Follow the Leaders
Thanks to Phil O’Connor, Managing Partner of SPARK Product Development, for answering our many questions!
Q: Tell us about your first job after college, and your professional journey.
A: I attended Radford University and majored in Political Science. I had grand plans to attend law school and become an attorney; the universe had other plans. My first job out of college was working for Checkered Flag Motor Car Company in Virginia Beach selling MINI Coopers. It was a wildly important and impactful opportunity to learn about myself, sales and how to overcome objections.
From there, I worked for SunTrust Bank in Norfolk and then Hampton before making my eventual move to Richmond, starting a job in recruiting with Aerotek. It was at Aerotek where I found my passion in working with engineers in the manufacturing industry. It was fascinating to work with engineers from undergrad to my father’s age. The most interesting part of the job was getting to visit all the manufacturing facilities in Central Virginia and getting a true understanding of just how critical the industry is to the region. While I get excited to drive around industrial parks near airports and guess what’s being made in all the warehouses (Oreos and hummus for example), my wife prefers that we just keep moving and find the nearest parking space so we can make our flight.
Q: Who inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
A: Often during my professional career I would look at the entrepreneurs I worked with and ask myself, “Why can’t I do that?”
But if I really think about it, it’s my mother and father. While my father worked a steady career with Dominion, his example of working hard to achieve professional success and the ability to support a family stuck with me. My mother, on the other hand, was always hustling and doing her own thing. She started a business hosting craft classes at our house for other parents and their children. When my sister and I were a little older, probably middle school, she started “Christal’s Home and Garden” cleaning people’s homes and doing landscaping. Most of her clients were in the neighborhood and that meant she could be home when we got off the bus. Her next role was being a landlord for a few rentals she picked up in the neighborhood.
My wife, Sara, grew up in a home where her parents were small business owners. We definitely had a number of discussions when considering going this route and she was the most supportive in terms of making the leap.
Q: Tell us about your journey to becoming a CEO.
A: Maybe I was delusional, but I always thought I’d own a business. My younger self would tell you it was “O’Connor and Associates”; I made tri-fold sales pamphlets and business cards I hung on my childhood bedroom door. My client list was pretty exclusive, including all the famous actors and athletes of that time.
It’s not linear and certainly not without successes and failures. I’ve attempted any number of “jobs” over the years; some where I was an individual contributor and others where I managed a staff and was responsible for handling a Board of Directors. While at VCU, I moved from managing a portfolio of Corporate clients (philanthropy, sponsorship, student engagement and continuing education) to running one of the institutionally-related Foundations, the VCU College of Engineering Foundation. My wife Sara and I both worked at VCU during that time and we began to consider relocating, finding another engineering college to support and her working at a university hospital or in student health. The pandemic had other plans; we decided to stay in Richmond.
Having nurtured a network in Richmond mostly in the engineering, manufacturing and tech space, I looked around at several companies whose work intrigued me and placed a few strategic phone calls. The one I really wanted, SPARK Product Development, was a longshot. They were, and still are, a small business. Most of the staff was billable, a true consulting firm, with minimal overhead; adding me as Business Relationship Manager would change that. I started discussions with the owners, comparing notes on what “could be” and we finally came to an agreement at the end of 2020. We agreed to me being an employee for a year while we determined if it made sense to buy into the company and ultimately move into a leadership role to set the vision and strategy for the next generation of the business. Early 2022 I joined Bruce and Bill as the third owner and at the end of 2022 we transitioned the role of Managing Partner from Bruce to me.
Who is SPARK? What do we do? We’re a product design and development firm. We’re hired by other companies to come in and solve problems and develop new ideas – deliver solutions. We were part of the team who developed the Kobalt brand for Lowe’s and have several clients who have been with us for over 15+ years. We employ engineers and industrial designers and work mainly in the areas of consumer, medical and industrial products; the majority of our clients are mid-market and are B2B with their sales channels. That said, we’ve worked with a number of startups and inventors over the years and even support many of the research institutions here in Virginia. I’m honored to lead a 25+ year business with its roots in Henrico and I’m even more excited for the next 25 years.
Q: What to do read or listen to?
A: I have a number of them! As far as podcasts, some favorites of mine are The Pitch, How I Built This, Wisdom from the Top, Re:Thinking, Richmond Entrepreneur, That Will Never Work. I consume most of these as soon as they come out and share some of the ones I find most interesting or inspiring with friends and colleagues. Hearing these voices and their journeys in their personal and professional lives gives me time to consider what’s happening in my world and make thoughtful decisions. One of the more recent books I read was “The Ride of a Lifetime” by Bob Igor; can’t wait to see Volume 2 after getting back into the game. I just picked up Michael Lewis’ latest book, Going Infinite, which itself might be a cautionary tale of what not to do in leading a business.
Q: When you are not leading SPARK, what do you like to do?
A: We live in Church Hill in an old home from 1882. To know me is to know that our home is always under construction. We like to walk around the neighborhood and are suckers for a new Richmond restaurant (though my Alpha-Gal allergy puts a damper on the meats and cheeses).
Sara and I spend most weekends in Williamsburg. My folks still live in my childhood neighborhood and we enjoy sitting by the James River reading and just floating for hours in the water. The neighborhood is also just off of the Capital Trail and we can bike to a few places to eat or drink (if you do a century ride, look me up, maybe you can stop by to cool off). When it gets cold, there are plenty of fallen trees and branches that keep us warm by the bonfire.
During the F1 season you’ll find me watching qualifying sessions and waking up early to catch a race when it’s overseas.
Q: Tell us how you are involved in the community.
A: Education is central to the business and industry that I work in. Mentoring is also something near and dear to me after working with engineers for the majority of my career. I routinely mentor students at the VCU College of Engineering and help them with career exploration, resume reviews and interview preparation. Sara works at VCU Health and is a graduate of Brightpoint Community College’s Nursing program. We have supported a scholarship at Brightpoint and I also serve on the Brightpoint Community College Foundation Board. I’m Chair of the Institutional Advancement Committee and serve on the Executive Committee. Sara and I are also donors to the VMFA and support the Richmond Forum.