Alumni Profile: John Sprouls '85
His advice to law students: Take advantage of Contracts, and take Business Associations and Tax courses. And on the job, "Never say no to an assignment."
John Sprouls’s workplace is a little different from those of his former classmates in the Northeast. “In New York, if you want to take a break you might walk over to Park Avenue,” he said. “Here, if we’re having a tough day, we go ride a roller coaster.”
Sprouls, Class of ’84, is Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer at Universal Parks & Resorts in Orlando, overseeing key divisions of the global theme park concern for this subsidiary of Comcast NBCUniversal, and delivering a third of NBCU’s overall profit. His wide-ranging responsibilities span human resources, the general counsel’s office, government relations, external affairs, information technology, environmental health and safety, ride safety, corporate communications, and global security.
But his work doesn’t end there since Sprouls also plays a key role in business development globally, including a $5.5 billion theme park and resort planned in Beijing, and existing theme parks in Osaka and Singapore.
“I find my law degree plays across a pretty wide spectrum of the things that I do,” Sprouls noted. “It plays into my work in HR, it comes into security issues, into compliance, and into government relations.”
Sprouls attended Seton Hall University and found that Seton Hall Law enabled him to manage what was even then a busy life. “I did my first year as a full-time day student, and then I switched to the evening program so I could work to afford to keep going,” he explained. “I got a full-time job working for Seagram and I worked in New York. I would drive to the law school – the old building – park my car, take the train, work all day, come back, and go to school.”
He particularly remembers his Contracts classes with Wilfredo Caraballo, “my absolute favorite professor.” “Professor Caraballo was tough, but he made it fun,” Sprouls said. “He would always say, ‘Language, it isn't always what it seems. You need to understand the context, the negotiating history, before you reach any conclusions.’”
Sprouls also took an International Law course, induced by the global nature of his work, which led him and classmate Kurt Peters to compete in the Jessup International Moot Court Competition. “We had to argue in Albany,” he recounted, “and we jumped into his horrible car because it was better than my horrible car, and we drove up in a raging snowstorm. We beat out an Ivy League school, and made it to the semifinals.”
Sprouls also appreciated the hands-on experience he acquired in his Arbitration class. “Instead of a final exam, we had to attend arbitrations and write decisions as if we were the arbitrator,” he recalled. “I was able to get to a few different arbitrations, and I sent my drafts to all of the arbitrators I had worked with. I got a letter back from one of them who said she used my draft as the basis for her decision. I thought that was really cool.”
Following graduation, Sprouls worked for a short time for a law firm, but he preferred the corporate environment and returned to Seagram as the Director of Labor Relations, ultimately rising over the next seven years to become the global head of Human Resources. When Seagram bought Universal in 1995, the CEO invited Sprouls to relocate to Orlando to head up human resources and the legal department for the park there.
He had frequently traveled the world on a regular basis over the years, and welcomed the opportunity to put down roots. “Our only connection to Florida was that we visited a lot,” he said. “But I liked the opportunity, and I didn’t want to live out of a suitcase anymore. We thought Orlando looked like a pretty cool place to live. Our children, who were 2, 5 and 11 at the time, were portable, and entirely up for the adventure. ‘We're moving to Florida? Let's go!’ they said. And it’s worked out great.”
His children, now grown, have remained in Florida, and Sprouls and his wife actively give back to the community. He is the local leader of City Year in Orlando, which seeks to enhance academic success among middle and high school students by encouraging increased class attendance and improved performance in the core math and English courses. That “gives them an 80 percent better chance of graduating high school,” Sprouls noted.
Sprouls remains as much a fan of Universal Studios as the 15+ million people who flock to the parks each year. The Spiderman ride, which opened 15 years ago, is still his favorite. He speaks with excitement about the new Harry Potter ride, Escape From Gringotts, which opened to great acclaim in 2015. He looks forward to Halloween every year, when the park hires 1,200 extra employees to thrill and frighten the crowds. “We close Universal Studios early each evening starting in late September through Halloween, and when we reopen later that night, it's a complete scare zone,” Sprouls said. “We build haunted houses. We have ‘scare actors’ in the streets. People love it. It's like opening another theme park for the month of October.” His favorite character? Beetlejuice.
Sprouls manages 800 employees in the myriad divisions he oversees, while Universal Studios in Florida employs more than 22,000 individuals, from teens to retirees, with one office building dedicated entirely to human resources. “We hire people for Christmas and Easter and for the summer, and with normal attrition, we are hiring 200 or 300 people every week.”
Worldwide, Universal theme parks employ 37,000 staff, which Sprouls expects will double within the next five years. “Our biggest challenge right now is managing our growth effectively,” Sprouls continued. “For the last six years, we've grown double digits in both revenue and profits. We anticipate doing that for the next 10 years.”
Despite the thousands of employees at Universal, “We try to make sure we don't let ourselves ever be accused of having grown too big or too impersonal,” he said. “The culture is that we really do care about people because, in this business, the folks that are out there on the line, working in the merchandise shops, operating the rides, have far more impact on this business than I do.”
Sprouls also shared some advice for new lawyers seeking to grow in a corporation or in legal practice generally. “First, take advantage of Contracts class because so much of what you learn there is business related,” he said. “I’d also recommend Business Associations and Tax. And then, look for opportunities however you can get them. Never say no to an assignment. Whatever it is, you will learn from it, whatever job they come up with. I can tell you two or three times in my career when I went, ‘You want me to do what?’ but I did it. You'll learn from it. This compendium of experience came together as my job evolved. This job didn't exist 20 years ago, but it does now, and it picks up the different pieces that I've learned over the course of my career.”
Ultimately, Sprouls believes his Seton Hall Law degree has helped shape his success. “I could handle parts of my job if I didn’t have a law degree,” he said, “but I know I could not do this entire job without it.”