Mike Loya

Mike Loya, president of one of the world's largest oil trading companies and a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso, has pledged $10 million to UTEP's Centennial Campaign - the largest contribution to the campaign so far.

UTEP President Diana Natalicio made the announcement last week.

Loya, 55, is the oldest of seven brothers and sisters in a first generation Mexican-American family.

He became the first in his family to earn a college degree when he received his bachelor's in Mechanical Engineering from UTEP in 1977. He went on to earn an MBA from Harvard.

Now he is president and managing director of Vitol Inc., the North and South American arm of the Vitol Group.

His impressive gift will create the Mike Loya Distinguished Chair in Engineering, which will support research initiatives and graduate student development, and the Anita Mochen Loya Graduate Fellows Program in Engineering, which will provide fellowships to students pursuing their graduate studies in engineering.

The funds will also be used to foster collaboration between the colleges of Engineering and Business Administration and to create the Anita Mochen Loya Innovation Fund in Engineering, which will promote engineering entrepreneurship.

El Paso Inc. caught up with Loya at UTEP and talked about the importance of training business-savvy engineers, the type of engineer he will do almost anything to recruit, and the energy of the future.

Q: Why did you select UTEP, and the College of Engineering specifically, as the recipient of your donation?

The donation is aimed at supporting the intersection of engineering and business. And my interest was in the College of Engineering at UTEP simply because I went to the College of Engineering. I have an engineering degree from UTEP in Mechanical Engineering.

Secondly, in spite of whether I have an engineering degree or not, and frankly I have never really practiced engineering, ever, I am a strong believer that that's one of the best degrees to have as a first degree.

Q: Why is it important to have engineers who are also business savvy?

It opens up the set of opportunities for that person if he has a basic understanding of business. Not only does it teach you business, it also teaches you to think about projects and inventions.

Eventually, no matter what you do, you will have to meet an economic hurdle, and knowing that ahead of time helps you make better decisions leading up to that.

But also, when you are working with a team, it will make you a much more important member of that team. It is a way to give those at UTEP who are interested that leg up.

Q: The dean of engineering here at UTEP, Richard Schoephoerster, has some rather avant-garde views on engineering education and sees engineering as the "liberal arts degree of the 20th century." He is working to broaden the undergraduate engineering programs at UTEP to create engineers who are more like doctors than technicians. They are people savvy, good communicators and creative. Do you think that is a positive direction?

If he can do it, that will be a great achievement. I am really very supportive of that. It is very important, as an engineer, to break out of the mold of trying to define engineering in a narrow sense.

Q: Just focusing on the technical side.

Or, "I just do this specific thing." In many ways, engineers who can think broadly and use engineering as a discipline that trains the mind to problem solve and only one of the tools to deal with various problems makes it that much more interesting - a more interesting life, more productive and more successful.

Q: This sounds a bit like your life, having gotten your engineering degree at UTEP then your MBA at Harvard.

My interest has always been in business, actually. I always found it fascinating.

Q: So you enjoyed business more than engineering.

Well, I have always enjoyed business. But I went to get an engineering degree because I understood engineering; I knew what engineers did. I found it easy to work with numbers, so that kind of led me to engineering.

But as I was studying for my engineering degree, my interest was broader. I took other classes. I took political science classes. I took economic classes.

I just found it much more interesting to have a broader perspective, and Harvard allowed me to do that. Maybe I'm ADD and don't know it.

Q: What qualities do you look for in the engineers you hire at Vitol?

Well, the ideal person that we like to hire as a big commodities trading company, we're the largest oil trading company in the world, and what I look for would be an engineer with an MBA who has experience, not only in working a refinery, but trading commodities.

There aren't many of those in the world so, whenever we find one of those, we do whatever we have to to get them to the firm.

Q: How will your donation help create that broader-minded engineering graduate you talk about and bring together the business and engineering worlds?

Well, right now we are trying to find it with both the College of Business and the College of Engineering. And it doesn't have to be too ambitious; we simply have to find a way to put a little bit of business thinking and education in a technical person. What we are trying to do is foster an entrepreneurial way of thinking for engineering here at UTEP.

We've been talking about this in the micro sense. In other words, about the particular engineer here at UTEP and what we hope this program will achieve. But I think there is also a broader issue, which is really we are in a global economy whether we like it or not.

It means that no longer is a graduate from UTEP only competing against a graduate from Purdue or the University of California, the graduate from UTEP is also competing against the graduate from Mumbai or Beijing University.

Our ability to compete, to support our industry, to innovate, it's going to have a big impact on what kind of standard of living we have as a country. Things are hard now and they are going to get even harder because it's global competition and there is no going back.

I hope that this, in a tiny way, helps us move in that direction. We don't produce enough engineers in this country. We produce way too many lawyers.

Q: So what is the fuel of the future? Hydrogen? Solar?

I hate to go against the popular belief, but the fuel of the future is the fuel of the present and has been the fuel of the past hundred years, and it is oil and natural gas - basically, hydrocarbons.

Yeah, there will be an increase in the margin with biofuels and such, but I think we are still going to be, as a society around the world, reliant on hydrocarbons.

Q: There's a push here in El Paso, at least at the political level, to make El Paso the "solar capital of the world." Is that a promising direction?

I would rather let the market decide. It is important that we have engineers and research being done into alternative forms of energy, but I am always just a little bit skeptical about technologies that require subsidies - in the long term. In the short term, obviously, you've got to help it along.

Q: Your story, at the beginning, is probably the story of many students here at UTEP, then you went off to Harvard and are now the president of one of the largest, if not the largest, energy trading companies in the world. How did you make it to where you are today?

Luck. I'm serious. You know, basically, a lot of it is working, taking chances. You see things that are attractive and you think have a future and you move to that company and that part of the world. I joined this company in London and worked for them for eight years before I moved back to the U.S.

Q: What did you do in London?

I was a crude oil trader for the company.

Q: How often do you make it out here to El Paso?

About twice a year. One of my sisters still lives out here and my dad.

Q: Is there anywhere in El Paso you always like to visit?

I use to love to go to La Hacienda. You're probably too young to even know what it is. It was this little restaurant right on the border. You could almost walk from here, but it is long gone.

E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105