Monday, October 5, 2015

POSTED: Friday, October 2, 2015, 12:12 PM
Cooper-Booth facilities were used by an organization headed by Ocean City, Md.-based Basel Ramadan, who prosecutors said shipped $55 million worth of low-taxed Virginia cigarettes to markets in high-tax New York City using Cooper-Booth's distribution network and a Delaware warehouse. (Reuters file photo / Michaela Rehle)

Convenience-store distributor Cooper-Booth Wholesale Co. LP has exited bankruptcy and 200 staff have kept their jobs at the company's Mountville, Lancaster County-based facilities, two years after the government forced it into bankruptcy following a New York State cigarette-smuggling investigation.

Cooper-Booth facilities were used by an organization headed by Ocean City, Md.-based Basel Ramadan, who prosecutors said shipped $55 million worth of low-taxed Virginia cigarettes to markets in high-tax New York City using Cooper-Booth's distribution network and a Delaware warehouse. Ramadan was convicted earlier this week of 198 New York State charges, including enterprise corruption, money laundering and tax offenses.

PNC Bank froze Cooper-Booth's accounts at the government's request, cancelling its line of credit and surety bond access and forcing it to file for protection from its unpaid creditors under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code. Agents eventually seized $1.5 million from the company's accounts, but did not press charges against the middleman. Cooper-Booth said it had no knowledge of illegal activity.

POSTED: Friday, October 2, 2015, 11:36 AM
Job opening listings are distributed during a job fair for the homeless at the Los Angeles Mission in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles, California. (REUTERS / David McNew)

Disappointing summer job growth -- just 142,000 in September, vs. predictions above 200,000; plus "deeply negative" revisions showing lower-than-previously-reported hiring in August and July -- is one sign that "weakness in the global economy is washing onto American shores," writes James Marple, economist at TD Bank, in a report to borrowers.

It's not just factories, where hiring slipped to a five-year low. Professional-services and warehouse hiring was flat, too; mining hires kept falling with the prices of metals and energy; wages were flat; hours are down a bit. "This is beginning to look like a trend," Marple concludes, adding it makes the Fed less likely to boost interest rates this year.  

September's unemployment rate stayed at 5.1%, same as in August and the lowest since 2008. Marple notes the workforce is growing more slowly and "labor participation" is down as masses of Baby Boomers retire: "Demographic pressures are beginning to impinge on job growth." Economist Bill Dunkelberg, for Boenning & Scattergood in West Conshohocken, looked at the same data and called it "solid," adding that small businesses are still having a tough time finding workers at current wages. 

POSTED: Friday, October 2, 2015, 10:10 AM
In what could be the first step toward changing how insurance claims are handled in the future, Erie Insurance has moved from testing to actually using a drone to assist with a property damage claim. (Video still from Erie Insurance /

Erie Insurance, one of Pennsylvania's largest home and auto coverage companies, says it has used its first drone to review homeowner claims -- on two residential roofs in Waterford, a small town in the Lake Erie snowbelt (where homeowners are constantly begging compensation for roofs split by ice, snow buid-up and fallen trees) near the company's headquarters. Video here.

Does the company expect machines will work cheaper or more accurately than human claims adjusters? "We see drones as a happy marriage between technology and the human touch," offers Erie vice president Gary Sullivan in a statement. Drones are good at taking "clear and detailed images of property in difficult to access areas," which makes work easier for human adjusters and Erie clients "without putting themselves in harm's way." 

Erie was among the first wave of insurance companies to get Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly drones last Spring, as I noted here. While big national insurers have promoted drones to review and anticipate claims in industrial and agricultural locations, Erie says it may be the first to apply the flying robots to residential claims.

POSTED: Thursday, October 1, 2015, 5:09 PM
The proposed "Live! Hotel and Casino."

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission plans a Special Meeting next Tuesday, Oct. 6, 1:30 p.m., upstairs at 1515 Arch St., to review and take action on plans for the "Live! Hotel and Casino" master plan for the proposed site around the current Holiday Inn, 900 Packer Ave. (at Darien St.) near the stadiums and I-95 and the Walt Whitman Bridge.

More on the initial Live! proposal here. Highlights: the $400 million project as previously proposed would be open 24 hours/7 days. It would include 2,000 slot machines and 125 table games in a 200,000 square foot building, plus the renovated "world-class hotel" with 220 rooms. Besides gambling and sleeping over, the owners promise "dining, music, (entertainment) venue."

Owners are Greenwood Racing Inc. (it owns Parx Casino in Bensalem and formerly the Atlantic City Race Course ) and principals led by founder and chairman Robert Greene and chief executive Anthony Ricci; and Cordish Co. of Baltimore, which runs the nearby Xfinity Live! restaurant complex for Comcast, among other sites around the U.S.

POSTED: Wednesday, September 30, 2015, 1:02 PM

Foster Friess, the former Chads Ford resident, Brandywine Fund investment manager and conservative Christian contributor who (with Richard Mellon Scaife) helped elect Rick Santorum as a Pennsylvania U.S. Senator and later failed to oust Joe Biden before he could become Vice President, has joined the chorus endorsing U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, to replace John Boehner as Speaker of the House of Representatives, in hope of healing, if not America, at least the Republican Party.

McCarthy is a "conciliatory, persuasive" communicator, Friess opines. He says McCarthy is the type more likely to "reallocate" federal funds to women's clinics that don't do abortions, instead of merely "defunding" Planned Parenthood. Which doesn't mean he's soft on GOP issues: "Conservatives like him for his 100% rating from the National Right to Life Committee and National Rifle Assocaition." McCarthy also enjoys cred for voting "against the two big bank bailouts and the auto bailout." 

In sum, writes Friess, "we all need to support his efforts to bring Tea Party and Establishment wings of Republicans together" and even to embrace any like-minded Democrats. 

POSTED: Wednesday, September 30, 2015, 11:35 AM

The former Philadelphia Financial Group Inc. is now the U.S. branch of Lombard International, a $75 billion-asset  life insurance and annuity administration firm specializing in tax-sheltered financial arrangements for rich people around the world. 

In June, the Blackstone investment firm bought control of Philadelphia Financial from Tiptree Financial Inc. (a Tricadia Holdings affiliate backed by JPMorgan, Bank of America, UBS and others), and Philadelphia Financial executives led by founder John Hillman, for $155 million (plus future payments totalling $9 million). Blackstone has since combined Philadelphia Financial operations with Luxembourg-based Lombard International Assurance.

Hillman is now Executive Chairman of the combined firms, doing business as Lombard International. Lombard employs 500, including 100 at its Liberty Place office in Philadelphia, and issues policies, from the U.S. and the tax havens of Luxembourg, Guernsey and Bermuda, through agents at partner firms, to wealthy clients across the U.S., Europe and Latin America.

POSTED: Wednesday, September 30, 2015, 10:14 AM
File photo: Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP A.G., in 2013. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)

UPDATE: McDermott told me today he's scheduled a Roman benefit event for Dec. 14. More from our interview in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer. EARLIER: SAP SE chief executive Bill McDermott's ongoing recovery from a gruesome July 4 weekend accident has forced him to cancel a prominent Philadelphia fundraising event.

McDermott has begged off being the honoree at this year's Greater Philadelphia Leadership Award Dinner scheduled for Oct. 15 at the Union League club. The annual event last year raised a quarter of a million dollars for tuition assistance to Roman Catholic High School in Center City.  "I regret that my recovery has interfered," said McDermott in a statement, pledging continued support for the school. The dinner has been cancelled, says Patrick Plunkett, a Roman development officer.

McDermott, a hard-charging former Xerox salesman known for his enthusiastic stem-winding orations before sales and customer and college audiences, nearly bled to death in a freak midnight accident while visiting his father over the national holiday, SAP Chairman Hasso Plattner told the German magazine Wirschafts Woche (Business Week) earlier this month.

POSTED: Sunday, September 27, 2015, 11:17 AM

(From my column in today's Inquirer): Where does Francis get his ideas on the economy, the environment, and social justice? Check the Catechism, which summarizes Catholic teachings, and was compiled under John Paul II, with a forward by Benedict. It reads like the minutes of a more than 2,000-years-long meeting of men (though some women are cited) grappling with ageless questions of why we're here and how we should treat one another and do business.

The Catechism takes up issues of property and labor in a far-ranging chapter on the Seventh Commandment, as Catholics count ("You shall not steal").

The church rejects both "the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies linked in modern times to communism or socialism" - and also "in the practice of capitalism, individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor."

About this blog

PhillyDeals posts drafts, transcripts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area business, which he's been writing since 1989.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn and taught writing at St. Joseph's. He has written thousands of columns and articles for the Inquirer, Bloomberg and other media, wrote the book Comcasted, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at,, 215.854.5194 or 302.652.2004.

Reach Joseph N. at or 215 854 5194.

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