compassion

Terry Klopfenstein: A teacher's long reach

Hector Pacheco: Leading by example


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