Power Lunch: John Lynch
Over a Caesar salad, the former New Hampshire governor describes his unusual trajectory from a Wall Street turnaround expert to the best coach his children ever had to the state’s longest-serving governor.
When he left the job in 2012 after serving eight years as governor of New Hampshire, John Lynch became the only governor in the state’s history to serve four terms. In fact, only two other governors have served even three terms.
If you think that is impressive, consider this. Before running for public office, Lynch worked as a financial adviser and specialized in turning around unprofitable companies. In 1994, the year he joined Knoll Inc. as CEO, the high-end furniture maker was losing $50 million a year. By 1995, Knoll made a profit of $65 million, and went on to make more than $240 million per year.
Since leaving the governor’s office, Lynch has combined his unique skill set, and now, instead of converting companies, he converts students at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business into leaders.
“My courses are totally practical,” Lynch, a Democrat, tells me. “No theory, no spending time on aimless discussions. My goal is, at the end of my course I want students to feel comfortable they could go and run an organization, that they could go be a CEO or a governor, and they certainly should be in a position to evaluate an organization, be it investment banking, mergers and acquisitions, private equity, or whatever.”
But that’s not all he does at Tuck.
“I am not just teaching in the MBA program; I’m also helping to set up an executive education program for public officials all over the country — governors, mayors, department heads and senior staff,” Lynch says. He recently conducted a session for the governor of Maine and completed another assignment for the National League of Cities in Washington. And if that is not enough, he also supervises a number of MBA Fellows at Tuck in the health care field.
Lynch and I met for lunch at the Pine Restaurant at the Hanover Inn, and I was happy to see our server arrive and take our orders when he did. How else to absorb what I’d just learned in the first 10 minutes of our meeting? Orders given: Caesar salad for my trim, high-octane guest, and the Greek spanakopita spinach salad for me.
I take a deep breath and ask Lynch if he always wanted to be a politician, or had he always wanted to be a financial expert, or had he always wanted to be something else?
Lynch was born in Waltham, Mass., grew up in Lynnfield, Mass., and later attended the University of New Hampshire. At UNH, he fell in love with the Granite State. “In fact, when my wife and I got married in 1977, the only stipulation was we were going to live in New Hampshire. Took us 10 years to get back, but we did,” he said.
After UNH, Lynch worked for three years, including a stint with New Hampshire’s senior Sen. Thomas McIntyre. “I didn’t have any interest in business at all,” he tells me. He was headed to law school in 1976 when he encountered John Hennessey, then dean of the Tuck School of Business, who persuaded him to go to business s chool. “I didn’t even know what business school was,” Lynch says with a laugh. “I ended up going to Harvard Business School, then went to law school, and went back and worked at Harvard.”
At Harvard, Lynch started working on corporate turnarounds and mergers and acquisitions. “And I found, to my surprise, that I really loved that work — can you believe it?”
Big name clients such as Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. came his way, and he thrived in his new calling. Above all, he came to recognize that his real forte was people. Lynch realized people made a company, and he made it a point to leave the executive suite as often as he could and be out with employees and customers — a trait he continued when he became governor.
Then, in 2001, his career took a turn. He left the corporate world and began to coach his children in soccer, hockey, softball and baseball. “It is a great way to get to know your kids and their friends,” he told me. “We’d go to tournaments all over the place, and traveled all the time. It was time spent that I never regretted.”
As we work our way through the salads, Lynch moves to the year 2004, and the next crossroad in his life. He had watched New Hampshire’s incumbent Gov. Craig Benson for a while, he said, and came to the conclusion that New Hampshire needed a more effective governor. So he decided to run against him.
“No first-term incumbent governor had been beaten in New Hampshire for 78 years,” Lynch tells me, “but I won!”
By all accounts it was a marriage made in heaven, and after eight years as governor, Lynch left office with his record of success intact. There are three accomplishments of which he is most proud: “saving thousands of jobs at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which was marked for closure by Congress; the state’s management of the terrible 2005 floods in the town of Alstead … and my success in working across the political divide.”
“I even had a Republican campaign chairman when I ran the first time,” Lynch says.
A strong believer in term limits, Lynch in 2012 called it a day and left his governor’s job. He’d been asked to become the first Perkins Bass Distinguished Visitor at Dartmouth’s Rockefeller Center, and that led to an offer to teach at Tuck.
Salads demolished, neither of us are in the mood for coffee. I know my time is up, but there is a chance for a final question.
Lynch has adapted Harvard’s well-known “case study” system to teach his Tuck classes. I was intrigued by one case in which he compares President John F. Kennedy’s non-confrontational decision-making style with that of James Burke, then Johnson & Johnson’s CEO, who made decisions by encouraging no-holds-barred executive confrontations.
“And you know what,” Lynch had said, “Kennedy (by his own admission) failed in the Bay of Pigs episode, while Burke succeeded in saving Tylenol after scores of tainted bottles of the widely used painkiller was discovered.”
I want to dive into this juicy tidbit, but the fast-moving former governor is headed for the exit. I make a mental note to call and see if I can audit his course.