Mikel de Irala learned cultural diversity early

Impact, Winter 2002

Mikel de Irala



Mikel de Irala (E&S ’72, MBA ’76) grew up learning cultural diversity first hand. Born in St. Jean de Luz, France, of parents who were originally from Spain, he and his five brothers and sisters learned to speak French, Spanish and Basque. His father’s work as a lawyer for a large shipping company took the family to the Philippines, where “Mike” also mastered English while attending the High School Ateneo de Manila, a Jesuit school.

While attending school in the Philippines, he became intrigued by what he heard about the United States and another Jesuit school, what was then the University of Detroit. At age 19, with $200, one suitcase and no winter coat, he boarded a plane for Detroit.

“I chose the University because it was one of the few Jesuit schools that offered a good applied-engineering education and co-op program,” he recalls. “I had attended Jesuit grade school and high school in the Philippines, and I wanted to continue within that system. I was comfortable with it.”

Assisted by UDM’s co-op and financial aid programs, he began his academic career. He continued a pattern of study and work, including a co-op position with Honeywell in Chicago, until he received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1972.

“As I progressed through the engineering program, I developed an interest in manufacturing,” he explains. “Some labs keyed into manufacturing.”

Taking a job at the company where he would spend his career to date, Ford Motor Company, he attended evening classes until he earned his MBA, also from the University in 1976.

Today, de Irala’s early exposure to various cultures and educational preparation serves him well as he oversees five plants in three countries (U.S., Canada and Mexico) as Ford’s Manufacturing Director of Powertrain Engine Operations. His work at Ford also took him to Hiroshima, Japan, where he learned the different Japanese quality and production systems that he still uses today.

While in Japan, he and his wife Barbara, a Detroit native whom he married in 1978, also became parents to the first of their nine children. Today, they range in age from 7 to 22.

In addition to an appreciation for cultural differences, his strong sense of consideration of family and community are evident in his work, as well as in other parts of his life.

“The decisions I make affect more than one person, more than one plant,” he explains. “They affect the employee, their family, their extended family, the community and outlying areas and, ultimately, the total economy.”
Under his supervision, the plants produce two million engines a year for a retail value of approximately two billion dollars.

“I’ve moved around a lot, but I retain a close relationship with UDM and the College of Engineering & Science,” he says.

As described in his Ford-prepared biography, he is viewed as a “strong figure of influence and a mentor to diverse groups of individuals (including) students, associates and employees.” He frequently is asked to speak to both high school and college students, with whom he shares his belief in the importance of cultural diversity.