Robert E. Keith Jr. is founder of Wayne-based TL Ventures. You might not have heard much about them lately, but in the late 1990s TL looked like it was on its way to being this region's dominant venture capital firm.
PSERS' third fund, started in 1997, turned $50 million into $69 million for the Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System and other early clients. That got the fund group run by Keith, a former Fidelity Bank executive, national attention. His team convinced the Pennsylvania state workers' pension system (SERS) to invest $75 million in TL next two, larger, investment funds, which opened in 1999 and 2000, at the height of the dot.com bubble.
Since then, the state pension system has paid Keith's firm annual management fees totalling more than $11 million. In return, according to its latest annual report, those TL funds have repaid just $39 million of the state's $75 million investment; they have failed to deliver profits. The firm has a similar record investing for Philadelphia's underfunded pension system.
Last year, Keith made the news as no money manager wants to make the news: He was ordered by the Securities and Exchange Commission to pay $295,000 in returned fees and penalties to the state and city, after he was caught giving illegal campaign contributions to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Keith, a longtime contributor to top Pennsylvania elected officials, had run afoul of a new federal ban on firms collecting fees from state and local governments while giving money to their politicians.
Keith's peers are more appreciative: Earlier this month, Keith's fellow investment professionals at PACT, the Greater Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technology, announced plan to honor Keith with this year's Legend Award for Lifetime Achievement.
As an outsider, that looked surprising to me, given TL's investment record. I phoned TL's office to ask him about it, but Keith, who I remember as an avuncular and persuasive advocate of Philadelphia venture capital back in the dot.com bubble days, hasn't returned my calls since his funds' valuations fell in the mid-2000s.
So I asked PACT leaders to tell why they admire him. "It was a virtually unanimous decision to give this to Bob Keith," investment banker Charles Robins, of Fairmount Partners, which is co-sponsoring the award, told me. He praised Keith's tireless and "self-effacing" work to build up Philadelphia-area venture capital groups, emerging companies, company founders and nonprofits.
State Treasurer Rob McCord, who ran one of PACT's predecessor organizations, was uncharacteristically silent when I contacted his office to ask about Keith on Jan. 8. "Thanks for the invitation, but Rob is going to pass on this one," his spokesman, Gary Tuma, told me in an email.
RoseAnn B. Rosenthal, who runs the state-backed Ben Franklin Technology Partnership, which channels state funds (and, lately, investments by First Niagara Bank and others) to promising small technology companies, was similarly grateful to Keith, noting that Philadelphia has long needed to develop an early-stage funding community of its own, and Keith was among the sector's most active organizers and supporters.
PACT executive Dean Miller said Keith, from his Fidelity Bank days forward, had played a personal role backing firms like Airgas, TDH, QVC and Brandywine Asset Management, and noted some of the people TL backed in the dot-com boom had gone on to greater things: for example, Jonathan Brassington, who headed one of TL's early bets, now heads successful outsourcer LiquidHub (backed by Michael DiPiano's NewSpring fund, among others), and now serves as chairman of PACT.
None of that has done much good for TL's investors, such as the underfunded state and city pension funds, I noted. Miller said he thought Keith's lifetime investment record was a lot more positive than the state's posted results, though he did not provide any data to support that.