Investor Warren Van Dyke “Pete” Musser, who backed risk-takers for decades and rode the dot.com boom and bust, has died, friends and family confirmed. Musser was 92.
Musser “died of cardiac arrest at Bryn Mawr Hospital on the morning of Nov. 25,” according to a family statement Tuesday. Musser had fallen last month outside his home, and was in rehabilitation before his unexpected death.
“Pete was a remarkable person," a family man and mentor who “took more pleasure out of helping others than helping himself,” according to the family statement. Musser "loved work, and in a career spanning over six decades, he went to the office five days a week until the end. On the other two days, he could be found on the tennis courts.”
Musser’s work inspired generations of entrepreneurs who credited him with a role in their success.
“Pete Musser’s legacy as a talented visionary in the Philadelphia investment community will live on,” said Michael DiPiano, managing general partner at NewSpring Capital in Radnor. “I feel lucky to have viewed him as a colleague and a mentor. Much of the Philadelphia investment and entrepreneurial community both directly and indirectly have as their roots the firm he built, and him as their mentor.”
Musser studied industrial engineering at Lehigh University and was from 1953 to 2001 the head of Safeguard Scientifics (the former Lancaster Corp.), which invested as trends shifted in small industrial, telecommunications, electronics, internet and other firms, and trained Philadelphia-area investment professionals, some of whom went on to found their own investment groups.
Along with the late Raymond Perelman, Robert A. Fox and others, Musser was part of a generation of generalist investors who began their careers buying and selling industrial companies after World War II. Musser was more adventurous than some in backing new technologies. In 1963 Musser and his partners sold Philadelphia investor Ralph Roberts the first of the cable TV systems that became Comcast Corp., the biggest company now based in the city.
“He and my father had a wonderful and special relationship. He will be missed,” said Brian Roberts, Ralph’s son and the chief executive and chairman of Comcast, in an email.
Musser encouraged the founders of QVC, the home-shopping network based in West Chester, and was an early backer of IT services giant CompuCom Systems Inc., and of Novell Corp., whose profitable 1985 initial public stock offering helped launch Safeguard into its early internet investments.
“Safeguard was the first ‘incubator’” of small tech companies at its campus north of Wayne, which Musser called "the Orphanage,” said Dean Miller, executive director of the Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies, successor to a group Musser helped start. He said Musser, in company of a series of golden retriever dogs -- all named Higgins -- created a “family” environment among the “FOPs” (Friends of Pete) who scuttled between the open offices.
"A legend. I cold-called Pete as a first-time entrepreneur in 1996, and he said ‘Yes’ to lunch, and supported me consistently thereafter," wrote Lucinda Duncalfe Holt, who served as CEO of several Philadelphia tech companies over the past 20 years, in a social-media post.
Musser pioneered the “angel networks” of tech founders turned investors that spread from Philadelphia in the 1990s, said Marc Kramer, executive director of the Private Investors Forum. “Because he did, a lot of other big names joined.”
By the mid-1990s, Safeguard was at the center of a constellation of investment firms, mostly based in the office complex around Safeguard headquarters near King of Prussia, with early capital provided by Pennsylvania state pension funds. Musser predicted Safeguard and its allied firms would grow into a regional venture capital and start-up system to rival Silicon Valley and the Boston area.
But Safeguard-backed stocks such as Internet Capital Group and VerticalNet, which were briefly worth billions, lost most of their value in the 2001 dot.com bust. Musser, who had taken loans from brokers backed by his Safeguard shares to buy stock in dot.com firms, stepped down from his Safeguard post later that year. Some of the investment firms went on to spread their focus beyond Philadelphia’s modest tech scene into other markets; others failed to post profits or raise new capital and wound down operations.
Musser continued to invest in area companies and meet venture capitalists and aspiring tech bosses at the Radnor Hotel for morning breakfast meetings into his 90s.
Musser’s past proteges included Ira Lubert, cofounder of Lubert-Adler (real estate), LLR (private equity) and several other specialized Philadelphia investment firms that together invest more than $10 billion, including more than $1 billion in Pennsylvania state funds.
Musser’s favorite charities included the Philadelphia council of the Boy Scouts of America, which named a group of camps in Musser’s honor, and Lehigh, his alma mater. Twice divorced, Musser is survived by his 8his beloved companion, Mary Barton; his children, Joan M. Vaughan, Peter U. Musser (and wife Loredana), and Cooper Grinker Musser; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Another son, Craig Van Dyke Musser, preceded him in death.
A celebration marking Musser’s life is planned for Sat. Feb. 8, at a location still to be decided.
In lieu of floral tributes, the family requests any contributions in his memory be made to The Boys and Girls’ Clubs of Philadelphia, 1518 Walnut Street, Suite 712, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102