Tuesday, March 3, 2015

POSTED: Wednesday, January 21, 2015, 11:01 AM

Metro Bank, the investor-backed British bank started by former Commerce Bancorp chief Vernon Hill of Moorestown, N.J., has more than doubled in size over the past year, to $5.5 billion in loans and investment assets at its 31 "stores" in greater London. Deposits total $4.4 billion, loans total $2.4 billion, nearly half of that to small businesses. 

With its high expansion and marketing costs -- the company plans up to 10 more branches this year -- Metro lost nearly $15 million in the last quarter, but still has a fat pile of capital, which Metro says totals 28% of risk-weighted assets, well within U.K. targets. Losses have dropped for "six straight quarters," the bank says.

Hill had planned to sell shares to investors before now. But with interest rates chronically low and bank profits elusive, he instead raised capital from U.K. and U.S. real estate investors and other private backers and has plowed it into boosting market share. Hill told me this morning he hopes to take Metro public next year. He has also been an investor in Philadelphia's Republic Bank and Harrisburg-based Metro Bank of Pa., two banks that have struggled to grow in the slow lending environment of the past few years.

POSTED: Tuesday, January 20, 2015, 4:21 PM
Philadelphia union leader and DRPA board member John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty Jr. on the Camden Delaware River Waterfront April 24, 2014. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, the Philadelphia electricians' and computer workers' union headed by John Dougherty, the most politically successful of area labor leaders recently, has doubled its geographic jurisdiction by absorbing smaller IBEW Local 380 and its 100-acre Collegeville office and training center, Doughtery told me.

By Doc's count, Local 380 had 700 dues-paying members and a few hundred retirees in a jurisdiction that stretched  along U.S. 30, from Wayne on the Main Line to Coatesville in Chester County, north to the North Penn area in central Montgomery County.  98 has 6,000 active members, according to Dougherty. Like many smaller unions, 380 faced a challenge funding its long-term pension payments as the number of retirees began to approach the number of working members. Dougherty says his union is already at work organizing new job sites for the 380 members, and growth will keep the union healthy.

"I'm looking forward to working with Liberty, Brandywine, O'Neill and all the (landlords and developers) we have good business relations with who are also active" in what he calls the "98 North" suburban territory, Dougherty says. The move, backed by the IBEW international union, was effective in December. "I'm not looking to bring Philadelphia out to Montgomery County," he added. "I am looking at creating an economic engine for a lot of IBEW members." Statement by "Local 98 North" here, map here.

POSTED: Tuesday, January 20, 2015, 1:19 PM

It was a busy year for the Union League, the block-long Philadelphia club-bar-restaurants-hotel-museum-charitable center-meeting complex. With new members (there are more than 1,600 "regulars") joining faster than old ones resign, with net assets topping $80 million (more, if you consider the value accrued to its historical and art collections since the last appraisal in 1996), last year the Club borrowed $8 million to buy and (mostly) fix up the former Torresdale - Frankford Country Club, spent less than $1 million adding and updating the Bungalow restaurant as its summer spot in Avalon, and consolidated its 2013 acquisition of the Midtown Garage (with a $4.3 milion loan). 

Wait, what's the Union League doing, running a parking garage? Improving its bottom-line operations, for one thing: The League eliminated cash tips and began paying parkers on a per-car basis, a move it says has successfully speeded exit times. It added a new ramp, facade and structual improvements. It added a car service, which as of year-end had delivered 345 rides within 50 miles of the League. And, the club installed 110 cameras "to help the garage with claims of damaged vehicles. Having these cameras helped in denying 10 claims with pre-existing damages," according to the League's annual report. (Emphasis added)

Were those 10 phony claims filed by League members? Was anyone booted from the club, where moral conduct was long a standard for membership? Or were the claims filed by guests, staff, whom? The League won't say... The club has also installed cameras to watch bartenders and other employees in its newly-remodeled kitchens. Because gentlemen and ladies can't be too careful about the help.

POSTED: Monday, January 19, 2015, 9:15 PM

(UPDATE from my column in Tuesday's Inquirer. Statement from Ambassador Valdes follows.)  Chile's President, Michelle Bachelet, won a second (non-consecutive) term in a landslide vote in 2013. While Chile may be the Latin American nation most like the U.S. -- especially California, with its Pacific climate and mix of resource industries -- Bachelet would probably be unelectable in a national vote here. That hasn't stopped her from making friends or seeking more in export industries: 

Her Pacific nation is home to robust capitalists - mine owners, winemakers, fruit growers whose Southern Hemisphere seasons enable them to supply Americans in winter - as well as militant communist and anarchist groups, which press hard, and often successfully, for taxing the rich to pay for college tuition, retirement plans, health insurance. A socialist and a single mother, Bachelet governs in coalition with the Christian Democrats. On Monday in New York, she presided over an anti-war meeting of the U.N. Security Council. 

But in Wilmington and Philadelphia this week, Bachelet is all business. At a warehouse at the Delaware port on Tuesday, she drew a crowd of U.S. and Chilean businesspeople and workers, and a collection of pro-free-trade Democrats - led by U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.), U.S. Rep. John Carney (D., Del.), and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who worked as a young banker in Chile in the 1980s before becoming a Comcast executive.

POSTED: Monday, January 19, 2015, 2:13 PM

U.S. commercial building prices have been rising faster than rents since the 2008 recession, and now stand at record levels as compared to landlords' income (annual rents/building prices = capitalization rates, which are going down), according to data collected across the U.S. by Integra Realty Resources, a nationwide commercial real estate appraisal and research firm.

"Some guys are getting in over their skis," Joseph Pasquarella, managing director at Integra in Philadelphia, told me. "A lot of people want to build nice Center City apartments. But we've got 4,000 under construction," and there aren't nearly 4,000 new jobs to support those rents coming on line anytime soon, he told me. Not at Comcast? Not at the hospitals? "Not happening," Pasquarella said. 

This real estate boom should make some investors "cautious," but Integra expects more will keep buying and financing properties in 2015, according to a report presented by Pasquarella and his colleague Michael Silverman at the Union League on Jan. 15.

POSTED: Monday, January 19, 2015, 12:55 PM
The Philadelphia City Planning Commission meets (as it does monthly) tomorrow, Tuesday Jan. 20, 1 p.m., upstairs at 1515 Arch St., agenda here. Some highlights: 

  - 3-D signs: Planners will review, but not act on, Zoning Bill 40906 to create an "Urban Experiential Display Overlay Control District," per city councilman Mark Squilla's bill. This goes beyond the glowing billboards on east Market St.: The proposal is for full-motion video, animation or other light-up advertising, on sculptures or wall mounts: near the Convention Center on N. Broad, near Reading Terminal on N. 12th, near the Kimmel Center on South Broad. And maybe other high-end-traffic places, too.  PlanPhilly wrote about the proposal by Catalyst Outdoor here last fall.

  - 65 apartments: At 3811 Main St., Manayunk, by developer Mark Goldner, who also did for example Kingsley Court in Roxborough (Zoning Bill 140969).
  - Farmers' market: Property Bill 140969 would move the former city firehouse on Germantown Ave., between W. Tioga and W. Venango north of Temple University's medical school and hospital, to PIDC, for conversion into a fresh food and retail market by FireHouse Fare LLC. 
  - Stores, offices, but not factories: Zoning Bill 141031 rezones the blocks at the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge, from about 2d to 6th, Vine to Wood, for "commercial" (CMX-3) and no longer "industrial" (ICMX) uses.

POSTED: Monday, January 19, 2015, 12:14 PM

Robert E. Keith Jr. is founder of Wayne-based TL Ventures. You might not have heard much about them lately, but in the late 1990s TL looked like it was on its way to being this region's dominant venture capital firm.

PSERS' third fund, started in 1997, turned $50 million into $69 million for the Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System and other early clients. That got the fund group run by Keith, a former Fidelity Bank executive, national attention. His team convinced the Pennsylvania state workers’ pension system (SERS) to invest $75 million in TL next two, larger, investment funds, which opened in 1999 and 2000, at the height of the dot.com bubble.

Since then, the state pension system has paid Keith’s firm annual management fees totalling more than $11 million. In return, according to its latest annual report, those TL funds have repaid just $39 million of the state’s $75 million investment; they have failed to deliver profits. The firm has a similar record investing for Philadelphia’s underfunded pension system.

POSTED: Monday, January 19, 2015, 11:33 AM

Mark Group, the U.K.-based home insulation company whose U.S. arm, run by ex-Toll Bros. lawyer Jeff Bartos, was offered $3.28 million in Pennsylvania taxpayer aid by then-Gov. Ed Rendell to open facilities at the Navy Yard in South Philly in late 2010, is the subject of a liquidation sale scheduled for Jan. 27, 11 a.m., at the company's offices, 4050 S. 26th St. 

A list of "thousands of items" -- generators, tools, computers, Rheems heaters, Johns-Manville insulation -- is posted in this notice by AuctionAdvisors.com, which is managing the "Liquidation of the Mark Group" sale. The ad says the "Entire Contents of 7 Warehouses & Offices" are to be sold, and that "much of the inventory is new in the box." The sale was also advertised in Sunday's Inquirer.

Bartos didn't return messages left at his Navy Yard office or Main Line home on Monday or Tuesday. Staff at AuctionAdvisors referred inquiries back to the posted sale information.

About this blog

PhillyDeals posts raw drafts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area finance, investment, commercial real estate, tech, hiring and public spending, which he's been writing since 1989, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn, taught writing at St. Joe's, and has written the book Comcasted, more than a thousand columns, and thousands of articles, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

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