That vacant former Cigna Inc. suite on the 54th floor of One Liberty Place has a new tenant: Philadelphia Financial, a $3.5 billion-asset insurer of private-placement investments and life insurance for rich people, has taken the space for its headquarters as it plans mergers and foreign expansion. The firm is paying more than $30 a square foot, competitive for Center City.

Philadelphia Financial CEO John Hillman, a St. Joseph's University and Bishop Egan High graduate who founded the company in 1996, says he expects to hire more workers as his company expands. "We are on an acquisition trail, and we will build out internationally," he told me.

The firm is moving its 35 people high above Center City from its previous headquarters in Blue Bell this fall, after completing the expected purchase of Phoenix Life and Reassurance Co. of New York and moving the work here.  The firm's AGL Life Assurance Co. unit will be renamed Philadelphia Financial Life Assurance Co.; Phoenix will be renamed Philadelphia Financial Life Assurance Co. of New York.

Philadelphia's a convenient base because it's close to financial markets in New York and financial regulators in Washington, but it's also less expensive and "cluttered" than those cities, Hillman added.

How can Philadelphia Financial afford to grow when markets are so slow? Philadelphia Financial is majority-owned by Tiptree Financial Partners, an affiliate of Tricadia Holdings, a bargain-hunting New York financial-investments group run by Michael Barnes for a group of institutional owners including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., and Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS).

The companies Philadelphia Financial now owns have faced a tough couple of years since the financial markets crashed in 2008, A.M. Best & Co. analysts Ken Johnson and Rosemarie Mirabella worte in a report yesterday. The "global economic crisis" drove AGL sales down "significantly" as its "ultra high net worth" customers surrendeed their policies. "There remains some uncertainty" about AGL's regaining that business "in the near term," they added.

The business has "historically profitable" but "uneven" results, according to their report. Still, following the deal, A.M. Best boosted AGL's financial-strength rating to A- from B+. Phoenix is rated A-.

Broker William J. Hirschfeld of Cushman & Wakefield leased the space for One Liberty.