Seeing it through to completion

Barton Hamilton delights in helping students make business ideas reality

For Barton H. Hamilton, Ph.D., it’s all about the questions. It’s the quest for answers that drives Hamilton, the Robert Brookings Smith Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship in the Olin School of Business, to teach, research and mentor.

A professor of economics, management and entrepreneurship at the Olin School since 1996, Hamilton jams his time between classes with researching, mentoring students and junior faculty, and taking care of his 11-month-old twins, Bogdan and Nina.

Barton H. Hamilton, Ph.D., talks business with students Nicole Brown (left) and Erica Greenberg. Kenneth A. Harrington, managing director of the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, says Hamilton
Barton H. Hamilton, Ph.D., talks business with students Nicole Brown (left) and Erica Greenberg. Kenneth A. Harrington, managing director of the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, says Hamilton “is a great colleague and one of the reasons that I enjoy being at Washington University.”

“I love doing research. I come to work every day challenged,” Hamilton says. “This is the best job in the world. Really, you come to work every day and you have some question that you’re trying to answer or some set of questions you’re trying to answer, and you’re around a bunch of smart people that all have similar quests that they’re on.

“I’ve never said, ‘Gosh, I wish I was doing something else,'” he adds. “I’ve never seen another job I’d rather do.”

Teaching and research go hand-in-hand, Hamilton says.

“I think what makes a university great — and certainly what I think is a strength of the Olin School of Business — is we have really high-caliber research. We’re research-focused, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to come here and why I like it here so much.”

Hamilton came to the Olin School from McGill University, the leading English-language institution in Montreal, where he taught economics and conducted economic research for five years. When a referendum for secession of the Quebec province from Canada failed by a slim margin, Hamilton decided it was time to leave before the issue arose again.

“I figured I didn’t want to be in a place that didn’t value some of its institutions,” he says.

Besides, the Canadian chill was a bit of a shock to the Santa Barbara, Calif., native. Hamilton majored in economics at the University of California, Berkeley, after writing in his entrance-exam essay that he wanted to be an economics professor.

“How a 16-year-old ever got the idea that he wanted to be an economics professor, I have no idea,” Hamilton says. He suspects his interest in statistics and econometrics — applying statistical tools to economic data — grew out of his childhood passion for baseball statistics.

After graduating from Berkeley in 1985, Hamilton went straight into a graduate program at Stanford University, from which he earned a doctorate in economics in 1993.

In addition to a preoccupation with RBIs and ERAs, Hamilton gained a youthful admiration for his grandfathers, both successful entrepreneurs.

His paternal grandfather was an early aviation pioneer who later sold his aircraft business to what became Hamilton Sunstrand. Hamilton’s maternal grandfather had a catering business that catered the building of the Hoover Dam and the burgeoning movie business in the 1930s.

That gold rush-like period between the two world wars offered many opportunities for people in California.

“What’s interesting to me about entrepreneurship is some people were able to take advantage of that and be successful,” Hamilton says. “It’s kind of like what we had in the ’90s with the Internet bubble.”

As a professor of entrepreneurship, Hamilton guides undergraduate and master of business administration students through their business plans as part of the Hatchery entrepreneurship class and now the Olin Cup competition.

“There’s nothing more exciting than seeing somebody pick a dream and, through a little bit of interacting with them in and outside the classroom, forming that idea into something they’re actually going to start,” Hamilton says. “And what’s exciting is seeing people actually take the plunge and start the business. It’s risky.

Bart Hamilton and his wife, Ursula Kopij, enjoy Thanksgiving Day with their twins, Bogdan (right) and Nina.
Bart Hamilton and his wife, Ursula Kopij, enjoy Thanksgiving Day with their twins, Bogdan (right) and Nina.

“Your friends who have their M.B.A.s and other WashU undergraduate degrees are going out working for consulting firms or investment banks, and you’re starting a swimsuit business or a podiatry business.”

Former Hamilton student Lori Coulter says, “Bart recognized my passion for entrepreneurship early and helped to develop my critical thinking skills.”;

Her Lori Coulter TrueMeasure swimwear company was hatched in the 2003 Olin Cup competition. During coursework for her 1999 M.B.A., Coulter worked with Hamilton on a business plan for a previous startup idea. Hamilton later encouraged her to return to enter the Olin Cup, in which her team placed as a semifinalist.

“Bart is an academic, but he still has a good understanding of the real business world, and he enjoys working with startups,” Coulter says. “And he thinks like an entrepreneur. I think that’s a rare quality, and especially in an academic.”

Clifford Holekamp’s second-prize Olin Cup-winner in 2000, Foot Healers, led to Holekamp’s inclusion in the St. Louis Business Journal’s 2003 “30 Under 30” list of movers and shakers.

“Professor Hamilton was in-strumental in starting my business,” says Holekamp, who incorporated his podiatry/foot-care business the day of his M.B.A. Class of 2000 graduation. Hamilton nominated him for a Kupke Entrepreneurship Award, which came with $5,000. The idea Holekamp developed with Hamilton in the Hatchery course was rated by Inc. Magazine in 2003 as one of the top five ideas to watch, Holekamp says.

“I think (Hamilton) really embodies what the Olin ideal is supposed to be,” Holekamp says. “He’s great for providing an intellectual give-and-take, and there’s something beyond the intellectual in that he really cares. He wants you to be a success in life as well as in business.”

As exciting as it is to watch students succeed, Hamilton has never considered starting his own business. He’s more than content to teach undergrads and graduate students, as well as executives enrolled in the Olin School’s executive education programs.

“Teaching executives is a lot of fun because they really challenge you to make what you’re talking about real-world relevant,” he says. “Also it forces you into thinking about problems in a different way on the research side.”

In his research, Hamilton has studied many facets of economics, especially labor and health-care economics.

“It’s a big part of the economy,” Hamilton says. “We’ve been in an era over the past 15 years when there’s been a transformation of the business of medicine. There’s just a lot of interesting business and economic questions there, and they’re real important.” He and co-researcher Brian P. McManus, Ph.D., are working on a long-term research project about infertility treatments that will ultimately result in several papers.

Barton H. Hamilton

Title: Robert Brookings Smith Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship

Family: Wife, Ursula Kopij; twins, Bogdan and Nina

Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics, University of California, Berkeley, 1985; doctorate in economics, Stanford University, 1993

Their research studies the effect that lack of insurance coverage for such procedures has on access to care, quality of care and outcomes; what role competition plays; and what role the government should play.

“Those are all very interesting questions,” Hamilton says.

They expect the research to gain understanding not only of infertility treatments, but also more-general lessons about medical markets, says McManus, an assistant professor of economics at the Olin School since fall 2001.

“Bart has a very good sense of which microeconomic issues are important and might yield fruitful research opportunities, says McManus. “He has a great ability to use data and statistical methods to present a coherent and strong analysis of economic issues.”

On the personal side, “Bart is a very warm and generous guy,” McManus says. “He has done a lot to welcome me — and other junior faculty — to Olin.”

Kenneth A. Harrington, managing director of the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship, says Hamilton has “a unique combination of teaching, research and interpersonal skills. He is a great colleague and one of the reasons that I enjoy being at Washington University.”

Outside of work, Hamilton and his wife, Ursula, are big St. Louis Rams fans and enjoy going to games and training camp — at least, they did before the twins were born.

But he hasn’t given up his lifelong offbeat hobby of keeping pet reptiles, including several red-foot tortoises that live in the family’s back yard during the summer.

“Some people like to go fishing,” he says. “I like to go lizard-catching.”