Seizing the moment: Ajay Raju thinks Philly's on the verge of greatness

Posted: August 20, 2014

BORN IN INDIA - made in America, Ajay Raju likes to say.

He might not be a household name in Philadelphia, but drop it around any of the power brokers who make this city churn like a giant waterwheel and you've just made a friend.

He's not in the Kennedy class yet, but Raju's name is - and has been - getting a lot of traction.

He serves on more than a dozen nonprofit boards, gives his money away unabashedly to philanthropic causes and is constantly mulling the next big idea, such as a proposed online, citizen-based journalism project with former Daily News editor Larry Platt.

Couched in the opulent setting of the Ritz-Carlton's 10 Arts Lounge, Raju, 44, recently talked about how a teenage immigrant from India rose to become the CEO of one of Philadelphia's most profitable powerhouse law firms, Dilworth Paxson.

Yanni or Enya or Chopin was playing softly from somewhere above. A glass of Chivas Scotch whisky rested on the table beside Raju's ever-present iPhone and BlackBerry.

"This is Philadelphia's kairotic moment," he says. "The supreme moment within the continuum of time that is pregnant with opportunities."

Yes, he sometimes talks like that.

In classical Greek rhetoric, kairos is defined as a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.

Raju said he has made a name for himself by seizing those pregnant opportunities. He insists that the city is on the brink of greatness, but that a lag in action by its leadership is holding it back.

"We're at the tipping point, as a society. Leaders, both corporate and civic, should understand that," he said.

"In this new technology revolution where the next great city has yet to be identified, the ones that attract the next code writers and innovators, they are the winners."

India to NE Philly

Raju's isn't a typical immigrant-to-America story.

Ever since growing up in affluent surroundings, he's known the benefits of success at an early age.

Raju was 14 when his father, Raju Chacko, moved the family from India to the U.S. A man of social and political influence in India, the senior Raju worked as the head of a major branch of the state transportation authority.

So why leave to start over in a new country?

"Even today, but [especially] in the '80s, the U.S. was seen as the land of opportunity that offered limitless potential in education, employment elasticity and a platform for global leadership," Raju said. "Our parents, like all immigrants, were attracted to the utopian idea of America, and they were not disappointed."

Raju and his younger brother, Vijay, were raised Catholic. Raju said a sense of spirituality and a higher being still guides his life today.

"Most immigrants don't have it as easy as I did. I've always felt, and it's true, that I've never had two consecutive bad days," he said.

"Even on rainy days, I've had people rush to my aid with umbrellas. It's been a privileged life, not a story of struggles . . . but it gave me the ability to understand the needs of people more than just my own. It gave me exposure, a platform of leadership."

Raju said that, as a teenager, he rejected the common Indian notion that if one comes from a wealthy family, one need not work.

His parents struggled with his form of rebellion, looking on uncertainly as he took a job as an usher at the Orleans 8 movie theater just off Bustleton Avenue. He later launched Ajay's DJs, a disc-jockey-for-hire startup.

A startup that had more impact was the Global Indian Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit that Raju founded about 15 years ago to facilitate commerce between the U.S. and India at a time when that nation was desperately looking for foreign investment.

Connections he made there later helped him land big clients at Reed Smith, a law firm with 1,900 lawyers and an international scope where Raju quickly became one of the top rainmakers.

Longtime Reed Smith partner Leonard Bernstein, who became managing partner for the firm's 160-lawyer Philadelphia office when Raju decamped for Dilworth in November, said Raju "was extremely successful here - one of the youngest people put in management positions."

"I started developing a reputation as the guy to call to parachute down to help rescue other guys," Raju said.

At Reed Smith, Raju developed the concept of project billing rather than flat hourly rates, the traditional method.

That sort of outside-the-box thinking, his sense of community service and, as Bernstein says, the fact that "he's very charismatic" began piquing the interest of other firms.

The hiring of an outsider to become CEO of a law firm is rare. A new chief is typically promoted from within.

"For most law firms, from the College of Cardinals a pope is elevated, but Dilworth hired the Dalai Lama to run the Catholic Church," is how Raju describes his ascension.

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen has known Raju for a long time, calling him "a breath of fresh air in the business and legal community."

"Not a lot of lawyers are entrepreneurial," Cohen said. "I didn't view myself as particularly entrepreneurial as a lawyer. But I think Ajay is.

"I remember when I was 10 or 15 years younger, they said, 'Who would replace [developer] Ron Rubin, [business leader] George Strawbridge?' Ajay is a member of the next generation that will be incredibly important in both business and civic leadership in this city."

Kingmaker or candidate?

Many agree Raju's only going up, but where? To the fourth floor of City Hall (City Council)? Or the second (Mayor's Office)? Next year or in 2019?

Frustrated with what he calls the slow pace of progress in City Hall, Raju said it could require someone like him to run things differently in the future. But he skirts the line when asked directly about a run for a higher office.

Raju is registered as an independent, despite the pressures from his well-connected friends to choose a side. He likens his political leanings to those of the Bill Clintons, the Jack Kemps and the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the world.

"Conservative on the fiscal side but socially liberal," he says.

"Fiscal discipline, reliance on individual ability, and creating your own, while at the same time not waiting for society to come to your rescue," he explained. "I think I'm a pragmatist - somewhere in the middle - which is what frustrates most of my friends on the left and the right."

Were Raju to remain independent and run for office, campaign strategist Neil Oxman said, his odds of success would be slim, but there is ample time for him to decide.

"If he runs as an independent or a Republican, his only chances of getting elected mayor of Philadelphia is if the Democrats nominate somebody unacceptable to the majority of Democrats. The last time that happened was when Sam Katz almost beat John Street in 1999," Oxman said.

"It really depends on who emerges as the Democratic nominee for mayor and whether that person is reasonable or a dud," he said. Raju is "very ambitious and he likes to talk about himself, but in the end, I don't think he's necessarily going to do it, but he has a long time. You don't have to file [signatures] until August of next year."

Raju criticizes what he calls the "oligopoly" that Philadelphia's career politicians have been allowed to create over the years.

"We're an oligopoly of people who know where the potholes are and the pots of gold are," he said.

"As a result, you have a revolving circle of insiders who have a heavy thumb on the scale of influence and, as such, shape the policies and projects that impact the lives of all others," Raju said, sounding very much like a populist reformer. "But I don't think it is their fault. Their thumb is heavy because the larger population has empowered them."

Councilman Jim Kenney, a potential mayoral candidate himself, said that people who are high-powered and high-energized have less patience for the consensus-based crawling pace of government.

"People who operate at that speed have no patience for it," he said.

"The most effective form of government is an enlightened monarch. [Raju's] energy and commitment to doing good things for society may be hampered in a governmental setting."

Speaking of sovereignty, Zack Stalberg, who recently exited as executive director of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, agreed that Raju thinks big, outside of the box of traditional political ambitions. He called Raju a "kingmaker."

"In part, because the political system would be much too confining for him," Stalberg said.

"In politics, no-results are acceptable. Slow movement is the norm. None of that fits Ajay's style."

Cohen called getting involved in politics "one of those intensely personal choices."

"Does he have that capacity? Absolutely. Could he be effective in running and holding office? Absolutely," he said.

Asked what is the greatest, most pressing need in City Hall, Raju answers that it's access to capital.

"We have a tendency in City Hall to outsource leadership to the statehouse and to Congress and then at cocktail parties complain about potholes.

"I'm not frustrated with whether or not change is occurring. I'm frustrated with the pace of change. I just know that we can do better. We will do better. We haven't done it yet."


On Twitter: @RuffTuffDH

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