Fuqua classmates stay connected, even decades later

Lee Sparkman and Rick Watson have a connection that has spanned both time and distance. Long before either became successful executives, they met in business school at Duke University.

“In those days Fuqua did not pair ‘study groups’ but rather allowed students to seek out their own colleagues,” Sparkman said. “I am unsure why, but Rick and I ended up in many of the same study groups.”

By the time their second year of business school rolled around they were housemates, along with Sparkman’s basset hound Beaufort.

When their time at Duke came to a close, Sparkman went to Florida for a job. Watson says he had some good offers from major banks in Chicago and Pittsburgh, but he felt that was not ultimately the career path he wanted to follow.

“I really wanted to do something out of the box – and with some sun – after Duke,” he said. “Lee was instrumental in helping me find my first job.”

Watson moved down to Florida and joined Sparkman at the same company.

Lee and Rick sitting at a desk
Lee Sparkman, left, and Rick Watson during a visit to Moscow in 2007

Their close proximity meant that their friendship remained close, with Sparkman attending Watson’s wedding.  But the men soon realized they wanted to pursue other career paths. Watson went to work for Freddie Mac in Washington D.C., and Sparkman stayed in Florida to work for Exxon Enterprises.

A few years later, they just missed each other in Europe. Sparkman was working for Sprint in London and was just leaving for a new assignment in the states when Watson called to say that he and his family were about to move to London. Fortunately for the pair, both their parents ended up living in the same area, so family visits would often allow time for the two to reconnect.

They also continued to stay connected to their alma mater. Both men serve on school regional advisory boards. Sparkman in Russia and Watson in Europe.

Sparkman has a long family history with Duke – his mother, children, son-in-law, niece and other extended family all attended the university. And while at Sprint, his company put 15 of their senior management through the program for Soviet managers established and funded by the business school’s namesake: JB Fuqua.

Watson said he felt driven to continue his connection with Duke because of his memories during school.

“The school was growing quickly and I believe most of our classmates felt that we were part of something unique,” he said.

In fact, Watson says he still uses some of the advice handed down from teachers at the school in his current role.

Now, Watson works as Managing Director and Head of Capital Markets for The Association for Financial Markets in Europe and Sparkman is President of broadband operator Enforta. They maintain their friendship and periodically exchange the experiences and knowledge they’ve gained in their roles.

“Surprisingly, we do talk a lot about the economics of Europe and Russia,” Sparkman said. “Rick’s even been advising the Russian Ministry of Finance about establishing policies related to securitization of Russian debt, and accordingly has visited Moscow a couple of times.”

And Watson said they both continue to discuss their old business school, and what they can do to help.

“We do share ideas on how to continue to raise the profile of Fuqua in each region, since the cultures and economics of education are different,” he said.