Barbato: Big ideas on small business

“Ehhh, What’s up doc?”

Bugs Bunny, the “wascally wabbit” star of Looney Tunes—along with his memorable friends including Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Pepe Le Pew (the amorous skunk who turns off Parisian lovers with his scent)—grace one entire wall of Robert Barbato’s office in the College of Business.

This RIT professor has a sense of humor and good business sense as well.

“I started collecting these Warner Brother animation cels a long time ago and they still make me smile,” says Barbato, associate professor of management and director of the Small Business Institute in the College of Business. “And they are probably worth a lot more than I paid for them in the 1980s,” says the 26-year teaching veteran, who, true to form, always remains a businessman.

Barbato—the former owner of USA Baby (a baby furniture retail store) and Don’s Original (a local fast food restaurant)—is honored to be a recipient of the Eisenhart Award for Outstanding Teaching.

“No one is successful by himself,” says Barbato, whose teaching expertise runs from business ethics and entrepreneurship to organizational behavior. “At RIT, I’ve had great students to teach and an environment that brings out the best in me, both professionally and personally.”

One touching example is his relationship with a young student named Abel, whom he met while teaching as a Fulbright lecturer in Ethiopia. “He wanted an MBA but had no money, no visa, no sponsor to bring him to the United States,” Barbato recalls.

“Thanks to the generosity of RIT, he came here, earned his MBA and even lived with my family for awhile,” Barbato says. “Abel is now an accountant and lives in Virginia with his wife, Yenewud, and their two children. My wife, Linda, and our two daughters, Lauren and Lisa, think of them as part of our family.”
Barbato believes he has changed as a teacher through the years—“less focused on the breadth, more focused on the depth of issues.”

“Covering textbook comprehension is necessary, but in our business ethics class we dig deep to understand the dynamics of moral behavior and corporate integrity,” Barbato notes. “With today’s headlines, we never run out of things to talk about.”

One guest speaker who made a huge impact on Barbato’s students was a bond trader who broke the law while working for the state of Oklahoma. He worked deals, inflated prices, gave kickbacks and fraudulently earned millions of dollars. Trying to escape sentencing, he fled to Mexico—only to be chased by bounty hunters.

“He lost his family, his career and his country,” said Barbato, “so he returned home and served time in federal prison. He knew he made the wrong kind of headlines when he received a call from Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes.”

Barbato says this was a great lesson for students. “More importantly, I emphasize that ethical business leaders are not the ones who are so frightened that they never do anything wrong. Rather, they are the ones who have the strength and courage to do what’s right.”

Could that also be a lesson for Bugs Bunny?

“Maybe,” says Barbato, “because my favorite cel is ‘The Rabbit of Seville’ based on the opera, Barber of Seville. The picture shows Bugs playing barber to an already-bald Elmer Fudd. There’s got to be a moral issue in there somewhere!”

Since 1965, RIT’s Eisenhart Awards for Outstanding Teaching have honored and celebrated faculty excellence. Up to four awards are given each year to recipients in various RIT programs. Winners are chosen through rigorous peer review of student nominations. This year, three professors will receive the awards during the academic convocation on Friday, May 20.

The Eisenhart family, for whom the awards are named, has a long history with RIT. The late M. Herbert Eisenhart, president and board chairman of Bausch & Lomb, was an RIT trustee for more than 50 years. Richard Eisenhart continues the RIT connection, serving on the board since 1972, as chairman for six years and now as trustee emeritus.

RIT News & Events, May 13, 2005