Fifteen businesses Philadelphia should poach from the suburbs and how they might

In a Technically Philly Entrance Exam back in March, Wil Reynolds called for reminding suburban companies of the value of being in the city: transit, regional hub, talent, quality of life, innovation and the like.

In truth, large companies followed their employees to the suburbs in the 20th century for many of those same reasons, in addition to space and taxes. I wonder if these companies would ever follow their employees back into cities. It’s tricky as Mayor Michael Nutter has repeatedly said during his tenure that he won’t compete with the region for business, and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Economy League have been built up around lobbying for the region, not for the city in particular.

I, too, believe in the strength of the region, but I think it’s disingenuous to ignore that Philly is both the region’s face to the world and its driving force, so Philly is the hub and everything after is ancillary. Fundamentally, I believe a strong region starts with a vibrant city. That means jobs to me. (Philly and Pittsburgh each have five Fortune 500 businesses headquartered there)

When I look at Philadelphia regional employers of large size, I can’t help but think of courting them for Philadelphia locations. It makes my blood curdle when I think of Philadelphia leaders who transplanted from homes in, say, New York but upon relocating here, they go to the ‘burbs. Admittedly, there are a lot of cultural and perception issues that go along with that, but I think jobs and high-profile businesses is a big part of that. So I got to thinking how you’d pitch these companies… and why it might never work.

Below is my list of businesses to chase and dissection of how.

The overall Whys for various types of companies

  • People — It’s a big city, so while there are real concerns about union limitations and education, there are people here and one of the densest regions in the country, so there is a real case to be made. There are also some numbers that might tell a lot about the future of Philadelphia.
  • Regional transit hub — Great access to the entire region by train and bus
  • Eastern seaboard hub — In the middle of D.C. and Baltimore and New York and Boston.
  • Affordable — With all the notions above, for now, Philly is considered affordable and able to be shaped in ones desired image.

Some companies that come to mind:

  1. Vanguard — The Valley Forge financial services giant has clients from around the world, so location becomes even less important. However, if Philadelphia would again be seen as a hub of corporate clients, perhaps a satellite office to ease meetings and acquisition would be possible. It also might help being a train from D.C. and NYC clients.
  2. NCO FinancialProfiled in 2008 by Philadelphia magazine, one of the largest debt-collection companies in the country, needs talent to train. There could be real impact with the right training and outreach here.
  3. 6ABC and NBC 10 — Two of the region’s five network affiliates have new digs on the suburban fringe of City Line Avenue. What a different world it would be if they shared their studio windows with the streets of Philadelphia, like Fox 29 does and, to a lesser extent, CBS 3 does.
  4. Radio stations — WXTU 92.5 and other stations also hug¬† the Bala Cynwyd area, though TV antenna find success in the Roxborough area and, even better, these advertising-dominated stations should be thinking about front-facing clubs or music venues to fit their genre. Yes, 92.5 should have a country line western bar on the waterfront, and yes, a hip hop station should be attached to a club, in my mind, and they should all be in Philly.
  5. NFL Films – One of its voices, Harry Kalas, was a legend of Philadelphia, which also happens to be home to one of the original football teams, so since its HQ are currently in South Jersey, isn’t it time to make it a far more visible Center City staple — right on Market East, I say! — with its merchandising and experience build out to boot.
  6. More federal government offices — The U.S. Government employs approximately 52,000 people in the region. This includes employees at the Federal Reserve Bank, U.S. Mint, U.S. District Court, Internal Revenue Service and U.S. military. But, hey, departments of the government that need to navigate Washington D.C. and the New York should realize this is the hub you want.
  7. Dupont and MBNA — Unfortunately it isn’t rational to think of prying their headquarters from the tax haven that is Wilmington, Del., but could a conversation begin for a major facilities based in Philly for talent access? Think of their tax status being based in Delaware but having major facilities here to utilize college programs here. In the city to the northeast, NBC Universal moved many of its departments to New Jersey, where the real estate was friendlier than Manhattan, but boy do they keep the higher profile jobs in town for the meaning.
  8. Christiana Healthcare — Also based in Wilmington so the same challenges as above exist, but Philly could make the case for being the capital of healthcare business. That could push Tenet Health Systems, a large employer in region but based in Dallas and Crozer-Keystone Health System, based in small Upland, Pa., to have offices in Philly to have proximity to the conversation.
  9. Pfizer, Wyeth, Merck — Based in the suburbs (Merck headquarted in Whitehouse Station, N.J.), Philadelphia, with its healthcare push, could make the case for its old eds and meds focus, meaning pharma should also be based in the city, or at least have offices to do business.
  10. Johnson & Johnson — Based in New Brunswick and with offices in ‘burbs, I knew a pair of Temple grads who lived in Philly and drove up to their offices. Young talent wants to be in Philly, so executive offices should have a place here. …..Right?
  11. Commerce Bank — The South Jersey brand should come to town to help be seen and grow as a bigger player. They can bang with Beneficial, the largest bank based in Philadelphia. Update: Commerce Bank, of course, was bought out by TD Bank in fall 2008, so this is a silly mistake. H/T Jen Miller
  12. AlliedBarton — Based in Conshohocken, the security guard firm does a lot business in Philly. It would be great to see some of their executives with offices in Philly.
  13. Lockheed Martin — The military and security contract development firm has offices in King of Prussia (and Moorestown, N.J.) and elsewhere in the region. Largely, they’re looking for space and high-level talent — two areas Philly, like most cities is weak — so I fall back on the value of brains, regional dispersion, state support and, yes, direct train access to D.C.
  14. QVC — Based in West Chester, a TV shopping network needs a Center City backdrop to help make it seem more elegant and destination driven. Broaden your experience, QVC, so those Old City tourists could walk past the glass windows and see your studios, and all the wares being sold at that moment.
  15. Men’s Health, TV Guide and the Ring Magazine — Men’s Health in Emmaus (Updated: Also has offices in, yes, you guessed it, new publishing capital NYC), TV Guide in Radnor and The Ring also in the suburbs could pull on stronger writing talent more personally here, have the cache of an old publishing town and, with both, have some authenticity. Philly seems like a better place for the modern man than Emmaus, in my opinion, and certainly Philly has among the richest boxing traditions in the world. In this same spirit, I always look questionably at the Broad Street Publishing Group, responsible for several community news weeklies in Philadelphia neighborhoods, because it’s based in suburban Trevose, Pa., and any other marketing or other media shop that caters to big city clientele.
  16. [Updated] Rita’s and Acme — Two food brands from the region that now have suburban addresses (though to be clear, Rita’s was always suburban). Your innovative talent of the future is here, so come back. I think the Philly brand is a good one to have in the future, particularly for food. That’s something we’ve always done right. Specific to Rita’s, I’ve always wanted Market East to be the loud part of Center City, full of the landmark locations of regional brands like Rita’s, and a Chickie and Pete’s, for example, where administrative offices could also be.
  17. [Updated] Contractors who chase city work — There are residency requirements of city workers and limitations for minority contracts and city-based businesses, but so often I see suburban work trucks involved in projects both private and public in nature that I wonder if there’s not something others have succeeded in growing the hometown base.

Overall, I see a couple most likely themes: healthcare and welcoming back industries that moved to the suburbs but were once here, like publishing.

Center City is a natural hub and the Navy Yard is becoming an interesting hub of its own. The real concern is top-level talent right now is still mostly of a generation that fled to the suburbs. Those who are coming back to cities en masse are still younger and less experienced.

So in the future, will this generation too break toward the ‘burbs and continue white flight, or have we seen a real shift and could that shift help grow new businesses and, yes, welcome back those we’ve lost?

I’m still excited for the future, and think it will be kind to Philadelphia.

4 thoughts on “Fifteen businesses Philadelphia should poach from the suburbs and how they might”

  1. Now that’s a good addition, indeed. The handful of meaningful VC firms in the region are decidedly suburban. We haven’t given the real value proposition for the need of proximity to startups in the city. Yet.

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