Going Strong

Beloved SCU Economics Professor Mario Belotti Reflects On A “Very Lucky” Life

Going Strong
The former W.M. Keck Foundation Professor of Economics, who retired last year after six decades at Santa Clara University, wants to reassure Broncos that the fundamentals of the U.S. economy are sound. / Courtesy SCU Archives

At 93, Mario Belotti has seen plenty in life, and written about it, too. But he’s never witnessed anything like the pandemic that is collapsing economies around the world.

Yet as he watches the financial turmoil, the former W.M. Keck Foundation Professor of Economics, who retired last year after six decades of teaching at Santa Clara University–22 years as its business school chair–wants to reassure his students, alumni and SCU friends that the fundamentals of the U.S. economy are still sound.

“Many positive signs have recently appeared,” says the grandfather of seven who still speaks with the accent of his native Italy. “The economy is stabilizing, and the recession which has hurt many people and businesses is starting to wane.” He believes businesses will re-open their factories, employees will go back to work, unemployment will begin to fall and the GDP will become positive. As for the stock market, he says, “My advice is to be patient.”

Belotti’s many fans can take comfort in those words, as they did when he introduced them to his passion for economics and its practical applications to their lives. All the while, he was helping to elevate the university’s business school, which now ranks in the top 15 percent of all undergraduate business programs nationally.

“Legacy is an overused word,” Caryn-Beck Dudley, Dean of the Leavey School of Business, told attendees at a Belotti going-away party on campus last year. “But when it comes to what Mario has achieved in his career, this is one of the occasions when really it is justified.”

Belotti’s boosters

“He taught me common sense—economic common sense,” says veteran Morgan Stanley wealth advisor Bill Burke ’64, who recently made a significant contribution to SCU in appreciation of what Belotti has done “for me, my family and my clients.”

Like many others, the engineering major from Pasadena had enrolled in a basic economics course to fulfill an elective. Belotti’s lectures made so much sense that he swapped engineering for a degree in economics.

“It was just his way of being able to explain, in simple ways, what is complicated to a lot of people,” recalls Burke. “He made economics seem logical to me.”
Even now, says the Oxnard, California-based financial advisor—whose son Brian Burke ’92 attended Belotti’s class—whenever he sits down with his clients, “Mario Belotti is talking through me to them.”

It helped that the economics professor often made his lectures personal, recalls Frances Boscacci ’81.

“He told stories that really drove home the point for me,” says Boscacci of the examples Belotti drew from his tough life growing up under Fascist Italy, immigrating to the U.S. where he worked as a quasi-cowboy, kitchen helper, pizza maker, and restaurant chef, among other jobs, before becoming a professor, U.S. citizen, economic consultant, speaker, and investor.

The entertaining lessons underscoring economic concepts and plain old perseverance have served the native Venezuelan well in her careers, from international banking to real estate–even to our current locked-down lives.

“Everyone today is talking about (flattening) the curve,” says Boscacci of the term used to describe efforts to stagger the number of new coronavirus cases over a longer period to allow people better access to medical care. “He taught us that—about economic equilibrium—and the pricing fundamentals of economics, which really are based on theories of supply and demand.”

Economics major David Bustos ’15 still re-reads the notes he took in Belotti’s classes, the only ones he saved from his four years at SCU.

“Because I knew they would be helpful in my everyday life,” he explains about his stash of scribbles. He says Belotti’s Money and Banking course, particularly the lectures on loans and investments, have already paid off.

“When the government needs money, it buys back Treasury notes and bonds,” says Bustos, an account manager at a cybersecurity company. “That often makes it an optimum time to sell.”

Mario 24
Mario Belotti  / Courtesy Belotti

‘Do the best job you can’

Imagine Belotti’s arrival at Santa Clara University in September 1959, a time when the university’s 900 male students were enrolled in one of four colleges: arts and sciences, engineering, law, and commerce.

The College of Commerce was short staffed, and for a while the 32-year-old immigrant not only taught economics, but finance and accounting. (Among his finance students was an up-and-coming Italian-American from nearby Boulder Creek: Paul Locatelli, ’60; M.Div. Jesuit School of Theology, ’74, and by 1988, SCU’s 27th President.)

“My motto in life was to work where I could,” says Belotti from a comfortable chair in his family room, where the avid investor reads the Wall Street Journal every day and regularly watches CNBC until the markets close.
“Know who you are, and do the best job you can,” he advises. “That’s all I can say.”

Though he didn’t know it then, the economics PhD had landed at Santa Clara at a propitious time: early enough to witness and study the ascent of Silicon Valley, followed by its cycles of boom and bust, and the effects of globalization.

In 1959, the nexus between SCU and a burgeoning high tech industry got an important kick-start when the College of Commerce launched an evening MBA program for working professionals, attracting 75 students. By the fall of 1961, enrollment had jumped to 300 after faculty convinced the six largest firms in the area, including Lockheed, General Electric, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, to pay tuition for their employees who were qualified.

Belotti was asked to teach an MBA economics course, and as the program’s enrollment grew, talented faculty continued to be added. That year also saw Santa Clara open admission to female students.

A mentor to all

Marilee Pierotti Lau ’69, MBA ’70 was among the first waves of women to enroll at the Jesuit university, and she did so with hopes of becoming a psychologist. But she struggled with its science and math requirements.

By chance, Lau had met the man who would become her husband, and he happened to be majoring in economics. On a lark, she took Belotti’s introductory course, did well, and never looked back, earning both an economics degree and MBA in accounting from SCU. For the next four decades, Lau worked at the KPMG accounting firm in corporate auditing and employee benefit plans.

“You could see his total love of economics when he taught,” says Lau, adding that Belotti encouraged her studies in the subject that attracted very few women in that era.

“He would use everyday examples like the demand for gas and the cost for gas,” she recalls. “If he were teaching today he would probably use the supply for hand sanitizer which is low, and the demand which is high.”

In 1968, Belotti had been promoted to full professor, and, spurred on by a group of MBA alumni who had attended his classes, he created his annual economic forecasting program.

For the next 50 years, the professor presented his year-ahead expectations for the U.S. economy to alumni and members of the Bay Area business community. Well-received and well-attended, the popular forecast, held every January, spurred donations to the business school.

Marilee Lau attended many of the forecasts, which she not only found valuable, but startling: she noticed that her mentor delivered the entire presentation without any notes.

Dr Mario Belotti, 2016 Economic Forecast, Locatelli Center
Mario Belotti in 2016 at the Economic Forecast in the Locatelli Center. / SCU Archives

Consulting around the world

Beginning in 1970, Belotti expanded his horizons, working for 22 consecutive summers as an economic development consultant in underdeveloped countries around the world, often accompanied by his family. What he learned was incorporated in his classes and scholarly research.

He would enhance SCU’s business school portfolio again in 1975 after renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist Donald L. Lucas and two electronics company presidents  approached the university to develop an economics program for business executives.

Belotti was invited to help conceive the annual program, and designed three one-day symposiums that began in 1976, featuring top economists, many of them Nobel Laureates, from around the world. They were invited to present papers on a topic chosen by Belotti, who would open the topic up for discussion among symposium attendees, which was limited to 30. SCU students could attend the evening sessions.

While the program, which ran for 32 years, did not directly generate extra revenue for the university, it set a stage for major donations of time and money to Santa Clara. Led by the fundraising work of Lucas, who was involved in almost every one of the symposiums, several participants contributed to an endowed professorship in Belotti’s name, which today is held by SCU Finance Professor Hersh Shefrin.

Lucas also joined SCU’s Board of Trustees and helped to fund a large part of the Leavey School of Business that is housed inside his namesake Lucas Hall. Jack Sullivan’59, MBA ’76, another symposium participant, donated a new aquatic center.

A savvy investor

By then, Belotti had also become a seasoned investor, both in real estate and stocks.

“I came to the United States and had zero money,” he has said of his arrival in New York with only $50 in train fare.
Belotti hadn’t thought seriously about investing until the end of teaching his first class in 1959, when students asked questions about the stock market. The new professor had to investigate. “Instead of buying books,” he says, “I decided: why not buy some stocks and see how this works?”

Over the years, Belotti invested with colleagues–including fellow retired SCU economics professor John Whalen, with whom he drove to work every day for 35 years in cars they bought together–then eventually invested on his own. In 1999, together with his wife Rose, he created the Mario and Rose Belotti Endowed Scholarship Fund to support student education.

As he settles into retirement, Belotti is proud to give back to Santa Clara, which all three of his children attended. And he is prouder still of his many students, especially those who majored in economics.

Every May, the graduating seniors would be invited to his home for a celebratory dinner, along with department faculty and their spouse. Belotti would offer everyone his homemade wine, while wife Rose served her special lasagne, chicken teriyaki, bean salad and garlic bread.

He had come a long way from a life of grinding poverty in Italy, to a chance meeting with an American sponsor, his arrival in the United States and a teaching career. It’s a story fit for a book, and in 2015, Belotti published his memoir, It Was All For The Love of A Horse: A Life Story.

The title recalls the heartbreaking sale of his father’s beloved horse Nino, which prompted the patriarch to move from town to town in search of better jobs to support his wife and young son. Inadvertently, each new town offered more years of school than the one before, allowing Belotti to progress all the way through high school. Not long after, a fortuitous meeting in Italy with a well-to-do American sponsor landed him in Texas, where he was quickly forced to learn English, helping him complete a bachelor’s degree in business, a master’s degree in accounting, and a Ph.D. in economics.

“It was a hard journey, but it was a good and adventurous one, much of it unplanned and part of it unimaginable,” writes Belotti in the final chapter of his 227-page book.
“As I am getting close to the end of my journey, I feel I have had a beautiful life. I feel happy about my journey, and about my story.”

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