PhillyDeals: For Bill Graham, 'money was never what it was about'

William A. Graham IV is stepping down from day-to-day top management at Graham Co., the firm his father started.
William A. Graham IV is stepping down from day-to-day top management at Graham Co., the firm his father started.
Posted: February 05, 2012

William A. Graham IV had lunch the other day with George Norcross III, his cut-throat rival in the insurance brokerage and consulting business.

Norcross brought up the day, 17 years ago, when Norcross' then-business patron, Commerce Bank chief Vernon Hill, called Graham to ask how much money he'd have to pay to buy the Graham Co.

"I might consider it - if you told me you might pay $85 million," Graham had told Hill. A "ridiculously" high price, Graham figured, nearly three times his annual sales. He guessed Hill would get the message: not for sale.

Nope. "We can do better than that," Hill said.

Wow, thought Graham; but he still said no.

Graham would have been paid in Commerce stock, which quadrupled in value over the next several years. By saying no, he'd turned down more than $300 million, Norcross pointed out in their recent meeting. "Don't you wish you'd grabbed that?" he asked Graham.

Actually, no, Graham told me, in his office in the Graham Building 25 stories up overlooking Philadelphia City Hall, on the eve of his retirement from day-to-day top management 50 years after he went to work in his father's infant firm. "For me, money was never what it was about." Plus, "My wife said, if I ever retire, she'll divorce me."

So he's not quite retiring. Graham will stay on as chairman of the Graham Co., but turn day-to-day management to two longtime lieutenants: Michael J. Mitchell, as vice chairman and head strategist, and Kenneth L. Ewell, as president and chief operating officer, in charge of client services.

Graham Co. employs about 145, down from 170 in the mid-2000s, when commercial construction was in full swing for clients such as American Infrastructure Inc., Bancroft, Dranoff Properties Inc., Harvard Law School, Keating Group, and Nyleve Bridge Corp.

The firm's hires include engineers and pilots, more "blue-collar work ethic" than "Ivy League," Ewell said. Graham Co. charges a fee, in addition to a percentage of a company's insurance business; in exchange, it promises to reduce claims by working more closely with clients than most business insurance brokers. It's a value, not a price, model that Graham says appeals more to private hands-on business owners than remote corporate risk managers.

"We're bullish," Ewell said. "We plan to hire another 10 to 12 people this year." The firm is diversifying: Graham Co. has added a real estate practice, a law firm practice, health and human services, medical benefits.

Graham was once a significant political donor, whose business included government contracts in then-Mayor Ed Rendell's Philadelphia. In recent years, he says, he's mostly ceded that business to rivals such as Norcross, because government insurance "contracts are not awarded on merit," but on "connections."

Graham "is a very strong competitor," Norcross told me. "He and his former president, Mike Tiagwad, built a great business. Of course, Mike now works for me," as do several of Tiagwad's former subordinates at Graham Co.

Graham says he gave up a couple of corporate offers to take a job with his father after graduating from Bucknell in 1962, not realizing he'd have to sell life insurance on the side to pay his bills. Life insurance "taught me sales." He and his dad had diverging styles: "He broke chairs." In 1973, he bought out his father's interest.

Even without a multimillion-dollar merger, Graham Co. enabled Graham to raise his family and buy his fancy truck and his three motorcycles and the place in Avalon and the Italian vacations. And to invest in a string of private Philadelphia-area companies, some of them highly profitable - such as Katherine Crothall's Animas Corp., later sold to Johnson & Johnson for more than $500 million, and a foreclosed-property partnership with developer Ron Caplan that paid off at better than 10-to-1 - and others less so - such as former Inquirer owner Philadelphia Media Holdings L.L.C., which went bankrupt.

"Bill's always been the hardest-working guy in this organization," Mitchell concluded. "Now, our goal is to give people the same opportunity he gave us."


A daily riff on the people, companies, deals, market-movers, dreams, and whispers driving regional commerce. Read Joseph N. DiStefano's daily blog at

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