When David Sparby decided to pursue his graduate education, he did so with gusto. He decided to get both a J.D. and an M.B.A. degree. He enrolled in William Mitchell for his legal education, graduating in 1980, and about the same time, he looked for a place to get his M.B.A. “I chose St. Thomas for two reasons,” he says. “First was the personal interest the assistant dean took in helping me. Second was that St. Thomas was flexible. The MBA program could accommodate people who were working and completing another degree.” He said that the assistant dean sat down with him, and they went over classes and a financial plan to develop a strategy for him to complete his degree. “It was a good program,” he says, “but it was the personal attention that meant the most to me. St. Thomas had an interest in helping me. I wasn’t just pushed into a registration queue.”
After he had attained both of his degrees, Sparby went to work for Warren Spannaus, then attorney general of Minnesota. “I worked with regulated industries – telephones, electricity and natural gas. Both my J.D. and my M.B.A. left me well-prepared for that job.”
In 1982, Sparby moved on to join the Legal Department at Northern States Power. At the time, NSP was the largest independent phone provider in North Dakota, in addition to providing electricity and natural gas to customers in the upper Midwest. “It was a natural transition,” Sparby says. From the legal side of the business, Sparby moved into business operations. He held positions in gas supply and later in regulatory areas, and for several years he regularly moved into positions with increasing responsibility. In 2008, he was named president and CEO of NSP, and then in 2009 he was named vice president and chief financial officer at Xcel Energy, NSP’s holding company.
“The high point of my career has always been seeing my business strategies implemented,” says Sparby. “You create a plan, and you have the chance to see it become operational.” He says that the people around him have been important contributors to his success. “I’ve been fortunate to work with passionate people,” he says. “Being surrounded by high-energy people helps me to do my best.”
In addition to passion, he values people who have demonstrated perseverance and who are committed to doing the right thing over the long run. “People like that – like my mother and the chairman of this company – have always impressed me.”
Due to his position, Sparby has been selected to serve on the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group, which was responsible for preparing a Climate Mitigation Action Plan to present to Governor Pawlenty and the state legislature, and the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord Advisory Group. The latter group, which recently provided recommendations to nine Midwestern governors and two Canadian premiers, was a diverse group with different economic interests. “We made a lot of progress in developing a model rule that can benefit the environment with a modest economic impact,” says Sparby.
Sparby notes that like many of us today, both at work and outside of work, he feels rushed and would love to have another few hours every day. Nevertheless, he enjoys running, and enjoys the North Shore, when he can visit. He finds time to read, most recently starting the book Animal Spirits by George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller. “The book is about how psychology drives our economic decisions,” he says. “This is especially important in a long lead-time industry like mine.”
As a person for whom “energy” defines his career, Sparby is unsurprisingly dedicated to becoming better at what he does. His company, too, is interested in continual improvement. “There is always progress to be made in areas like conservation, renewable energy and improving reliability.”
About Xcel EnergyHeadquartered in Minneapolis, Xcel Energy has operations in Minnesota, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin. Encompassing everything from nuclear power plants and wind turbines to high pressure gas transmission lines, the company serves 3.4 million electricity customers and 1.9 million natural gas customers. David Sparby says, “Few people realize that hundreds of business operations are completed every day in order to deliver electricity and natural gas. Right now, there are linemen out in a storm, restoring electricity; people purchasing power from neighboring companies; people building extensions of service to new customers; a group in a call center, handling 20,000 calls a day. So often, we just come home and turn on a switch, and we don’t think about what it takes to deliver that electricity.”
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