Ed Snider: In early humble tasks, an entrepreneurial spirit flourished

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Ed Snider, at the Spectrum. He created Spectacor in 1973 as a management company to oversee the Flyers and the Spectrum.

When you think of Ed Snider, what probably comes to mind is the unbridled passion he displayed for the Flyers, the National Hockey League team he cofounded 50 years ago.

Back before the NHL initiated a salary cap in 2005, Snider ran the team like a fan with unlimited funds. If a high-priced free agent was available, he had his checkbook ready.

But the reason the checkbook was so loaded was that Snider was a street-smart entrepreneur with a knack for making shrewd business deals.

When Snider, 83, died April 11 after a two-year battle with bladder cancer, his net worth was estimated at $2.5 billion by celebritynetworth.com.

He amassed his wealth from humble beginnings - cutting meat, mopping floors, and performing other duties as a teenager at his father's grocery store in Washington. No matter how menial the task, Snider took pride in what he did.

"He used to talk about how he cleaned the vegetable bins and how they were the cleanest vegetable bins ever," said a smiling Phil Weinberg, the longtime executive vice president and general counsel for Comcast Spectacor, the Flyers' parent company. "He learned a lot of his values and attention to detail from those everyday experiences of working for his father."

Entrepreneurial spirit

It was at his father's grocery-store chain that Snider's entrepreneurial spirit was born, and grew. At the University of Maryland, he started a Christmas tree business with his fraternity brothers.

Snider became a certified public accountant, but he wanted to run the companies, not be the person keeping the books. In 1955, he and George Lilienfield started a wholesale record distributorship, Edge Ltd. They took out a loan and purchased about a half-million overstocked phonograph records at a steep discount.

"They were in boxes in a warehouse," Snider once told the Inquirer. "Recent records that just hadn't sold as expected."

After the deal, he loaded the records in the trunk of his car. Some were sold in his father's grocery stores; others were delivered to area grocery, discount, and drug stores. Three years later, he cofounded the National Association of Recording Merchandisers.

"I met him when he first came to Philly in '63," said Lou Scheinfeld, who was a reporter covering City Hall for the Daily News at the time and later was hired by Snider as the Flyers' first vice president.

Snider loved talking about his record-business days, Scheinfeld said.

"He was what they called a rack jobber. He and his partner took 45 r.p.m. records and put racks in drugstores and other stores and filled the racks with them. They would go around every week or so and replace the ones that were sold and take back the ones that weren't sold."

They did well, Scheinfeld said, then got contracts for the PX stores at military bases in the Maryland/Virginia area.

"That contract helped them move a lot of records," he said. "But they realized they couldn't compete with the RCAs and the other big record companies, and they eventually sold their business."

Then Snider got a big break: a connection to Eagles owner Jerry Wolman. Snider's sister Phyllis - who years later suggested the name "Flyers" for the new hockey team - was married to Earl Foreman, Wolman's lawyer and part-owner of the Eagles. Wolman also had a strong friendship with Sol Snider, Ed's father.

Wolman asked Snider to run the Eagles' business side, Scheinfeld said.

"Ed said, 'What do I know about running a football team?' He said, 'Well, you don't, but you're smart and you know money.' So that's how Ed came to Philly."

In 1964, Snider became treasurer and vice president of the Eagles. In 1966, he and Wolman helped bring an expansion NHL team to Philadelphia, though the Flyers didn't begin playing until the 1967-68 season.

Snider was just getting started. In 1973, he created Spectacor as a management company to oversee the Flyers and the Spectrum. The move helped launch an entire industry: private management of sports and entertainment facilities typically run by the cities, universities or stadium authorities that owned them.

In the next 20 years, Spectacor grew, as did its impact on the sports and entertainment business, developing and acquiring nearly a dozen related companies. Along the way, Snider started all-sports radio WIP and Prism, considered the first 24-hour regional cable network to combine sports and movies.

Snider merged Spectacor with Comcast Corp. in 1996, forming Comcast Spectacor, which initially consisted of the Flyers, the 76ers, the American Hockey League Phantoms, what is now the Wells Fargo Center, and the Spectrum. The company later joined with the Phillies to form Comcast SportsNet regional cable networks.

Dave Scott, Comcast Spectacor's president and CEO, called Snider a risk-taker and a "forward-thinking guy" who will "always be the heart and soul of our company."

Paul Holmgren worked closely with Snider, first as the Flyers' general manager, then in his current position as club president.

"His big saying was that he hired people to do a job and he let them do the job with the resources he gave them," said Holmgren, who was a forward for the Flyers from 1976 to 1984. "He trusted the people he put in place."

On player-personnel decisions, Holmgren said, Snider was "famous for never saying no to you, really. He would challenge you, he would argue with you to the bitter end if you wanted to make a trade or sign a player, or even redesign the dressing room. But then he would say, 'If you think that's for the best, it's fine.' He was very supportive once you made a decision on what you wanted to do."

Snider had an "intuitive" sense for what needed to be done, Scheinfeld said: "One of the great things about Ed was he could size up a situation in a flash and make a decision. I mean, bing-bing-bing, done. That carried him throughout his entire career."

A vision all his own

Ten days after Snider's death, a celebration of his life took place at the Wells Fargo Center, home of the team he loved like one of his six children and 15 grandchildren.

During the emotional one-hour, 50-minute tribute featuring guest speakers from diverse backgrounds, Snider's daughter, Lindy, began her speech by reciting an Ayn Rand passage she said was a "favorite of Dad's":

"Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed."

The quote, Lindy Snider said, "defines what it means to be a visionary - in modern terms, an entrepreneur. It defines Dad in his most public of roles, and we, his family, were so fortunate to have a father to love, admire, and want to emulate."

Some students at Snider's alma mater, the University of Maryland, are learning about his methods in modules called, "Why Enterprise?" They are built around the underlying philosophical principles Snider used to create his businesses.

"The modules are not a specific class - even better, they fit into multiple classes, both online and face to face," said Rajshree Agarwal, professor and entrepreneurship director at the university's Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets.

Snider, who in 2014 donated $5 million to the school, was a "great leader of organizations who led in a very unique way," said Weinberg, Comcast Spectacor's general counsel. "When you worked for Ed, you worked with Ed, not for him. He was very [respectful] of the opinions of those he worked with and trusted."

It "was always clear Ed was the boss, that he had the final decision," Weinberg said. "Everybody would express their opinion, and you'd go around the room and then kind of vote how you felt about things. Ed would then look around and count how many people were in the room. Say there were seven, he'd [kiddingly] say, 'OK, now I have eight votes.' He made the decisions by giving consideration to . . . those he trusted and whose counsel he relied on."

While Snider wasn't afraid to lean on colleagues for advice, Scott said, he was "always into the details. He really was kind of a hands-on businessman.. . . . He was old school, and I really appreciated that."

Those close to him said Snider was a tough negotiator who also had a soft side, a great sense of humor, and a generous spirit.

That spirit is exemplified in his Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, which has more than 3,000 participants, most from inner-city neighborhoods, and focuses on hockey, academics, and life skills.

At Snider's request, the foundation will benefit from the proceeds of art auctions in which Sotheby's will offer paintings he owned. The works, by artists such as Renoir, span nearly four centuries.

Their estimated total value: $5.9 million. More than seven months after his death, Snider is still giving back to his community.

scarchidi@phillynews.com

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