It’s been a busy year for business news in the Philadelphia region, from a shuttered hospital and exploding refinery to the rise of biotech start-ups and the vibrant U.S. economy. Here are 10 of the biggest business stories The Inquirer covered in 2019, and some others we think are special, too:
1. Philly refinery blows up. A dramatic June refinery blast released more than 5,000 pounds of a deadly chemical and launched truck-size pieces of shrapnel. Philly dodged catastrophe, but the explosion was the end for Philadelphia Energy Solutions, which abruptly announced its shutdown and filed for bankruptcy. Other entities are angling to take over the plant or reimagine it.
2. Hahnemann shuts down. Hahnemann University Hospital also went into bankruptcy and closed during the summer after years of losing money. The shutdown of the 496-bed facility put the hospital’s residency slots up for sale, and other area hospitals absorbed more patients.
3. Vanguard founder dies. John C. Bogle, who revolutionized the way Americans save for the future, died of cancer at age 89 in January. The founder of Vanguard Group, the Malvern-based investment company, Bogle pioneered low-cost, low-fee investing. His ideas have been widely accepted, leading Vanguard to become an international juggernaut.
4. Big deal for Spark Therapeutics. Spark Therapeutics, a University City-based gene-therapy developer, was bought by Switzerland-based Roche Holding for a whopping $4.3 billion. The landmark deal, announced in February and completed in December, appears to have inspired Philadelphia’s gene and cell therapy industry, creating more start-ups and bringing a groundswell of jobs and capital.
5. No bonuses for Aramark managers. Despite a record year of revenues and profitability for Aramark in 2018, thousands of managers at the Philadelphia company did not get their performance-linked bonuses. The bonus fiasco upset employees and sparked lawsuits. The food service company got a new CEO later in the year.
6. U.S. economy keeps chugging. The unemployment rate fell to a five-decade low and consumers continued to have confidence in an economy that showed few signs of slowing. Still, the Trump administration’s tariffs on Chinese imports started to drive up costs for Philadelphia-area manufacturers.
7. New era at Comcast. The cable giant completed its second skyscraper and the tallest building in Philly, the $1.5 billion Comcast Technology Center. And top executive David Cohen said in December that he will step back at the company he helped turn into an international media titan during the last decade.
8. Debt Valley. The Delaware Valley represents a ground zero for America’s student loan crisis, as Pennsylvania graduates rank No. 1 in the nation for student debt load. In a series of stories this year, we reported on local graduates managing hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and Pennsylvania having some of the nation’s priciest state-supported schools.
9. Camden’s tax breaks. New Jersey’s multibillion-dollar corporate tax-incentive program came under scrutiny from state and federal investigators. The tax breaks helped fuel Camden’s development boom, but a task force said companies tied to South Jersey power broker George E. Norcross III may have misled state officials on their tax credit applications.
10. Weed also rises. The market cap for publicly held marijuana companies cratered in 2019 but advocates predict a rebirth. Locally, both New Jersey and Pennsylvania have growing medical marijuana programs. And in November 2020, Jersey voters will get a chance to vote on legalizing the drug for recreational use.
Downsizing DuPont. The Wilmington-based chemical maker split from Dow Chemical in April and continued shrinking by selling off other businesses. The latest deal in December left DuPont with automotive, military, medical, water processing, and other specialized materials businesses totaling about $16 billion in yearly sales, down two-thirds from four years ago.
Stealing from the dead. Scott Capps, a former Vanguard manager, pleaded guilty to stealing $2.1 million from dormant accounts. He told The Inquirer that he grew frustrated as the fund giant ignored his reports of holes in the firm’s financial defenses and ultimately used the same techniques he warned about to steal the money. The company said it has made changes as a result of the case.
Rise of sports betting. The sports betting industry grew rapidly after last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing the wagers. New Jersey overtook gambling mecca Nevada for sports betting primacy. In Pennsylvania, the booming online sports betting market has already eclipsed wagers placed in casinos.
Accused of investment fraud. Brenda Smith, a Philadelphia hedge fund manager, went from a Rittenhouse Square penthouse to sleeping in a New Jersey jail after allegedly running a massive fraud that cost investors $63 million. She may be negotiating a plea deal.