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Business Programs professor brings rich background to the classroom

Campus News | Monday, April 1, 2024

Photo of DonaldsonHog farming is big business, and that line of work didn’t muddy the water for Duane Donaldson regarding his career choice – it reinforced it. Donaldson is among the tenured faculty in Columbus State’s Business Programs department, and it was the humble beginnings on his family’s hog farm in Continental, Ohio, where his interest in finance and business took root.

The farm – in the northwest part of the state – had been in the family for several generations when Donaldson grew up. His dad ran an auto body shop during the day and helped run the farm outside business hours. His mom took care of the farm and body shop finances, along with those of the family budget. It was there around the kitchen table in 1977 where 12-year-old Donaldson sat and helped. “As she laid out the home budget, mom would show me how much we had for food, utilities, and household goods and, therefore, why we might have to wait to buy new basketball shoes and more. That was my introduction to finance.”

The family had moved into a two-story house converted years earlier from a turn-of-the-century one-room schoolhouse. The structure was on the family farm. There were four boys, one girl, and two adults living in a four-bedroom, one-bath house. The move to farm in his youth brought them to the center of the family business after having lived 30 minutes away.  With the grandparents just across the road on their farm and an uncle, aunt, and six cousins just ¼ mile down the road, they had a large but close extended family network.

Donaldson’s interest in finance went hand-in-hand with his ninth-grade business math class. The class included learning about checkbooks, paying bills, and running a small business, among other topics. While in high school, Donaldson took a more active role in the family business by helping his mother do payroll, take inventory at the body shop, balancing the books, and preparing annual tax returns. Upon graduation, he was the valedictorian in his class.

Being independent financially was crucial during his college days as his dad had just purchased the family auto body shop as well as the grandparent’s farm, so money was tight. A partial academic scholarship to Bowling Green State University (BGSU) was a big help. He worked a couple of years at the campus post office during the school year, then a couple of years as a resident assistant to help cover tuition. Each summer, he worked on the farm and at the auto body shop. All of those jobs helped him graduate debt-free.

With BGSU having one of the nation’s top business schools, Donaldson landed a position in Toledo at Ernst & Young – one of the “Big 8” accounting firms. After six years of working as an auditor and in litigation support at the firm, it was time to move on.

Donaldson received an offer from Findley Davies, a regional employee benefits consulting firm, to oversee internal operations. The position was nearly identical to that of a chief financial officer. There were 40 people in two Ohio offices when he began. Over the course of seven years, he helped expand it to 120 employees in six offices in multiple states.

Then Hancor of Findlay made an offer in 1999. Donaldson was now a controller at that company, at least until the sudden bubble burst. After 51 weeks, he was laid off along with many others at Hancor, as many companies were downsizing during the recession.

With the help of a college friend, he quickly found a position as chief financial officer at Blanchard Valley Healthcare in Findlay. At that point, Donaldson also began working on his MBA at BGSU. The job was on a contract basis at first, but soon, he found himself working full-time as the chief financial officer. Over the next five years, he oversaw a new $200 million hospital financed with 90% debt, construction of a long-term care facility, and many other projects.

Never one to pass up an opportunity, the retired CEO from the healthcare system came calling. They needed an adjunct business instructor for a healthcare revenue class meeting one night a week. While initially apprehensive, having never taught before, he jumped in to try it out. It was a good match. Donaldson says that the CFO position at the hospital helped in his part-time teaching career. “I learned corporate finance at that job along with corporate structure and strategy, which was able to use all of that in classes.”

After a few years, with two young boys at home, Donaldson says he wanted a better work-life balance. He now had an MBA in hand and was ready to reduce the office hours required of a CFO. An accounting firm – Steyer Huber - needed a public and corporate operations manager at the Findley branch, for which he was a perfect fit.

While settling in there, a business opportunity presented itself. In a complicated transaction, Donaldson used his prior healthcare relationships to put together a deal to become the majority owner of Hanco EMS – an ambulance company. Although he became highly leveraged taking over the small business, there was a financial safety net: The hospital he had once worked at backed the transaction by being a co-signer and minority owner with Donaldson.  

Since Donaldson only oversaw Hanco’s day-to-day operations – the ambulance company had just 45 employees – he didn’t have to put in long hours, which allowed him to get involved in other community and business opportunities. At this time, Donaldson was asked to teach adjunct at BGSU, his alma mater. Donaldson taught accounting courses for over six years while continuing his full-time career.

After selling Hanco EMS to the hospital years later (which had the first right-of-refusal as part of the initial transaction) in 2015, another CFO position followed for four years. Then, in 2019, a family friend told him about an opening for a full-time tenure-track position at Columbus State.

Tired of corporate business after over 30 years in the industry and a recent empty nester, Donaldson applied and was hired to start as a Business Programs assistant professor for Autumn Semester 2019. It was a perfect fit with his years of prior experience as an adjunct.

This past year, a unique program geared toward students in the Business Programs degree track began evolving. It’s known as “The Business Community.” In a nutshell, it is designed to get students to understand early on what is required in the business community to be successful. It allows them to ensure they are on the correct career path to meet their goals and to network early on with local business professionals.

The Nationwide Apprenticeship Program started in the fall of 2020 with Columbus State business faculty members Charla Fraley and Donaldson, along with various Columbus State administrators who worked for over a year with Nationwide professionals. As the apprenticeship program grew, a speaker's panel developed. From that panel, the Vice-President of Finance at Nationwide, Phil Pennino, met Donaldson to provide live class presentations.

The Business Community was created when Phil Pennino approached Donaldson with a desire for a business “fraternity’ so students could engage directly with industry professionals, as he and Donaldson had done in college. Pennino wanted to create a mentorship opportunity for Columbus State business students to learn firsthand about their potential career paths. After an initial event in late 2023, 35 students requested information. The initial Business Community event was held in March 2024 with nearly 100 participants, of which nearly 80 were Columbus State students, a tremendous beginning sprouting from a great idea from a local business executive.

Even though it’s still in the early stages, Deloitte has also signed on as a partner. Donaldson expects other companies in health care, technology, banking, investments, construction, and government to join The Business Community program as it scales up. It is projected to eventually attract 200 or more students annually.

“After dedicating decades of my professional life to business in the healthcare field, I am now a full-time educator who wants to help the next generation of business leaders,” said Donaldson. “Not being afraid is the best way to get started. Students don’t know what they don’t know,” says Donaldson. The Business Community student club will allow students to discover their own career pathway(s) and shed light on the many opportunities they have in front of them. And, he says, “It all starts with education.



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