It’s not surprising that Thomas Sparrvik, the fun-loving moto-rcycle enthusiast and chief executive, thinks of his University of Warwick MBA in terms of driving.
“An MBA is almost like a drivers’ licence,” he says. “You can drive without one, but it definitely gives you self-confidence to have it. I am not afraid of anything in business.”
Indeed he’s not. Six years ago, Mr Sparrvik left his native Sweden to run Kontron Mobile Computing, a small Minnesota-based computer company that had recorded 10 straight years of losses. One year after he took over, the company reported a $2.2m operating profit.
He attributes his willingness to attempt the turnround to his MBA. “Without my MBA, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to pack up my family and move to cold Minneapolis,” he says.
Today, Mr Sparrvik, 40, is president and chief executive officer of Kontron America, the San Diego-based maker of embedded computers for various industries including military, aerospace, transportation and medical fields.
The $180m company, which has more than 500 employees, comprises German-based Kontron’s five US entities, including Kontron Mobile Computing.
Mr Sparrvik, who spent 10 years as a captain in the Swedish army, says he made the decision to go to business school while he was a project manager for the Swedish Defence Material Administration.
“I knew I had some leadership skills, but at the time I decided that I had better go educate myself,” he says.
The next question, of course, was: where? “I wanted a top business school in Europe, but I wanted to go outside Sweden so that I could improve my English.”
He says that his spoken English was serviceable when he enrolled, but the course made him fluent. “Also I didn’t want to take a year off work,” he explains.
He opted for a distance learning MBA programme at Warwick Business School in the UK. The programme, which includes seven core modules, six electives, and a project and dissertation, is typically completed over three to eight years.
The bulk of the programme can be studied anywhere in the world. However, Warwick Business School requires students to spend at least two weeks a year at its Coventry campus.
“For three and a half years, I spent long hours on Saturdays and Sundays doing the course,” he says.
At times, it was difficult to balance the course with his family and professional commitments. “It was a tough programme. I worked 50-60 hours a week at my job, then at least another 20 hours a week for the course.
“I am not sure that I could do it again that way, because it took a lot of energy and enormous self-discipline, but I am glad I did it.”
He says he is also glad that he pursued his MBA a little later in life at age 28. “A lot of people get their MBA in their early 20s but they don’t have any real-life experiences. They haven’t been in any tough situations,” he says.
“I recommend people taking it later in life. You’re more mature and you have more experience.”
After his MBA, Mr Sparrvik, who has a masters degree in electrical engineering from Lund University in Sweden, did a stint as chief executive of Betech Components, a Swedish computing company.
He says his programme gave him a solid foundation in what it takes to run a business, day in day out. He learned about marketing, rules of standard accounting and how to read a balance sheet. “These are things I have to do on a day-to-day basis,” he says.
But it’s the lessons in leadership and organisational behaviour that keep coming back to him. “Being a leader, understanding how to put together a team, how to motivate people, I still use these skills,” he says.
“Sometimes when I have a strategy meeting, I occasionally go back to my old business school books and try to find the inspiration for what I am trying to do. I never go back to my engineering books,” he adds, laughing.
Since Mr Sparrvik took over as head of Kontron America, the company has experienced tremendous growth. Revenue is up fourfold, from $100m a year in 2001 to $400m last year.
Mr Sparrvik, who has two small children, attributes his success to his hands-on, employee-focused management style – a style he developed while getting his MBA.
“Anyone can put four stars on their shoulder and be the boss, but for me being an informal leader is the ultimate,” he says. “If I can get things done without showing my stars it’s so much more powerful, and people believe in it more.”
He says he takes a few hours each week to walk round the office, talking to and getting to know his employees. “People can see that I am a normal person, that I am down to earth,” he says.
Another example of his informal leadership is his annual motorcycle trip, which last year included a dozen Kontron employees, to the famous gathering of Harley-Davidson fans in Sturgis, South Dakota. Mr Sparrvik bought his first Harley as a gift to himself after obtaining his MBA.
Mr Sparrvik, who spends a great deal of time travelling in Europe and Asia for his job, says he is happy at Kontron for now. “California is treating me really well. It’s one of the best places to live and work,” he says.
But he says he would be open to new challenges sometime down the road – perhaps a shot at running a $1bn company.
His MBA has given him the courage to seek out new challenges. “Getting my MBA was one of the best things I’ve done in my career, I would probably not be a CEO in America [had I not done the course].”