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How I Made It: Mehmet Mustafoglu

Doing well a long way from home

August 03, 2008|Utku Cakirozer | Times Staff Writer

The gig: Chairman of TransGlobal Financial Corp., a private equity firm investing in and advising clients on emerging growth companies in such areas as healthcare, waste management and energy. Chairman, Vortex Resources Corp., an energy company.

Background: He grew up in Nicosia, Cyprus, during a civil war between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. His family was poor and lived in "miserable" conditions, he recalled. "It was like living in a big refugee camp."

Personal: Mustafoglu, 58, lives in Beverly Hills. His wife, Demetra George, is of Greek and Italian heritage and a former Miss Oklahoma, competing under the name Debbie Giannopoulos. They have two daughters, Devran and Deniz.

Education: Attending Wichita State University on a Fulbright scholarship, Mustafoglu earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. Later, he received a master's in finance from USC.

Culture shock: In 1966, Mustafoglu won a scholarship to study in the U.S., and he set off for what he hoped might be a dazzling spot such as Manhattan. Instead, off he went to Alhambra -- Illinois, that is, a farm town of 550. "You can imagine my disappointment," Mustafoglu recalled. "We drove five hours from Chicago, and here I was, coming from a small island, dreaming of coming to a big city. And here I was in the middle of cornfields and cows." But he found opportunity in rural Illinois, where he learned to embrace the "core values of the American heartland."

Early jobs: Waiter, guard, lab assistant, disc jockey.

Big break: He was hired by Shell Oil Co. when the recruiter found out that Mustafoglu was married to a onetime beauty queen representing his home state. He went on to become finance vice president of Getty Oil's Canadian operation. Later, he moved to Oxbow Group to head its petroleum companies.

Big mistake: Failing to foresee the collapse of the dot-com boom in 2000. "If any businessman says he always makes money, he's lying. You know how some people make lots of money? They learn from their mistakes."

Investment ideas: "If I were in real estate, I would start buying in the inner cities. We will have to learn how to produce more, using less energy." He sees a future for natural gas as a fuel for redesigned cars. He is interested in a natural gas field in west Texas, making diesel from low-cost animal fat and investing in distressed debt.

Giving back: Mustafoglu and his wife organized a benefit concert for victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. He helped found an umbrella group of Turkish-American organizations and chaired the American Turkish Assn. of Southern California. Mustafoglu, who co-chairs the American Friends of Israel and Turkey and is the honorary representative for Turkish Cypriots in L.A., helps support youths from his native land as they study in America. He also works with Latino groups and is the first person of Turkish heritage to be awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, in 2002, which he calls "the crown of my 40 years in America."

Advice: "The reason I was able to get ahead was education. If you have an education, you can be almost anything in this country."

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utku.cakirozer@latimes.com

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Got an idea for How I Made It, a feature that will appear in Business every Sunday? Send it to howimadeit@latimes.com.

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