The Engineer MBA - Q&A with John McCall

John McCall ’78 M.B.A. has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and went to work for 3M and later for Ecolab, as a chemical engineer, before coming to St. Thomas to pursue an M.B.A. He returned to St. Thomas in 2009 in his current role as associate dean and CFO of the Opus College of Business. We sat down with McCall to learn more about why he decided to earn an M.B.A. and what the degree has done for him.

JEM2What led you to pursue your M.B.A.?

I felt that I needed additional business education to do a better job of managing my projects and communicating with different team members of my work. I enrolled in the UST MBA in 1975 and received my degree in 1978.

Often there were project teams that had people from a lot of different disciplines including marketing, finance, accounting, and sales. I didn’t know the lexicon; I didn’t have a basic business education. So, that was my first interest. As I progressed I was given the opportunity of managing engineering groups, so I wanted to enhance my leadership skills and my knowledge in that area. My particular interest was in finance. I was interested in the financial impact of my projects and why they were important for my company.

Where did your MBA take you after you completed your degree?

At that time, when I graduated, I was the only engineer at Ecolab with an M.B.A. It helped me get promoted in my position as an engineer. My career vision at that time was to grow by rising up through the engineering ranks. Within 2 years of getting the degree, I was offered a position in finance and corporate planning. I thought it would be a wonderful growth opportunity, so I accepted. I spent a couple of years as a controller for new business ventures and R&D for the corporation.

Over the course of my career, I held executive positions in engineering, manufacturing, finance and control, international, and information technology.  Basically the degree opened a lot of opportunities for me.

I retired in 2002 and did some consulting. When the opportunity became available at UST I thought it would be interesting to have experience in higher education in an area that I know well, finance.

What advice you would give to younger STEM professionals who are currently debating whether or not to pursue an MBA?

Many people with a STEM education want to establish themselves in that discipline and perhaps start off thinking that an MBA would be a career expanding opportunity instead of a career changing opportunity. But, that can change over time. I went into my MBA experience believing that it would help me to move up the technology ladder--but it ultimately helped me find other interesting and rewarding experiences.

I would also say that things move so fast these days, especially in the technology area. There is a lot of value in getting an MBA if you are involved in group relationships, project management or team leadership. Most technology projects are interdisciplinary and most engineering programs don’t necessarily train you in team leadership. An MBA can help you develop those important leadership skills. Many technology projects have not only technology challenges, but people challenges as well.

What did you like the most about your MBA experience and what were the things you found most challenging?

I was able to balance my career with a variety of opportunities in technology and finance. There were positions that combined both, and there were positions that were strictly one or the other. I felt pretty comfortable with the way my education informed my ability to do both jobs.

The main challenges I encountered when I was doing my MBA were related to time conflicts with my job. I had to manage my class schedule with the travel requirements of my position.

Most of the skills that I liked initially were quantitative. I already had a very strong background in statistics; I enjoyed taking accounting and finance classes. Those were the things that appealed to me the most. But I believe I needed the most help in marketing, organization theory and the qualitative subjects. They proved to be equally as valuable as I moved in my career.

McCall notes that he would be happy to speak with anyone that is currently considering pursuing an MBA. You can email him at