Snider Shrugged

What happens when a multimillionaire hockey team owner thinks he has an idea that will save the world? About what you'd expect, but that hasn't stopped Ed Snider …

“It would be so fabulous.” Ed Snider is on his invisible soapbox again, eyes apop with the potential fabulousness of his idea, hands aflutter with excitement. The left hand can’t flit as fast as the right, for it bears the burden of a Stanley Cup ring. All afternoon, he’s been twiddling and twirling the gold, onyx and diamond monstrosity, which is precisely of the voltage and girth you’d expect to see on a sports and entertainment tycoon who, say, owns the Spectrum and the Flyers and who, himself, is estimated to be worth more than 50 million bucks. The ring is emblematic. Snider, fidgety and hard-driven, still lean at 53, sits on the edge of a plump leather couch in the library of his huge Gladwyne house. He sets the ring on a coffee table, spins it like a top, and watches dispassionately as it whirls away. For Ed Snider has something far more important than hockey on his mind. Today, the hockey king is concerned with nothing less than the state of the world. He’s not working the 80-hour weeks anymore, or challenging sportswriters to fist-fights. With the day-to-day operation of the Flyers now in the hands of his son, Jay, and a slew of top-notch lieutenants manning his other businesses, Ed Snider has the time and the resources to funnel his furies into an arena other than the Spectrum. Simply put, these days Ed Snider is out to save the world.

Like automobile king Henry Ford, who sent a boatload of pacifists to Europe in 1915 to stop the war, and financier Bernard Baruch, who proposed in 1946 that both superpowers place their atomic technology under the control of an international authority, and, most lately, like zillionaire developer Donald Trump, who’s offering his deal-making talents to Washington’s arms negotiators, Ed Snider wants to translate his success with business into success with history. He wants, he says, to make America free again, set it back on course, and return it to its 18th- and 19th-century glory days. Snider plans to do all this through philosophy — the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who wrote Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, and whom Snider grew to regard as his close friend and ideological mentor. What Ed Snider wants to do is revamp the economic and political structure of the United States — to see it return to a state of laissez-faire capitalism, where government is just a skeleton and there is no taxation, welfare or government intervention into people’s lives. Snider insists that if he can help spread the word, it may not be too late for America. In fact, he has already started. And he is spreading the dollars around, too — to grease the way for the word. So far he has committed over $1 million to what might be called The Snider Plan. Some might call it crazy, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Snider tried to convince the University of Pennsylvania’s philosophy department to teach Ayn Rand’s philosophy — basically a conglomeration of social Darwinist survival-of-the-fittest, egoism-is-altruism ideas — but he failed. Rebuffed by the philosophy professors, many of whom regard Rand as little more than a quaint, fair-right-wing intellectual curiosity, he has found another way to promote capitalism on campus, with a $1.5 million grant to the Wharton School’s Entrepreneurial Center. Snider has also been working at the national level: He has the prime catalyst in the formation of a national institute to spread Randian philosophy and, since the Ayn Rand Institute opened a year ago this month, has been its primary financial angel. So, Snider’s plan proceeds apace, but still he is not satisfied.

Ed Snider wants a revolution.

INSIGHT COMES at funny times. It came to Ed Snider one day in the midst of a hockey fight. It was in the mid-‘70s, and Snider was at an NHL meeting in Toronto, where club owners were trying to decide what to do about the rival league, the WHA, that had recently started up. This isn’t war, for God’s sake, Snider told his fellow owners. This is just a rival league started by other men like us, men exercising their right to compete. This is America! Well, Toronto maybe, but close enough. Why not just merge the two leagues? He asked. Everyone would profit. But he was surrounded by team owners voting out of emotion, friendship and tradition instead of reason and reality, and his counsel went unheeded. Which frustrated the hell out him. Peter O’Malley, then owner of the Washington Capitals, knew exactly what Snider needed. So he wrote the words “Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand” on a piece of paper, passed it to Ed, and told him to read the book, saying it would make him understand why he always felt so frustrated.

For Snider, reading Atlas Shrugged, a novel of a tycoon battling for his beliefs, was like gazing into a mirror. The ideas Rand’s characters expressed were the same as those that had been dancing around in his own head for years. But Snider never knew how or where he got them, nor could he understand or even defend them if pressed. And he never suspected anyone else shared them, or that, when put all together, they comprised a whole philosophy. He barely knew what philosophy was.

He began studying objectivism, a philosophy that can be boiled down to three words — reason, selfishness and capitalism. According to Rand’s philosophy, reality exists independently of anyone’s beliefs, fears or wishes. Reality, in other words, is objective, thus the name “objectivism.” Since reason is man’s only source of knowledge, Rand says, there is no place for religion, mysticism, skepticism or supernaturalism. Man is a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, and productive achievement as his noblest activity. He must live by his own mind, neither sacrificing himself to others nor vice versa. There’s no room in the objectivist scheme for altruism or welfare. The political extension of Rand’s philosophy is, naturally, free-market, laissez-faire capitalism. It is a philosophy tailor-made for ambitious, wealthy achievers.

Back in 1976, when Snider turned the last of the 1,084 pages of Atlas Shrugged, he knew immediately what he had to do. He dictated a letter to Ayn (rhymes with pine) Rand. “I have recently read Atlas Shrugged,” he began. “It is, without question, the finest book that I have ever read. It clarified fully the principles that guide my life, and I became more aware, as well as more articulate, in expressing my views. I have, in discussing these views, been shocked to learn just how little our young people know about our system. I feel it is important that those of us who firmly believe in capitalism and the free enterprise system create a fully-funded organization that would work to set up a course on ‘Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal’ in every college and university in the United States. This course, if I have my way, will be completely created and designed by you. I am fully prepared to devote considerable time and money to this project. I feel this must be [done] if we are to reverse the present trend in our country.”

It wasn’t long before Snider was off to New York for an audience with Rand. He brought his first two converts, his sons Jay and Craig, with him. During the boys’ previous spring break from college, the Snider family had been lolling in a chartered yacht in the Bahamas. Full of their professors’ ideas, the boys started questioning their father sharply, asking him to defend his success and his belief in capitalism and free enterprise. “What about the starving Biafrans?” they demanded. Snider became furious. Here he was paying for his sons’ tuition, and here these colleges were feeding his kids socialism and communism and anti-capitalism! It was clear to Snider that his sons needed an antidote. And it was clear to him they wouldn’t find it at school. He asked them to read Atlas Shrugged as a summer project. Presto. Two more converts. Or, as Ed put it in that letter to Rand: “The results were even greater than I had possibly hoped. [My sons] now understand completely.”

After Snider’s first meeting with Rand in New York, he was hooked. Afternoons and evenings, they’d sit together in restaurants, cafes or Rand’s apartment, swapping save-the-world schemes. Rand respected self-made men, which Snider, who built much of his mammoth, multi-million dollar Spectacor corporation from scratch, certainly was. Snider, in turn, was thrilled to have his own personal philosopher. “Ayn was warm and charming, the strongest, most brilliant person I’ve ever met,” he says. “She could see things instantly.” One of the things she saw so perceptively, he says, was the decline of the United States, with it’s nuclear arms race, it’s incredible deficits and its staggeringly swelled welfare system. Rand and Snider found themselves quickly agreeing that during its first century-and-a-half the United States had been the greatest country in the world, with its unprecedented amount of individual freedom and its number of technological achievements. They pinpointed the beginnings of its downfall at about the times of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the institution of the Federal Income Tax. Next came welfare and protective tariffs — all of which stripped people of their freedom. The country no longer had one, go-for-it philosophy; it had become a mealy-mouthed mix of socialism and capitalism. Ayn and Ed were not going to take this lying down.

The very notions of taxation and the welfare state struck them as irksome and immoral. “What I want to know is, who gave anybody the right to take money from one group of people and give it to another?” Snider asks today, eyes hardening, voice punctuating every syllable. When he talks about politics or objectivism, he undergoes a subtle transformation. His cheeks tum red, his eyes harden and the skin below them pales. There is, quite clearly, a fury inside. “As for welfare, the Declaration of Independence says people have the right to the pursuit of happiness. It doesn’t say they have the right to happiness. There’s a difference. It doesn’t guarantee a chicken in every pot. It says you have the right to go out and earn that chicken.” According to Snider’s philosophy, sturdy achievers, once freed from the burden of taxation, would voluntarily choose to take care of the charity-worthy people such as the elderly, handicapped and mentally ill, all of whom had previously been under the government’s wing. As for other welfare categories, well, the new system would be a marvelous incentive for getting them to hit that objectivist goal of becoming noble, heroic achievers-regardless of race, color, creed or national origin. While in Ayn Rand’s company, Snider did a lot of dreaming about this heady brand of Utopia. But soon it was time to stop dreaming and talking, and to achieve it. The solution seemed obvious to Snider: Simply get the philosophy department at a major, prestigious university to teach objectivism. When he mentioned this to Rand, she smiled a Buddha’s knowing Smile. She was, by then, familiar with the hostility with which attempts to introduce her largely right-wing ideas into the nation’s largely left-wing faculties were met. But Snider, flushed with his characteristic confidence, was sure he could do it. He sent a proposal to the University of Pennsylvania, offering to underwrite a course or a series of lectures. (Rand had told him It must not be a chair, for if they had to pay their way into the university, it wouldn’t mean a thing.) Rand’s disciple, Leonard Peikoff, would teach the course. They also decided to have Peikoff beat the drums for the course with a previous lecture on the Penn campus.

But the objectivists hardly found a smooth path at Penn. Snider had lunch one day in the faculty club with some top administrators, to plead his case. A lot of young people don’t really know what capitalism is, he argued. They can’t even define it. They think it’s a dirty word. When the administrators told him that the university teaches about all kinds of economic systems and doesn’t give heightened importance to one over any other, Snider blew up. “That’s what you do and that’s what’s wrong,” he thundered. “Capitalism is what this country is supposed to be all about and was for 140 years, and it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence. And now here are some other forms, like facism and totalitarianism. If we’re going to fight the communists in negotiations, we have to know what we’re all about.”

He took a breath. Then he noticed that his table-mates were looking at him as if he were crazy.

After a year-and-a-half of negotiating, Snider’s efforts were turned down by Penn officials. The party line was that the university does not accept money in exchange for agreeing to teach or promote one set of ideas. Besides, many of the philosophy professors privately felt that Rand wasn’t that much of a philosopher.

College philosophy departments, Snider is convinced, have become bastions of left-leaning liberals who support the ideas of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. The problem, says Snider, is that Kant’s ideas about the unknowableness of the world (as opposed to Rand’s opposite notion) are anti-life and anti-reality. When Ed Snider talks this way, it’s clear it’s more than empty maundering on abstruse philosophical notions. These ideas are at the center of his world. They fire him up. And sometimes, well, he gets overheated. “I see Kant as the primary philosophical evil force in the world,” says Snider, his face reddening, eyes narrowed to slits. “His ideas have helped destroy the Western world and everything we should believe in.” Snider shakes his fist, vaguely in the direction of Kant, then leans forward. “These ideas were developed in Germany by a German — and you see what happened there!

SO. IT WAS turning out just as Ayn Rand had predicted. Penn wanted no part of Snider’s worldly philosophy. But one Ivy League rejection couldn’t dim his excitement about the capitalist revolution. Universities be damned; he would start his own institution to spread the word. He told Rand what he wanted to do. But she wouldn’t hear of such a thing while she was alive. She wasn’t interested in educating the masses, didn’t want to take time off from writing, and didn’t want anyone to think her philosophy was some kind of cult. She also didn’t want to be in the position of having either to endorse such an institute or repudiate it. So the idea was put on the back burner until 1982, the year Rand died, at age 77.

Snider could wait no longer. He sought to convince the nation’s leading objectivists to help him begin, but they were skeptical. He flew a handful of them to a suite in New York to see if they couldn’t come up with some kind of plan or program. He kept them there for two days, around the clock. Finally, they thrashed out the structure for an institute (which they blessed with the unwieldy name The Ayn Rand Institute: The Center for the Advancement of Objectivism), the funding (Snider and others guaranteed the costs of the operating budget for the first three years), and the location (Los Angeles, near Peikoff and executive director Michael Berliner). Snider was hardly the first to try to formalize the objectivist movement. A small core of Randians had existed since her books had first come out. Over half a million copies are sold a year, and there are a number of objectivist organizations and clubs throughout the United States. There is even a movie version of Atlas Shrugged in development. Others had tried to form an institute of some kind. But, as Peikoff points out, Snider was the first objectivist to offer both money and a concrete plan.

The Institute opened its doors a year ago, determined to make the philosophy into a force. Snider, Peikoff, and a board of other objectivists including Snider’s son, Flyers president Jay Snider, decided their first program would be one that appealed directly to young people: an annual high-school essay contest on The Fountainhead, Rand’s novel on the ideals of individualism. “The idea here was to attract the brightest kids while they were still receptive to new ideas, and give them food for thought. Then, hopefully, some would go on to places like Harvard, get powerful positions in government and become the next Henry Kissingers and Zbigniew Bryzinskis, with enough power to really change the system. ” The contest offered big money, to be used by these future Kissingers and Bryzinskis toward college tuition: ·one $5,000 prize, five $1,000 and ten $500 prizes-and all this for a measly little four-page essay. The contest flyer, mailed in October to 26,000 public and private North American high schools, simply asked that students write on one of three suggested topics, mainly dealing with how the characters’ motives and actions dramatize the theme of individualism. (So far, Pennsylvania’s Department of Education is one of only two in the country that have agreed to publicize this contest. The institute is working with Clyde McGeary, who is chief of the division of arts and sciences. He also happens to be the father of Ed Snider’s second wife .)

Meanwhile, as Snider was struggling to create this institute to promote free enterprise and capitalism, he was also channeling funds toward perhaps the area’s staunchest bastion of capitalism: the Wharton School at Penn. Ever since his father, Sol, had died in 1974, just two months before the Flyers’ first Stanley Cup, Snider had been saving his money, searching for the proper memorial. Two years ago, he asked Spectacor chairman Fred Shabel to investigate potential gift opportunities — perhaps something at the University of Pennsylvania to promote free enterprise or capitalism and honor Sol Snider. The first thing Shabel came back with after lunching with Wharton Dean Russell Palmer and director of Wharton development Leonard Stachitas was the idea of donating money to the Wharton Entrepreneurial Center, a sort of hothouse for growing baby tycoons. Snider agreed last summer, after weeks of negotiating, to donate $1.5 million to the center. About $1 million of it will be used to support the center, already renamed the Sol C. Snider Entrepreneurial Center. The other half-million will provide the basis for a venture capital fund for promising students to start their own businesses. As Snider noted in the press release issued at the time of the gift, managing to squeeze in a touch of the old zealot’s fire, his donation recognized that Wharton was “on the right track in producing the kind of innovative managers required in this rapidly changing business environment . . . to see that [our economic system’s] detractors cannot undermine the ideal of our founding fathers.”

FUNDING AN ENTREPRENEURIAL center fit Snider perfectly. He felt he owed so much of who and what he was to entrepreneurship. As a teenager in Washington D.C., he lived the stuff. His family was moderately well-to-do, thanks to his father, himself the son of a fruit-peddler, who had in the view of his son, brains, gumption, and the immigrant’s desire to be successful in his new country. Ed talks of little Sol Snider, age 5, out on the streets, peddling newspapers. Later, Sol opened a grocery store, which soon became a supermarket, then three supermarket s. Next came a merger with other small market owners to form a 19-store chain. Not satisfied with success in one area, Sol quickly opened a bank, an appliance store, a nightclub, a real estate firm-even a diaper service. Ed Snider says he picked up a lot of things from his father. Most important, though, were an independent streak and a deeply felt sense of self-confidence. “A fish stinks from the head,” Sol frequently told the boy, citing an old Russian proverb. The message was that a company can be only as good as its leader.

Like some inspired character out of an Ayn Rand novel, Ed Snider set out to become a leader, a captain of industry, a tycoon. His first job seemed an unlikely one for a budding Mr. Big. In 1955, after marrying his childhood sweetheart and graduating from the University of Maryland, he took a job as an accountant. His first assignment was to balance the books of a gas station owner, who was making what seemed to Snider a huge sum: $25,000. The young accountant quickly calculated that if a lowly gas station owner could make that much, a college-trained accountant could certainly do better. He quit after just one week. Scratching for ideas, searching for a business, he heard of a wholesaler who had a lot of bad phonograph records to sell cheaply. So he bought them up, and sold them out of the trunk of his car to supermarkets and discount stores. The record business bloomed. At about the same time, Snider met, through his brother-in-law, a young builder named Jerry Wolman. The two became good friends. Snider had just sold his business when Wolman and Snider’s brother-in-law successfully bid for the Philadelphia Eagles. In 1963, Snider the accountant moved north to Philadelphia to run the team’s finances.

While still working with the Eagles, he heard that the National Hockey League was looking to expand to more than six teams. Snider put together a $2 million bid to bring a team to Philadelphia for the 1967-’68 season. Snider himself had no hockey experience, at a time when everyone was predicting that the sport would never catch on in Philadelphia. On paper, Snider would have 25 percent of the team, as would his friend Jerry Wolman, as well as banker Bill Putnam (who helped Wolman finance the Eagles) and a second Snider brother-in-law, Jerry Schiff. Getting a franchise was dependent on building an arena for the team play in, so Wolman agreed to put up an ice palace for $12 million. The deal was that he would own it, and the city would get extra revenue without spending a dime. But six months after the Wolman group started construction, Wolman and Snider had a major blowup over finances, and parted ways. Snider got the Flyers; Wolman got the Spectrum.

Just as Snider had predicted, the town did take to hockey, and fast. Flushed with early success, Snider was hardly a man expecting the roof to cave in. It didn’t; it blew off. It was during an Ice Capades show in 1968, to be exact, that a large piece of the Spectrum roof gave way in high winds. Wolman’s finances soon followed. Hoping to hold on to the Eagles and the Spectrum, Wolman asked Snider to mortgage the Flyers. But Snider turned him down, explaining the team was his idea from the inception and he wasn’t about to give it up. So Wolman put his football team up for sale, and it ended up in Leonard Tose’s hands.

Snider’s finances almost crumbled along with that Spectrum roof, too. Luckily, the Flytirs went into the black, and by 1972 Snider was in good shape again. He was able to ransom the Spectrum from federal bankruptcy court by paying off the arena’s debt of more than $8 million. At the time, everyone thought the deal was a bad one for Snider, but he pushed on. Perhaps sensing it might not find another taker like
Snider, the city negotiated what turned but to be, for Snider, a fantastic deal: a 50-year lease to operate the arena for only $1,250 a month, no real estate taxes, and a major chunk of the profits from the nearby city parking lot.

All this was the beginning of what would become Spectacor, a mammoth, privately held sports, marketing and entertainment kingdom that, last fiscal year, according to chairman Fred Shabal, grossed $84 million. It is comprised of the Spectrum and its dining club, Ovations, the Flyers, SpectaGuard (a security and ushering service), Spectacor Management (an arena and convention managing, marketing and consulting firm that manages the Spectrum, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and several others) and Showcase Stores (which sell sports and entertainment tickets and merchandise such as Flyers T-shirts and cups). The company used to include Snider’s regional pay-TV brainchild, PRISM, but he sold his interest to Twentieth Century Fox three years ago for a reported eight-figure sum.

Spectacor would make a lot of money for Ed Snider, the entrepreneur — but it would not make him happy, not completely. For that, he felt he needed to follow his gut and fully embrace objectivism.

His second wife, Martha, 28, has been am ardent objectivist since she was 16. They discuss the philosophy all the time, she says. In a closet behind his secretary’s desk at Spectacor, Snider keeps a stack of Rand’s books, which he eagerly hands out. Snider’s philosophy has also found its way into his business decisions. This winter, the Soviet Red Army hockey team toured the United States, playing the National Hockey League teams. The take at the Spectrum turnstiles would have been excellent. But Snider decided the Flyers would not play the Reds. In fact, he doesn’t want any Russian events at the Spectrum anymore. After all, objectivism is diametrically opposed to the way the Soviet Union’s political system denies individuals’ freedom. Three years ago, Snider had proposed a Super Series between the NHL champion and the Soviet champion. But a few months ago, after talking with his son Jay and with objectivist Leonard Peikoff, he changed his mind. “It’s a question of taking a stand for freedom, of putting morality ahead of hockey,” he says. “We legitimize the Russians by competing with them and giving them a status they don’t deserve, as criminals, any more than Hitler deserved when he hosted the Olympics in the’30s. This isn’t a political decision; it’s a moral one.”

NOW SUNK LOW in the big leather couch in his library, Ed Snider continues to spin his Stanley Cup ring on the table top, continues to dream of Utopia. If Sol Snider and his father the fruit-peddler were alive today to take a tour of this huge house that entrepreneurism built, they’d say Utopia was already his. They’d see Snider’s stunning second wife Martha, a painter 25 years his junior. They’d see his cherub-faced 8-month-old baby girl, Sarena. And they could hardly miss the truck loaded with the authentic 17th- and 18th- century period furniture shipped in from France that right now is making a delivery to Snider’s front door. All is noise and confusion as the workers unload the riches of Europe into the Main Line house of the fruit-peddler’s grandson. Ayn Rand’s eager disciple is so driven by his vision of what must be done, he ignores the chaos around him and continues to dream aloud. He hasn’t run out of ideas yet. An objectivist magazine, like Time or Newsweek but written from an objectivist angle, he says, would be fabulous. Or maybe a TV talk show, with Leonard Peikoff as the host. “Heeere’s Len!” Slowly, predictably, the skin beneath Ed Snider’s eyes pales. But his fervor does not. He is not satisfied. He’s looking for the philosophy to end all philosophies: Ed Snider will not quit until he has made the world safe for meritocracy.