It might at first glance seem strange that the man who is now president of Philadelphia University was once changing oil in cars. But that’s important, because without Stephen Spinelli’s involvement in the speedy oil change end of car maintenance, you might never have heard of a little operation known as Jiffy Lube.
Spinelli is a self-confessed fanatic for entrepreneurship and innovation. He and a colleague from Philadelphia University, Heather McGowan, edited the recently released “Disrupt Together: How Teams Consistently Innovate” (FT Press), which he will discuss as part of a breakfast talk he will give at the New Jersey Technology Council on Friday, March 21, at 8:30 a.m. at TRI/Princeton, 601 Prospect Avenue. The event is open only to C-suite executives. Cost: $50. Visit www.NJTC.org.
Spinelli is credited as one of the founders of the nationally known chain. He didn’t start the business itself, nor devise the idea of fast oil changes. In the 1970s Jiffy Lube was actually a small, mom-and-pop operation in Ogden, Utah. Spinelli and investors saw great potential in the service amid that era’s gasoline shortages and a growing lack of do-it-yourselfers who didn’t know how to change their own oil.
Spinelli told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2009 that after co-buying the operation he moved to Ogden and started changing oil to understand the fundamentals of the business. This is a lesson he teaches his entrepreneurship students at Philadelphia — that to understand how a business works, you need to know how to do the grunt work.
Spinelli’s main contribution to Jiffy Lube becoming a household name is in the franchising. He wrote the operations manual that allowed the company to replicate its model. What doing the manual says (and applying it in practice) taught him, he told Businessweek, was that size doesn’t matter when it comes to running a business. They are all hard to run and all need the proper attention and approach. Smaller businesses, he said, are no less risky than large ones, especially in terms of personnel. Small businesses, after all, often do not develop the critical mass to support the number of people needed to keep the business successful, he said.
Another hard-learned lesson was that franchising and scaling a business does not subscribe to the “Field of Dreams” ideal of “if you build it, they will come.” This thinking, he told Businessweek, is a major mistake. Spinelli and company attempted to grow the business too quickly and almost collapsed it by not anticipating small, yet myriad, issues such as poor location or poorly trained owner-operators.
Spinelli is a huge fan of franchising, but smartly done franchising. The devil, he said, is in the details. And his advice from 2009 for growing a successful franchise still stands: Listen to your franchisees. If they’re your partners, they’ll give you incredible insight into what is happening on the front lines in various locations.
Lessons from the modern age. At age 58, Spinelli is an open advocate of social media. He has fully embraced his Twitter and Facebook personae and in a 2013 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer advocated that given the robust and ubiquitous social media channels available for entrepreneurs, those who want to stay with the leaders need to be communicating through these channels. Besides, he said, social media is fun.
Beyond social media, Spinelli believes more students will enter college looking for more formal education in being entrepreneurs. For that to become true, he told the Inquirer, there will need to be a change in the way entrepreneurs look at entrepreneurship. They need to see the concepts of entrepreneurship and innovation as a career, he said, rather than as an activity. They need to look at entrepreneurship and innovation as their own ends, rather than as something you try and if you fail, so what?
Spinelli earned his bachelor’s in economics from McDaniel College in 1977, shortly before taking on the Jiffy Lube project. In 1992 he earned his MBA in entrepreneurship from Babson College and in 1995, his Ph.D. in economics from Imperial College London. In 1993 Spinelli became the vice provost of Babson College. He maintained that post until becoming president at Philadelphia in 2007.
It was at Babson that Spinelli met McGowan, who in 1999 was a design student pursuing an MBA. Intrigued by McGowan’s design-thinking approach to problem finding, problem framing, and solution criteria, Spinelli saw the potential to give more structure and form to the fuzzier ends of entrepreneurship.
When he became president of Philadelphia University, a 130-year-old private college with an enrollment of about 3,500 students, Spinelli used these thoughts to design the school’s innovation, teamwork, and entrepreneurial focus. For their first book, “Disrupting Together,” Spinelli wrote the introduction and McGowan, now the assistant provost at Philadelphia, wrote the first chapter. The remaining 15 chapters were written by academicians from various schools and by entrepreneur-experts in the subject of innovation and business models.
The book, built according to Philadelphia’s teachings, emphasizes the importance of creating interdisciplinary teams to achieve the loftiest goals. According to its website, the school created a curriculum and teaching methods “to intersect collaborating academic disciplines” in an effort to revolutionize the way students learn and become leaders in their professions.
“We knew that to create a new paradigm in education, one that demands navigating ambiguity, deciphering complexity and harnessing collective intellect through collaboration, we had to build an international network of thought leaders from other leading institutions, including the University of California at Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, OCAD University, Continuum Innovation, and Smart Design,” said McGowan, on Spinelli’s “President’s Blog.”
It’s a lofty goal to want to rewrite how entrepreneurship is taught, but Spinelli and his staff might be able to pull it off. He plans to find and develop committed entrepreneurs and not those on a lark. As he told the Inquirer last year: “Entrepreneurs who are larky, if that’s a word, do not inspire me. I want committed people who believe in what they’re doing.”