Unisys confronts sign of the times

It’s a sign of the times when furor over a sign can cause a company to rethink whether it wants to do business in Philadelphia.

Unisys Corp. said in December it would move its corporate headquarters from Blue Bell into Center City. It agreed to lease 90,000 square feet in Two Liberty Place and relocate 225 employees there.

Some scoff that that’s not a lot of jobs, but it is for the city that’s been bleeding jobs for decades. Symbolically, the city could do worse than attract another Fortune 500 company into its core.

Who could foresee that Unisys’ plans would not be well-received by some well-heeled tenants in the million-dollar condos on the top floors of Two Liberty. Nothing against information technology; they have a problem with the red corporate logo Unisys wants to affix to the building outside the 38th and 39th floors.

That red sign has thrust Unisys into a federal lawsuit with those tenants. Plus, opponents will vent about it at a zoning hearing board meeting in September. That would be the second hearing on the sign after one last week.

Nothing of this surprises me. But to hear a Unisys spokesman say the company would have to reevaluate its plans if it isn’t able to stick its name on Two Liberty?

Does anyone really think that if Unisys loses in this sign whine that that would be the reason it doesn’t move into the city?

Come on, this company is beset by challenges.

Unisys has been the incredible shrinking computer company since it was formed in 1986 by Burrough Corp.’s acquisition of Sperry Corp. At $5.7 billion, it generates $4 billion in revenue less than it did 20 years ago. Over the same period, the company shed 62,500 jobs to bring its current global workforce to about 30,000.

And if you read the transcript of Wednesday’s conference call with analysts, the company is likely to get smaller.

“We recognize that to succeed in today’s market, we need to either be very big and highly diversified or else smaller and highly focused,” said Unisys CEO Joseph W. McGrath. “We believe the best path forward is the latter one, to build on the work we have done and further focus and refine our business model.”

If getting smaller and more focused makes Unisys more profitable, that’s great. But after 20 years, it hasn’t figured out what it’s really good at? Given some of the comments by McGrath on that call, it still sounds like it’s trying to come up with the right strategy.

I can understand brand-building, and that’s part of why Unisys wants to be in Center City. (How many times can management entertain clients at Alison at Blue Bell, right?) But lots of opponents of the Unisys sign see Philadelphia’s “brand” trumping this corporate one.

I think some of the opposition has blinders on to have missed all of the corporate logos that have been affixed to buildings around the city.

But whatever the zoning board decides, it’s going to be fascinating to see what Unisys does. If it loses, will it quietly press ahead with the move into the city? Or will it move to Radnor next to Lincoln National Corp., which moved its headquarters and 400 jobs out of Center City in 2007?

If it wins, will its branding effort be seen as innovative or annoying to the other corporate elite around town? If it wins, does it really lose?

Philly Ticker

The $4.4 billion cash offer to buy Philadelphia Consolidated Holding Corp. sent its shares rocketing up 71 percent last week.

The Bala Cynwyd property and casualty insurer was the biggest mover among local stocks. Shares closed Friday at $58.23, which is lower than the $61.50 price offered by Tokio Marine Holdings Inc., of Japan.


Today: Universal Health Services;

Tuesday: Advanta, Cephalon, FMC, Lincoln National, Mothers Work, SAP, Teleflex, Vishay;

Wednesday: Adolor, Amerigas, Brandywine Realty, Comcast, Quaker Chemical, UGI, ViroPharma;

Thursday: CDI, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Internet Capital Group, PMA Capital;

Friday: Cigna, Dorman, PPL, Public Service Enterprise, Tasty Baking, West Pharmaceuticals.


“I regard the blockbuster model of the industry as being a little bit like the following: … Our business model is to discover a needle in a haystack when we want the next needle in a haystack.”

- Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline PLC, about how the pharmaceutical business must change its preoccupation with billion-dollar drugs.