From working the land on his family’s ranch in northern Hidalgo County as a boy to becoming one of the first Hispanic accountants at what would become ExxonMobil, the 1968 graduate of Pan American College has carved a successful path as a certified public accountant, community leader and family man. And in recognition of his many achievements and his contributions to society, Vela is one of five alumni from The University of Texas-Pan American to be selected as 2014 Pillar of Success. He will be honored along with the other Pillars on Saturday, March 29 at the Alumni Ball.
He says the story goes that, because she was a woman, “she was told, ‘you can claim it if you can find it; just go north.’ I’m glad about one thing – that she wound up on this side of the river,” he laughed. Today, his own love of the land is reflected in his ranch in the Red Gate area north of Edinburg, where his family raises a few head of cattle and breeds white tail deer.
Vela, who went to work for the Humble Oil Company (now ExxonMobil) right out of school then joined Long Chilton after several years, said that he might still be “driving a tractor” if it weren’t for two things – his mother’s insistence that he go to college and the location of what is now UT Pan American.
As a teenager, he said, “I didn’t know what I was going to do. Though I came from a family that many years before had been well-to-do, by the time it got to my granddad’s generation, we were just a struggling family. I was born and raised on the ranch; my livelihood was there on the ranch, working, picking cotton, driving a tractor. But my mother kept saying, ‘you need to go to college.’ She just pounded and pounded that into me.”
“So when I graduated from Edinburg High School in 1958, I knew I needed to continue my studies. There just was not enough work on the ranch to support all of us, and I wanted to do something other than go work in the fields.”
"At that point, my dad made me the best offer I could have ever gotten from him. He told me that he couldn’t pay for my school, that I would have to work my way through, but he said he would give me a place to stay and food to eat,” recalled Vela. “Thank God that the university existed where it did, because I could not have driven even to Harlingen to go to school. If Pan Am weren’t where it is, I would probably be out driving a tractor today.”
Instead, the highly respected CPA is enjoying a transition into retirement after more than four decades at Long Chilton, which has offices in McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville. “I’m on my 41st year here,” he said. “I’ve been here as a partner. I’ve been in charge of the McAllen office, and I’ve been in charge of the firm,” and though he’s retired as a partner, he has stayed on in an advisory “of counsel” role.
Vela’s own interest in accounting was honed early on when he worked for the Guerra family of Linn. “I owe a lot to the Guerras. Mr. Rafael Guerra and my dad were first cousins, and thank God they gave me a part-time job.” He stayed with the Guerras, working in their grocery store, service station and cotton gin throughout high school and college, eventually moving into the office.
“At Pan Am, my initial degree was going to be in industrial education – everybody talked about going into education back then – but I began to do some clerical work and liked it. I was just three hours short of my major in industrial ed when I changed to accounting.”
He continued to work for the sprawling Guerra enterprise and went to school part-time until graduating in May 1968. “I got married and had to work,” Vela recalled. “I didn’t have anybody to help me. I had a lot of moral support, kindness and encouraging words, but financially, it was tough.”
During his senior year, he took advantage of the services of the University Placement Office and interviewed with several companies, including Humble. “I had several offers, but I took the Humble offer in November 1967 and went to work for them as soon as I graduated. I didn’t want to go to Houston (the company’s headquarters), so they asked me to go to Corpus Christi. I was only there for about a year and a half, and they moved me to the Kingsville field office to do mainly special project work.”
The special projects assignment came about after Vela was singled out for identifying a design deficiency at one of the gas plants that, when addressed, identified a significant loss of gas revenue for the company. “After a little over a year (at the Kingsville office), they said, ‘your next paycheck is at the 12th floor of the Exxon Building in downtown Houston,’ and I said ‘Okay.’”
After several years at company headquarters, Vela decided he was ready for another move and was making plans to enter law school when he got a call from Peter Payte, one of the original partners in what was then Long Chilton Payte and Hardin, who told the young accountant, “I need you over here.” Eventually, Payte would make him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and Vela headed with his family back to the Valley.
Of his time with one of the region’s top certified public accounting firms, Vela said, “It’s been a hell of a ride. What I’ve enjoyed most are the partners we’ve had and the super staff that we’ve been able to form and maintain. There are no people better than the ones we have had throughout the years. That has made it worthwhile.”
He added that, of all the decisions he has made over the years, the most rewarding was the hiring of Georgia Loidl, who is now the partner in charge of the McAllen office. “She was an Accounting Excellence Award winner at Pan American, and as president of the Valley chapter of the Texas Society of CPAs, I got to present her with the award. I told her then that I would hire her as soon as she graduated. Now, she’s my boss,” he laughed.
He also takes special pride in being appointed by a district judge in 2005 to bring a western Hidalgo County water supply district out of receivership. After only three years, Vela was able to hand over a financially sound and viable entity that served some 12,500 customers to another successful water supply corporation.
While building his exemplary accounting career, Vela has also shared his time and talent with many organizations throughout South Texas. Active in several national, state and regional professional societies, he also has served on the advisory boards of Texas Commerce Bank, Wells Fargo Bank, McAllen Economic Development Corporation and South Texas Vocational Technical Institute.
He is a past chairman of the board of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, a founding member and past president of the Edinburg Pony Baseball Association and past president of the Edinburg Lions Club, which honored him with its President’s Award for Outstanding Leadership. He also has held several volunteer positions with St. Joseph Catholic Church and School in Edinburg, including past president of the school board, and has served on the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville Board of Education.
Throughout the years, he has stayed close to his alma mater, spending some 15 years as part of a volunteer team of professionals that presented free estate planning seminars to the public through the UTPA Foundation.
But among his proudest achievements are his three children and seven grandchildren. He and his wife, Ester, are parents to Belinda Drabek of McAllen, who attended UTPA before earning her degree from The University of Texas at San Antonio, and UTPA alumni Aaron Vela, an attorney and CPA in Edinburg, and Omar Paul (O.P.) Vela, a chiropractor in Edinburg. Of the seven grandchildren, two are currently enrolled at the University – Andrew Vela is doing graduate work in accounting and Paul René Vela is studying computer science.