My Detroit Roots

ADurkin Blog


The name of my firm, Sparkplug, reflects both the concept of sparking action as well as my upbringing 26 miles north of Detroit.

Recently, a colleague at Georgetown said, “The brand suits you—lively but pragmatic.” I’ll take that as a compliment.

When I entered college at the University of Michigan and contemplated a career, the Big Three automakers were confronting a wave of Japanese imports and investment.

Headlines in the Detroit News related the drama of trade talks between the US and Japanese governments. The stories and the impact of trade policy on my community sparked my desire to participate directly in public policy. A major in international economic relations didn’t exist yet, so I secured the University’s blessing to create it.

With some Japanese language under my belt, I set off for Japan after graduation and landed a position as a manager for a graphic design company. I wanted to “study the competition,” deepen my understanding of the rising economic power and experience the lovely but quirky Japanese culture.

When you engage your competition, your colleagues, your negotiating partners, your clients, your stakeholders, you need to learn as much as you can about the context that shapes their beliefs and interests to be effective—and, it’s respectful.

A few years later, I achieved my goal of becoming a professional negotiator for the US Government. I was motivated daily by the privilege and responsibility of representing the interests of American farmers, manufacturers and service providers, a role I enjoyed for ten years. In direct government-to-government trade talks, at the World Trade Organization, and in the United Nations, I worked to open doors for a variety of industries across many growth markets.

My proudest accomplishment during this time was shepherding the negotiation of an agreement with five Central American countries. We used the tool of trade policy to undergird the Central Americans’ homegrown desire to create accountable and modern legal institutions to help their citizens thrive in the global economy. After a year of intense negotiations, we finalized the agreement—but only after some hard political choices we hoped would bring prosperity in the longer term.

In the first three years after implementation, two-way trade expanded by over 30%. Foreign direct investment, bringing good jobs to Central America, outperformed Brazil and Mexico by a wide margin in proportion to the smaller size of their economies.

We understood the window we had to seize an historic moment in time when the politics lined up. So while we had many differences to work through, we maintained respect for one another and listened well to learn where our common ground lay, and we compromised to achieve agreement.

We made commitments that required hard choices in the short term to yield results in the long term. These are the hallmarks of a good process enabling a good outcome. Bringing people together to accomplish common goals is a skill I transferred from negotiating trade deals. And this is the approach we need to bring government policymakers, non-profit institutions, and the private sector together to meet some of society’s biggest challenges.

This is the approach I bring to meeting each client’s goals. This is Sparkplug.