Q&A: Richard Vague

The credit card mogul, energy mogul, arts patron and anti-war activist chats about the Fringe Festival's future and more.

What brought you to the Delaware Valley from Texas?
We were in a credit-card business [First USA Bank] and wanted to expand that operation. There were two places to do that—one was Delaware, and one was South Dakota. We chose Delaware. That was 1987. We started off pretty­ small and ultimately became the largest Visa credit-card issuer in the world.

You founded Juniper Bank in 2000, which became Barclaycard US, and left the industry just before everything fell apart in ’08. Did you have a sense of how bad things would get?
Clearly. We also watched mortgage loans, and in the period from 2001 to 2005, they grew by 85 percent, which was unprecedented. We knew it was going to create issues, but we couldn’t find people within the banking industry who shared our concern.

You’ve made two fortunes—one in credit cards, the next in energy, when you sold Energy Plus for $190 million in September. How’s life with your new venture-capital company, Gabriel Investments?
I find this to be an enormously enjoyable time in business. There’s more creativity and invention than ever in history.

At Energy Plus, your office was the same size as everyone else’s—a cubicle with one drawer.
All the conference rooms had the great views, and all of us employees were in cubicles. It positively impacted the work itself. It was easier to collaborate, it was easier to communicate.

You’re the president of the Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe board. How did you get involved?
Up until the time I went to college, my intention was to be a painter. I got sidetracked and went into business instead, and had a lot of fun, because there’s as much opportunity for creativity in business as anywhere else. But I have always remained an enthusiastic patron of the arts.

Are you concerned the festival could lose its fringey-ness?
That is the enduring dilemma of art—how to keep pushing into the future while at the same time reaching as many people as possible. We believe there is an enormous amount of bleeding-edge art that’s yet to be created here and brought to Philadelphia from around the world.

You’ve also been outspoken against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Department of Defense budget in 2011 was $720 billion. The National Institute of Health budget was only $30 billion. I think there are more lives to be saved, more infrastructure to be built, more debt to be paid down—all of which will bring more positive things than the way we spent this money.

Where did you get the idea for your website, Delanceyplace.com?
I read one or two nonfiction books a week. I found myself sharing anecdotes or excerpts with my friends. With the Internet, there’s a way for me to do that more broadly. I now have about 40,000 subscribers to what is a daily newsletter, an excerpt from a nonfiction book that I read.