It started out as a hobby and turned into a passion that’s sparked a successful career. A son of immigrants and the youngest of eight, Enrique Abarca spent much of his time working on classic cars with his father while he was growing up. In doing so, he both discovered and developed a talent for engineering that led him to pursue a degree in engineering and a job with GE. When the budding engineer started to apply for and receive patents, he discovered additional interests in both business and law. He’s since earned an MBA and JD, and he now works as head of intellectual property (IP) at Nabors Industries. In that role, Abarca is leveraging his unique, multifaceted background to help the company, which has the world’s largest land-based drilling rig fleet, increase the strategic value of its IP portfolio. Since his arrival in 2012, Nabors’ annual patent filings have increased tenfold year over year.
What was it that made you want to pursue such a diverse expertise?
People sometimes think that I couldn’t decide what to do with my life, but that wasn’t it at all. Going to business school, focusing on engineering, and graduating from law school all gave me a more comprehensive understanding of business from the perspectives of the people who manage it—both lawyers and engineers.
How does that all come together in your role at Nabors?
Nabors is the largest land driller in the world and a leader in the oil and gas industry in innovation. The company relies on its engineering and technology, and, at its most valuable core, its people. The innovation potential here is phenomenal, and we are growing by leaps and bounds. I saw the opportunity to apply my diverse background to create a transformational change in our innovation processes and create sustainable growth by implementing new processes and thought methodologies.
Your engineering background must come in handy.
Absolutely, every day! I work with technologists, engineers, and upper management, which allows me to transition from operational to strategic objectives. A big part of my job lies in understanding the business’s goals and objectives, voice of the customer, and engineering development to meet the needs of the market and customers. As a result, tailored strategies in garnering and protecting our technology are key to an exclusive footprint in the marketplace.
Most importantly, we want to create shareholder value, and we can only do that by avoiding legal land mines as we develop new products and solutions. We want to protect what we develop to give us a sustainable and exclusive competitive advantage.
Nabors has filed more patents than ever before under your direction. Why?
We once filed about eight patents per year, but now we file between eighty and one hundred year over year. Our CEO is a significant proponent in leading the market through new and innovative technology. As such, the company is willing to make significant investments in IP. While the cost is high, the rewards significantly outweigh them as we gain sustainable market share and recognition as a technology leader in the industry.
Where did this idea or philosophy come from?
I have a pattern of doing this in several businesses, but for me, it started when I was at GE. I learned the ropes from a leading company that does this very well. I went through their patent program before successfully applying this methodology in my other positions.
What else is innovative about your team?
There is a race for full innovation in our industry. Fully automating an oil rig requires a lot of innovation, and our legal team must protect that innovation so nobody can copy what we’re doing. That requires change agents and people who are willing to think and work differently. We brainstorm often, challenge the status quo, and work to capture as many viable ideas as possible through IP.
What do you like most about working in that kind of environment?
Every day is different. I’m challenged to be an advisor, a lawyer, and a team member to highly intelligent individuals in our business.
What are your main goals for the next twelve months?
Our legal team is going to do all we can to support the goal of hitting full automation.
What are some things you think about when you look back at your own path and at your own story?
I think about the power of mentors and education. At an early age, I met Gloria and Cecil Settle, who I consider my second set of parents, who taught me core values, exposed me to art, culture, and literature. Another mentor was my father, who taught me to use my hands, always told me that I had two options in this life: to work with my back or with my mind. I chose the latter. For me, the only way for true growth was through a cross-functional education, and with more knowledge, I would create significant value among those around me. As the famous poet Robert Frost once stated: I chose the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference.