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Gilbert Sprous knew one thing from his long career as a sergeant in the U.S. Army: “If you are not training or in combat, you are cleaning stuff. You learn to clean very fast and to a very high specification.”

That knowledge, now coupled with his newly minted MBA from UMUC, allowed him to start his own cleaning contracting business in England, which is expanding at a rapid pace as he applies the principles he has learned.

“I started Mercury Cleaning Solutions in 2007 with a vacuum cleaner, a mop and a car,” he said. “Now, sometimes my growth has been 100 percent in a year.”

Sprous, 52, received his diploma in a ceremony in May as part of the first class to receive an MBA from UMUC in Europe after the university won a contract with the Department of Defense two years ago, replacing the University of Phoenix.

Using his GI benefits, Sprous started first with the University of Phoenix, but he said he was glad to switch to UMUC.

“I was really happy when UMUC took over the MBA because it’s more about an accredited university,” he said. “It had a lot better reputation, not only with soldiers but also its degree is more respected with the civilian population.”

Sprous said his education has not only allowed him to professionalize his business beyond how his competitors operate, but it also has given him a wealth of help from fellow students in working out business problems.

“We have group projects in every class, and I used my company as a project every chance I got,” he said. “They get you working with people to identify your strengths and weaknesses.”

For example, a class project brought in a wide range of talent to upgrade his company’s website, and that now helps him bring in even more business.

“I was impressed with my classmates. Almost all had some military experience and some were retired from the military,” he said. “I am in contact with almost all of them. Networking is very important.”

Education came slowly to Sprous, he said. Right out of high school, he didn’t want anything to do with going to college. He wanted adventure and joined the Army. He spent 20 years in the artillery including three tours in Bamberg, Germany.

Along the way, he earned a business degree from Hawaii Pacific University in 2001 while stationed on the islands. He got married to an English woman while he was stationed at Ft. Stewart in Georgia, and their three children now are grown.

When he retired from the Army in 2005, he and his family moved to Mansfield, England, where he started work as a manager in the kitchenware supply chain at John Lewis, a large English department store chain.

But his heart was in starting his own business, and that’s when Mercury Solutions, Ltd. was born. It wasn’t long before he realized he needed refresher courses in business, and he sought an MBA.

One hurdle he had to overcome was that UMUC’s MBA program was not yet offered in England. Taking hybrid courses online and in an on-site class, he had to fly once a month to Germany. He said he became adept at finding low-fare flights and low-cost lodging to make it work.

It was all worth it, he said.

He credits one of his professors, Greg Evans, with being the driving influence that pushed him to complete the degree, and with instilling business professionalism in him.

“He encourages you,” Sprous said of Evans. “He was always pushing, very professional, pushing the value of the MBA.”

No matter what line of work attracts you, if you don’t know the underlying business fundamentals that make the business work, you will have a hard time advancing, he said. That’s why an MBA is important to most anyone working in the private sector.

“My bachelor’s degree helped me establish a business, but the MBA really enlightened me on how to make it grow,” he said. “I feel like I could make a lot more money in the private sector now that I have an MBA.”

What he learned from his studies, he said, convinced him to keep a flat organizational structure to avoid the pitfalls encountered by many of his competitors that have a vertical structure with layers of management.

“That’s why I am able to keep some of my larger contracts,” he said. “My clients have my phone number, and if there is a problem, they call me directly.”

Now two of Sprous’ three children have joined him in the business as he looks for ways to expand opportunities for providing services to his clients.

Sprous said he was excited to walk across the stage as part of the first cohort of UMUC’s MBA Program in Europe. But he is not stopping his education with that. He said he is launching work on a UMUC Project Management Certificate.