Peek into Philly’s Business Culture in the 1980s

It was a simpler time when you smoked cigarettes at your desk and there were no buildings taller than City Hall.

Yuppies were so 80s. (Ysbrand Cosijn/Shutterstock)

Yuppies were so 80s. (Not a photo of the author.) (Ysbrand Cosijn/Shutterstock)

Next time you hear a middle-aged guy carping about how doing business in Philadelphia is nothing like it was back in the 1980s, you can respond by saying: “Thank God.”

I began my career in 1982 with a consulting/publishing firm — and looking back I can see Philadelphia was a cultural and commercial backwater.

I made about $215 dollars a week, and — as was the style at the time — behaved like a master of the universe. I smoked cigarettes at my desk, leaned back in my chair, and talked on the phone about IPOs while low-paid workers shined my shoes.

On my boss’ birthday, a stripper came in during the party and gave him a lap dance. Yes, about a third of the staff was female. The receptionists’ desk served as the bar.

Going to the men-only Union League for luncheons and whatnot, I always used the 15th Street entrance where there were always women sitting on the steps of its wide staircase having lunch, many of them attorneys. I later learned this was a form of protest over the Unions League’s membership policy.

Think Philly is gritty now? It was super gritty in the 80s. No building was taller than the William Penn statue atop City Hall, and this created a ghetto of boxy, faceless and uninspiring office buildings west of Broad Street. The restaurant revolution led by places like Frög and Elan was, after a good run, stumbling badly. The neighborhoods enjoying revival today were war zones. Northern Liberties? Kensington? Forget about it.

At the time, there was a nascent venture capital industry and it was driven by people long forgotten, dead or both. Looking back 30 years later, I attribute the work they did as largely responsible for the flourishing business community we have on our hands today.  The 1,121-foot-tall, state-of-the-art Comcast Innovation and Technology Center going up west of Broad Street is, for now anyway, a fitting monument to these efforts.

Back then, Comcast was a sleepy family business flipping cable systems for a profit. But the cables being laid in Philadelphia at the time turned out to be the backbone of the Internet. And the talent pool that was fueled by a nascent venture capital industry provided Comcast with technology and a pool of entrepreneurs that are now fueling its dominance and billions in profits.

There were others too. Centocor, in Malvern, now part of Johnson & Johnson and founded by visionary entrepreneur Hubert Schoemaker took in billions of venture capital and spawned a biotechnology cluster generating untold health and wealth.

Safeguard Scientifics, led by Pete Musser out in Wayne, Pa. was another. No one understood Safeguard’s business model, but nonetheless it was spitting out companies like Novell, which in the process made something like a billion dollars for shareholders, and some this new wealth was recycled back into other emerging growth companies.

And the rabbit warren of Safeguard companies in Wayne and the western suburbs produced Radnor Venture Partners which in turn produced the Technology Leader venture funds which, along with a host of other venture investors, put billions at risk here and elsewhere.

The way things looked in 1982, I would have never predicted today’s scene in Philadelphia. I’m happy for the phalanx of young workers now walking the streets listening to their ear buds and toting backpacks instead of wooden-framed faux leather briefcases.

In my naïveté at the time, I didn’t recognize the vision of business and government leaders. I was doing everything I could to get to ‘the show’ in New York City. But what those leaders wrought turned out to be something quite real and quite wonderful.

I’m glad I never left Philly.

David Evanson is a local financial consultant and writer. Find out more about him here.