Vernon Hill's latest pet project

Vernon W. Hill II isn’t finding it hard to fill his hours, post-Commerce Bancorp Inc.

In November, he launched an investment firm in Maryland called Hill-Townsend Capital. (Read a Forbes story on his partner here.) In January, he invested in a banking industry blog, He took a minority stake in the Saladworks restaurant chain, based in Conshohocken in February. And now, pet insurance.

That’s right insurance for your dog or cat. A Philadelphia company called Petplan USA has named Hill its chairman.

Hill hasn’t disclosed how much he’s invested in these private ventures, and the Petplan deal is no different.

Petplan co-founder Natasha Ashton would say only that the firm raised a substantial amount of money in an investment round that included Hill and various European investors.

Ashton said she was thrilled that Hill would be lending his expertise to Petplan, calling him a “tremendous mentor.”

Ashton and her husband, Chris, met Hill through the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Hill, a dog lover, gave $10 million to Penn’s vet school in 2005.

The Ashtons were both MBA students at the Wharton School when their cat, Bodey, got sick and the treatment prompted them to change the business plan they were working on.

About $5,000 in veterinary care bills later, the Ashtons became convinced there is a potentially huge market for pet insurance in the United States.

They designed policies, got licenses to operate in all 50 states, and convinced the largest pet insurance provider in the United Kingdom - Petplan UK - to give them the exclusive license for the United States.

Petplan USA was launched in 2006 and now employs 11 in an office building near the Philadelphia International Airport. Ashton would not say how many policies it has sold.

She said that Petplan will benefit from Hill’s experience as it starts to ramp up on a larger scale. “He’s fanatical about customer service,” Ashton said.

For his part, Hill admits pet insurance is a departure from his emphasis on retail-oriented enterprises. “I really like these two kids,” he said. “I have tremendous admiration for what they’ve accomplished with no contacts and very little money.”

Pet insurance is well-established in Europe. But less than 1 percent of the 163 million dogs and cats in the United States are insured, Ashton said.

“There’s a very great need for this product. Maybe its time has come,” Hill said.

Diversity Fair

While some may have expected fireworks at Wednesday’s construction networking event at City Hall, I saw only a typical business gathering.

“Meet the Generals” was billed as a way for big contractors and small minority-owned firms to meet and talk about subcontracting work that’s available. City officials want to see more minority-owned firms on job sites around town.

A couple of labor leaders had told the Inquirer’s Heard in the Hall blog that they didn’t like that the event was being sponsored by the local chapter of the Associated Builders & Contractors, which represents largely non-union firms.

That didn’t stop about 150 people from showing up at City Hall, including about 40 minority-owned subcontractors.

For James F. Smith, it was a chance to spread the word about his three and a half-year-old Boothwyn flooring firm. Smith Flooring Inc. is hoping to land work on the $700 million Convention Center expansion or the SugarHouse Casino project, he said.