Alex Urquhart: Supporting Virginia Tech students and facilities
Alex Urquhart didn’t have a particular career in mind when it came time to decide where to go to college. But he did have the good sense to heed his father’s advice.
“He advised me that engineering was a great discipline because if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere with the technical background and problem-solving skills I would learn,” said Urquhart, who enrolled in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, which his father also had attended. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to sit down and be an engineer, but I was pretty good at math and science, and I thought that was pretty good advice.”
For Urquhart, it actually turned out to be very good advice. The bachelor’s of industrial engineering and operations research he earned in 1981 launched him on what has become a 30-year career at General Electric, where he now is president and chief executive officer of GE Energy Financial Services.
Recent projects in which Urquhart is involved include a new combined-cycle electricity plant in Turkey, a natural gas pipeline being built in Pennsylvania, and a project to install 130 wind turbines on the plains overlooking Idaho’s Snake River.
“We predominantly invest in big energy projects but have also been able to create a small, venture-capital business to invest with people that are developing the technology of the future, which is really exciting to see and be involved in,” said Urquhart, who lives in Southport, Conn.
After working in several positions within GE, Urquhart realized he was most interested in the finance and investment decisions involved in large deals within the energy industry.
“I love the complexity of investing,” Urquhart said. “I love the investment-decision process. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed not only making investments, but making them profitable, which means managing the investment after the fact, when invariably things are different than you envisioned they would be.”
Urquhart went on to earn his MBA from the University of Connecticut, but said many of the problem-solving skills he relies on to this day were acquired as an undergraduate in Blacksburg, a period of his life he continues to look back on with fondness.
“I made a lot of great friends and it was a great setting to both mature in and learn in,” Urquhart said. “Blacksburg will always be special to me.”
Urquhart has maintained a strong connection to the university and is helping ensure it will remain a special place for future students by donating generously and volunteering with The Campaign for
Virginia Tech: Invent the Future. He is on the National Campaign Steering Committee and co-chairs the regional campaign committee for the New York City area.
At GE, Urquhart used to work under Dave Calhoun, who is co-chairing the overall campaign. He credits Calhoun with “helping to amplify my interest [in helping Virginia Tech], because Dave’s enthusiasm for the school is infectious.”
Urquhart’s father, who also worked for GE, created a scholarship in the College of Engineering using both his own money and matching funds from the company, which helped get Urquhart thinking about what he could do to give back to the school himself.
“I used to occasionally be around when some young engineering student who had the scholarship would call him,” Urquhart recalled, “and he thoroughly felt like he had done something good, so when I had the opportunity, I added to that scholarship.”
Along with giving to the John A. Urquhart Endowed Scholarship, Urquhart and his father have contributed toward the Signature Engineering Building, which will have a classroom named for them.
Urquhart said that supporting scholarships and educational facilities reflects his belief in the national importance of maintaining an edge in technical subjects like engineering.
“We are inventors here in America and create the jobs that come along with that,” Urquhart said. “We are always at the cutting edge and that’s critically important to sustain.”
He also said that supporting a program that played such a large role in his own success was simply a matter of giving back.
“I’m so proud of the school and what it gave me,” Urquhart said. “Even though it was four short years, it was a big part of my maturation process, from [age] 18 to 22. It was a solid foundation. I have always been proud to be associated with Virginia Tech, and always wanted to give back.”
This story first appeared in the winter 2010 issue of Impact, Virginia Tech's philanthropy magazine.