“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” the old joke goes. The last place some might expect to find a business professor is tending to the hands-on details of running an actual business.
Yet there’s Dan Innis, going over punch lists with tradesmen and interviewing for night staff at the Hotel Portsmouth, a 32-room inn scheduled to open next Monday. It’s a mad rush, temporarily cramping the time Innis can put into his other start-up venture, his campaign for Congress in the district that includes Manchester, the Seacoast, Lakes Region, and Conway.
Raised poor near Columbus, Ohio, Innis worked his way through college and an MBA, then did a stint in the corporate world before completing a PhD in three and a half years. “I was focused and I powered through it. It wasn’t easy. I had no life,” Innis recounted amid a jumble of new furniture waiting to be arranged. Innis got a job as an assistant professor of marketing at Ohio University and over eleven years rose to department head and assistant dean. He was on his way to a nice, safe, cushy career in academia.
Except, Innis showed the tolerance for risk that is a hallmark of those who succeed in business — and who go places in politics. After attaining tenure a year early — a gutsy move for a young professor because if you fail, you’re out of a job — Innis left his secure positon to become dean of the University of Maine business school. He stayed in Orono five years before taking on the challenge of leading the larger business school at the University of New Hampshire in 2007.
The school thrived during his tenure, capped by the construction of the new Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics, named for the school’s $25 million benefactor who is also funding a super PAC supporting Innis’s candidacy. Innis points to the successful completion of the project as illustrating his ability to bring different constituencies together to get complicated things done. He takes some credit for helping prepare thousands of young people for contributing to New Hampshire’s economy.
As Innis climbed the professional ladder, his personal life was less orthodox. Married at 22, he and his wife had three children together. After 20 years, they divorced. In 2009, Innis entered a civil union with his partner, Doug Palardy, upgrading to marriage as state law changed. Acknowledging the process was painful, Innis says he and his ex-wife have a good relationship. Their two sons both attended UNH while Innis was dean, suggesting that, however difficult the transition was, everyone got through it with relationships intact.
Innis is running as a fiscal conservative who happens to be gay, not as the gay candidate. He admits some frustration at media accounts that focus more on his orientation than his policy views. “They don’t say I’m a gray haired Republican. I don’t see stories that describe Carol Shea-Porter as a straight Democrat,” Innis points out. At the same time, Innis benefits from the extra attention that comes from being something of a demographic novelty among Republican candidates nationwide. “When it comes to fiscal matters, I’m the most conservative candidate in this race,” Innis asserts. “I want small government. I want government to stay out of my life.”
Small business isn’t an abstract academic theory for this professor. In 2008, Innis and Palardy purchased a ten-room hotel on Bow Street in Portsmouth, which they ran as the Ale House Inn. “It was probably the worst time to buy a hotel in the last 50 years,” Innis said. They outfitted the rooms with iPads, occupancy rates rose from 29 to 78 percent, and the business generated over $500,000 in annual revenue when they sold it last year.
Proceeds, along with a multi-million dollar bank loan to finance renovations, have been rolled over into the larger Hotel Portsmouth on Court Street, previously known as the Sise Inn. It’s a big bet, a decidedly non-theoretical application of the things they teach in business school to the real world.
Innis is creating jobs, meeting a payroll, and dealing with government regulation and business taxes. It’s experience Shea-Porter and Innis’s primary opponent, Frank Guinta, don’t have.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed @FergusCullen.