Michael W. Sparks (1952)
Michael Warren Sparks was born in 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri to Shirley and Warren Sparks. The oldest of five children, Mike and his siblings were the sixth generation to call St. Louis their home. His father was a salesman and a food broker. His mother was an artist and homemaker. In 1964, the Sparks family moved to Miami, Florida where he graduated from Miami Springs Senior High School, lettering in track and basketball, of which he was co-captain.
Mike went to the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he was a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, graduating in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in accounting. While there, he met and married his wife, Esther Denson and together they have two children, Shane and Robert.
After graduation, Mike went to work as an Auditor General for the state of Florida where he conducted field audits of several county and state agencies, one of which was the Florida Department of Citrus, who ended up hiring him in 1979 as their assistant comptroller. Working for the Citrus Commission, with its big budgets, tax collections, ad agencies, many employees and regulatory responsibilities — was a dream job for a young man who enjoyed the detail of revenue collections, checking contract deliverables and measuring program performance.
While at the Department of Citrus, Mike was selected by Governor Bob Graham as one of only five state employees to participate in a leadership program at Duke University designed to “provide rigorous analytical training for rising state managers.”
And rise he did. Mike spent 29 years working his way up the management ladder serving in numerous positions, including Chief Financial Officer, Director of Administration, Deputy Executive Director and Interim Executive Director under six different Executive Directors and 87 Florida Citrus Commissioners during very tumultuous times, which resulted in restructuring within the FDOC. As such, Mike directed or implemented some aspect of virtually every agency program there and was responsible for getting the agency’s budget and various legislation through the Florida Legislature.
In 1985, Mike obtained his Master’s Degree in Public Administration. This training, plus his broad exposure to many aspects of government, gave Mike the ability to quickly navigate many government programs that benefitted the Florida citrus industry – such as the USDA’s Market Access Promotion program where he helped steer millions of federal dollars to the Department of Citrus’ international marketing programs.
Whether it was the FDOC symbol program; the Florida Citrus Bowl retail activities or the redesign of the State of Florida license plate, there was no job too big or too small for Mike. He always worked willingly and enthusiastically wherever he was needed and got the job done, giving himself the moniker of “Special Projects Guy.”
In 2006, Mike became the Executive Vice President and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual in Lakeland, Fla., which is the largest citrus grower trade association in the world. His financial and administrative background not only helped right the association’s internal budget challenges, but more importantly, he helped Mutual lead a path through the many market and disease-related challenges that plagued the industry over the last decade.
Under his leadership, Florida Citrus Mutual secured unprecedented funding both on behalf of the Florida citrus industry and for national USDA programs such as CHRP, MAC and APHIS, as well as various citrus and marketing programs. His efforts also led to significant long-term appropriations for pest and disease research, including $125 million in mandatory Farm Bill funding directed primarily at citrus greening research, and trade victories on tariff protection, including anti-dumping actions, which resulted in almost $16 million to FCM members. In addition, he helped secure a record $60 million for USDA citrus programs in 2016, as well as the highest ever state general revenue contributions for citrus research and marketing programs, with appropriations increasing from $300,000 to $30 million annually over the last nine-year period. He also led the development of and promoted governmental incentive programs to replant citrus trees lost to HLB and is currently seeking IRS tax incentives for citrus growers to replant citrus.
In addition to raising financial support for the industry, Mike’s long interest in outreach programs has helped grow numerous events such as the International HLB Conference, which has attracted scientists from around the world. Mike and his staff also conduct the successful Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference which is attended by all sectors of the industry.
In 2014, Florida Grower magazine awarded Mike the Citrus Achievement Award for his many contributions to the industry, noting particularly, his active role to secure the necessary funding to solve the HLB problem.
Aside from his enduring relationship with the Florida industry, the other constant in Mike’s life has been the support of his loving wife of 43 years, Esther, and his extended family. Shane and Robby are both married and have two children each so Mike is especially happy to be teaching his four grandchildren one of his other loves – fishing. A lot of fishing! Mike also enjoys home projects and creating stained glass art – a hobby he learned from his talented mother, Shirley.
Often cited as a “workaholic,” and always available to the industry – Mike’s enthusiasm, willingness to roll his sleeves up, his open and friendly manner have all helped make him a good leader– and have contributed to what Mike will always characterize as a “team” effort in getting support to make good things happen for the Florida citrus industry.
Commissioner of Agriculture, Adam Putnam put it well, stating: “Mike has dedicated his entire professional career to leading and supporting the Florida citrus industry. He is a personal friend and tireless advocate for our citrus growers, producers and processors.” Former chairman of the Citrus Commission and Past Mutual President Marty McKenna said “the Florida Citrus Industry, particularly the growers, will benefit for years to come from the professionalism and high integrity Mike has represented.”
But whenever you ask Mike how he is or how things are going, Mike’s response is always the same. “It couldn’t be better.” That optimistic attitude and his willingness to serve the industry is at the heart of Michael W. Sparks—and why the Citrus Hall of Fame is proud to induct him into the class of 2017.