Updated March 25 at 12:28am

A lifetime learner applies his drive outside the office

By Jenn Salcido
PBN Staff Writer

For some people, the drive to learn new things and acquire new skills stops. Maybe they’re tired of pushing themselves, maybe they don’t have time – whatever the case, it’s not a priority.

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A lifetime learner applies his drive outside the office


For some people, the drive to learn new things and acquire new skills stops. Maybe they’re tired of pushing themselves, maybe they don’t have time – whatever the case, it’s not a priority.

Not so for Robert Padula, CEO of Gencorp Insurance Group, whose career success is built upon his never-ending quest to improve himself. But parallel to Padula’s business-career success has been an equally accomplished life of community service, especially in the mental-health-care field.

A first-generation American, Padula, 66, was raised in the East Natick section of West Warwick. His father and mother, who immigrated from Fornelli, a small agrarian village in Southern Italy, had grown up within the same city walls but had to make a trans-Atlantic trek before they would meet, fall in love, and settle down to bring up their seven children while working in the region’s textile mills. Padula has fond memories of his family’s time in the neighborhood: “We didn’t really have a lot of money, but we had a very close family,” he said.

He immersed himself in the culture of his forefathers and the architecture of the captains of industry who employed his parents and others like them. Talking to him is like taking a historical tour through Rhode Island’s industrial highlights – he can easily rattle off the owners and names of buildings that most take for granted. Today, that interest has translated into his involvement on the board of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Padula earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, making him the first in his family to attend a four-year college. His father couldn’t have afforded the tuition, but had always nurtured his interest in education. “He knew that education was the only way for his children to get ahead in this country,” said Padula.

During his college years, Padula would excel in history, eventually majoring in the subject and making plans to teach at a small college and coach football when he got his degree. But when the Vietnam War took hold, Padula’s path started to change. He knew that he wanted to serve his country and joined the Rhode Island Air National Guard. Padula ended up eschewing a master’s program when, in need of money, he accepted a job working with his brother at the insurance agency that would later become Gencorp.

“The first year or two, I really didn’t like it,” Padula admitted of selling insurance. “So for the first couple of years, I was looking for another job.”

Like other things in Padula’s life and career, his passion for education and self-betterment would soon kick in and convince him that this was, in fact, the path for him after all. “Once I got my professional designations, I felt I kind of got into the academic part of it, and gained this whole body of knowledge. That’s really what anchored me,” said Padula.

As the business continued to grow, Padula and his brother began to take on a more controlling stake in the company, with Padula taking over more of the management issues and changes that came with automating the business to include more computer-based systems. When Padula’s brother was ready to retire in 1985, Padula bought the firm.

Padula isn’t content to rest on his laurels in the business community. On the contrary, he has thrived in the philanthropic sector as well, donating not only his financial resources, but his time and expertise to local boards and community organizations over the years.

“Bob commits himself fully to everything he does,” said Anne Nicoll, senior vice president of human resources for Gencorp. “He inherently understands that being a professional means something more than just performing one’s job well … his commitment to the community far exceeds the norm.”

Padula’s involvement has led him to serve on the boards of Butler Hospital, Care New England, Kent Hospital, Woman & Infants Hospital, and Gencorp’s own charitable fund, among other local boards and organizations. In particular, he has brought his considerable financial background to bear while serving on finance and investment committees for Butler/Care New England, a job for which he was recruited by friend and former client Arthur Robbins, a Butler board member.

“He’s very sincere, very knowledgeable, and very astute in handling financial matters. People listen to him – he really doesn’t say things just for the sake of saying something,” said Robbins.

Over the past five years, Padula’s positive impact on the Butler/Care New England system has been palpable, said Robbins, with his work earning him the 2010 Bell Award from the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island. Michele R. Berard, executive director of the Butler Hospital Foundation, concurred: “His service … has been invaluable. He appreciates and understands how important Butler Hospital is to the economic environment here in our state. He goes the extra mile by communicating that sentiment to others and advocating on our behalf.”

Padula always had an interest in mental health, having several family members who have suffered from developmental disabilities as well as mental illness. “I knew the work that Butler did and how important it was. Mental health is a disease that unfortunately doesn’t get the attention that cancer or heart disease does because it has social taboos attached to it,” explained Padula.

Because of the changing landscape of health care in general and the important steps being taken in terms of mental-health care, Padula sees his work in helping Butler/CNE stay healthy as crucial to those who most need help. “It’s really important to the citizens of our state that we come out of this with a viable health care system that is cost effective, that the services are here, that they’re local, and that the quality of services are as good as anywhere in the country,” he said.

Padula said that he’s fortunate to have the time now to truly volunteer. He’s at the point at Gencorp where his days are not too heavy with client meetings, and so he can devote more of his time to pursuing his interests and helping others. He admitted that part of the reward of his considerable community involvement has been all that it has taught him – something that, as someone with a lifelong love for learning, is as much a gift to him as his volunteerism is to others.

“I’d really recommend it,” he said. “I think people who volunteer for organizations will all tell you the same thing. They get a lot more back out of it than they put in.” •


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