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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 21, 2015 5 years ago

Electric life

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Hard work, combined with self-confidence, helped Isaac Barpal get from a kibbutz in Israel to the top of Corporate America.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Isaac Barpal didn't want anything to hold him back when he left Israel in 1964 for a shot at the American Dream.

He was coming to the States on a cargo ship full of grain, a two-week, so-called “work-a-way” trip from Haifa, Israel, to Galveston, Texas. Then it was off to San Luis Obispo, Calif., to attend California State Polytechnic University.

Barpal recalls he had $742 in his pocket and a duffel bag of possessions. But an uncle in Israel gave him a return ticket on the same ship — good for any date, in case Barpal wanted to go back.

Barpal burned the ticket when he got to Texas.

“That was a lifeline,” says Barpal. “And the minute you have a way to get out of something, the smallest thing will let you do it.”

With his options for quitting up in flames, Barpal embarked on his new life. In academics, he ultimately earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. In business, he worked at Westinghouse Electric Corp. for 22 years, rising to head of science and technology. He also oversaw construction of people movers at airports worldwide for the company.

After Westinghouse he joined aerospace and engineering giant AlliedSignal, now Honeywell. Barpal ran engineering and technology there, with a budget of $1.1 billion and 11,000 employees. He retired in 1998, when his final post was chief technology officer. Barpal, 75, recently sat down with the Business Observer to talk about his career.

Rough start: Barpal was born in Argentina, and his dad died when he was six. When Barpal was 13 he moved to Israel to live with an uncle. In Israel he lived in a kibbutz, a collective farming community, where his main job was to pull radishes. Money and material possessions were scarce. “It wasn't very much,” he says. “I learned the value of a penny. I learned the value of hard work and being thrifty.”

Math man: In Israel, Barpal discovered he loved to work in a metal shop and with electronics. He also had an affinity for numbers and complex problems, so much so that when he took the SAT exam to get into college in the Unites Sates he scored a perfect 800. “I probably got 200 in English,” he quips.

More money: Before Barpal left for America, he went joined the Israeli Air Force, where he served three years. After he earned his Ph.D., in 1970, Barpal took a job at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh. The company offered him $1,600 a month, but Barpal held out for $1,667 a month, so he could earn $20,000 a year. That was a big sum back then, he says.

Hire smart: Barpal says his rise to senior executive positions stems from finding people he thought could do his job better than him. “Choose the best people money can buy and let them do their jobs,” he says. “Because if they can take your job, that means you can be promoted.”

Relationship builder: The best way to deal with customers on big-dollar complicated projects, Barpal learned, is to get to know the client personally. “You have to develop trust,” says Barpal. “A customer will pay almost anything if they trust you.”

Fess up: Another key lesson Barpal learned in his career is to quickly let people know when there's a mistake. “You're not always right, but if you admit it people will respect you,” he says.

Reflective approach: Early in his career Barpal developed a habit of spending five minutes every night thinking about what he learned during the day. He still does that, and he says it helps him relax and build confidence. “You have to look at yourself in the mirror and know that's the best person in the world,” Barpal says. “If you don't believe in that, your clients never will.”

Giving back: Barpal moved to the Sarasota area in 2004 and now lives in Palmer Ranch, in south Sarasota County. His favorite hobby is riding motorcycles. He and his wife, Margaret, have given money to several charities, including Palmetto-based Southeastern Guide Dogs. A portion of their gifts went to the Margaret and Isaac Barpal Veterinary Center, a $1.75 million complex that opened in 2013. “It's not about the dogs,” he says. “The object is to help people. My satisfaction comes from local charities because I see the results of our work.”

Estate planning: Barpal has three adult children and he took the same approach to each on raising kids in an affluent environment. He told them he would pay for their education, nothing else. His mantra: “Don't live a life thinking daddy will die and you will get a lot of money.”

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