Making a fortune changing oil is not the traditional path to a college presidency.

But for Stephen Spinelli Jr., it helped seal the deal at Philadelphia University, the former textile college that has rebranded itself as a top-notch design school.

Spinelli, 53, co-founded Jiffy Lube International in 1979 and became its largest franchise holder before earning a master's degree in business and a doctorate in economics.

He then launched his second career at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., where he rose to vice provost of the Entrepreneurship and Global Management Program, regularly ranked first in the country by U.S. News & World Report.

That kind of buzz was exactly what Philadelphia University trustees believed was needed at the small and bustling campus of 2,800 students in East Falls after the longtime president, James Gallagher, retired last year.

The Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science had changed its name and focus in 1999, and wanted someone to beef up its endowment, elevate its profile, and redefine the university as a powerful job source for industry.

The business-savvy Spinelli, who started in September and will preside as president at his first commencement tomorrow, was just what the trustees had in mind.

"We thought we'd love someone with business experience, and his record as an entrepreneur was amazing," said Donald Redlinger, a board member who headed the search committee. "He was kind of the next generation of college president."

Spinelli, a former college football player and son of a postal clerk, joins a small but growing number of college and university presidents who can analyze a balance sheet. Some have never worked in higher education, taught a course or earned a doctorate.

In 2006, 13 percent of presidents had nonacademic backgrounds before being hired, up from 10 percent in 1986. Many of those came from private business, such as Gary Forsee, a former Sprint Nextel chief executive officer tapped to run the University of Missouri in December.

Drexel University's Constantine Papadakis was an engineer and businessman before turning his sights on academia, and John Fry at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster came from the financial side of academia and does not have a Ph.D. or classroom experience.

Experts say presidents with business experience are seen as goal-oriented, customer-friendly and financially smart, just what many small private colleges need to stay competitive.

"They're looking for proven leadership and managerial experience," said Sheldon E. Steinbach, former general counselor for the American Council on Education.

Not every school wants a CEO at the helm, and faculty in particular may be skeptical of a president who has not taught, said Jonathan Knight, director of academic freedom and tenure for the American Association of University Professors.

But Spinelli believes entrepreneurship and academia go hand-in-hand, especially at Philadelphia University, where the focus has expanded beyond fashion to an array of professional programs, from industrial design to pre-med.

Higher education is changing so rapidly that presidents need to adapt to a faster-paced, market-driven environment, he said.

On his first day, Spinelli showed off his corporate chops by talking with his staff about the "unit economics" of the school and how to deliver value to university stakeholders.

"It clearly surprised them and, at some level, confused them . . . but I thought it was a very healthy discussion," he said.

Now, 10 months into his tenure, Spinelli is enthusiastic about students' hands-on work, whether it's haute couture or the "seating instruments" that industrial-design majors made for Wilsonart International, a laminate manufacturer. And trustees are impressed with his can-do vibe.

"He understands that there's a customer out there who has to be really excited about your product, and in this case, it's education," said Redlinger, the board member. "He knows he has to improve our numbers."

That includes pumping up the anemic $25.9 million endowment and increasing real-world partnerships, like the joint effort of occupational-therapy and industrial-design students to develop equipment for disabled clients.

Spinelli, whose salary is $280,000, has written books on entrepreneurship, and plans to teach a course next year in which students could launch their own businesses.

"I'm very demanding but relatively entertaining," said the married father of two, who lives in a 19th-century stone Colonial on campus. His son is studying for a master's degree in music at Temple University, and his daughter is getting an interior-design master's at Boston Architectural College.

Spinelli's route to the presidency was anything but direct. Growing up in a cash-strapped family in Springfield, Mass., he thought the road to success lay in professional sports. But it was his football coach at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel) who changed the course of his life.

The coach, Jim Hindman, who made a fortune buying and selling nursing homes in the 1970s, mentored players he thought were go-getters.

"He'd give you an incredibly difficult job, and if you survived, then you got into his inner circle," Spinelli said.

After a player complained that it was no longer possible for the average person to become a millionaire, Hindman set out to prove him wrong. He and three students, including Spinelli, bought an automotive-service store in Ogden, Utah, named Jiffy Lube. They had built it up to 1,100 units worldwide by the time Spinelli got out of the business in 1991.

Along the way, Spinelli got an MBA from Babson, going to class once a week on Wednesday nights and then putting into practice what he learned the next morning.

Even after he got his Ph.D. from Imperial College, University of London, in 1995, he thought he might open another business until Babson asked him to teach. He became fervid about combining "thought and action" in one place - the college classroom.

"Entrepreneurs traditionally are people who battle through all kinds of obstacles to make it through to the end," said Craig Benson, a Babson trustee and teacher and a former governor of New Hampshire. "Steve does it with a smile on his face, so people are fired up when they see him."

Spinelli also seems to have won over a university's toughest critics, the faculty.

"He gets us," said Vini Nathan, dean of the School of Architecture.

Gotz Unger, director of industrial design, said Spinelli is engaging and accessible, showing up at every student event and responding quickly to e-mails.

He's also good at negotiations, as 9-year-old Christopher McClellan found out when he tried to sell Spinelli a $40 chance for a Lincoln MKZ at the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education fund-raiser on April 25.

When Spinelli balked at the price, Christopher insisted he was selling him the winning ticket. So they struck a deal - Spinelli would buy the ticket, and if he won, he would give Christopher a full scholarship to Philadelphia University.

"I said, 'You're a really wonderful kid. I want you in my class.' He said, 'Well, I'm in the fourth grade, it will be a while.' "

Sure enough, Spinelli won, but he almost met his match in Christopher.

"He wanted half the car, too," Spinelli said with a laugh. "I said, 'No, you're not getting half the car.' "

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com or 610-313-8123.