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Unisys still stands at 30

Unisys, founded 30 years ago to challenge IBM for global tech leadership, marked the anniversary Thursday at its Blue Bell headquarters with an ice cream party.

Unisys, founded 30 years ago to challenge IBM for global tech leadership, marked the anniversary Thursday at its Blue Bell headquarters with an ice cream party.

The low-profile festivities fit a company that, with 21,000 workers (mostly overseas) and $3 billion in yearly sales, is a fraction of its earlier size, but continues to build cybersecurity, cloud-systems management, and outsourcing services for longtime corporate, financial, and government clients.

Philadelphia's 311 citizens' call system is among the quotidian services that run on Unisys.

"The brand is 30 years old, but our products are anything but," says Inder Singh, chief strategy and marketing officer. Unisys claims 90 of the Fortune Global 500 as clients.

Most "have been with us for decades, and we are now migrating them to the cloud, to help secure their futures," Singh added.

The company was formed from the merger of two of IBM's longtime hardware competitors - Sperry Univac (previously Philadelphia-based Eckert-Mauchly, whose founders had built the pioneering ENIAC computer at Penn), and business-machines maker Burroughs Corp.

That was in 1986, back when Applehad fired Steve Jobs, Microsoft was about to go public, and both were prepping to lead the new wave of well-funded West Coast tech firms that would capitalize on the shift in digital value - away from old-line hardware, to an exploding range of software, services, and devices.

Unisys began shrinking almost immediately, scrapping legacy products, and following, more than leading, trends.

Sales dropped from $10 billion in 1987, its first full year, to $7 billion in 1997, $6 billion in 2007, and half that now. Unisys' net profit margin has been under 5 percent in the past five years, compared with 15 percent to 20 percent at much-evolved IBM.

The stock has lately traded below $10, down from $15 to $35 for most of 2008-15.

Analyst James E. Friedman, in a recent report to clients of Susquehanna Financial Group, the big Bala Cynwyd-based investment firm, says Unisys has fallen to bargain levels: He sees "strong" sales of ClearPath Forward computer systems, and Unisys digital and mobile banking products, which are popular among Asian customers. He also sees potential in Unisys' Stealth-brand NSA-approved security systems.

Cash flow turned positive last spring, the company says. A cost-cutting program is "on track" to reduce expenses by $200 million next year, notes Friedman.

Unisys spent $76 million on research, $520 million on sales and administration, and $2.3 billion on purchased services last year. Research spending is up and administrative costs are down since 2012. Its finances are cushioned by legacy tax credits and squeezed by legacy pension costs.

Unisys' 21,000 employees are spread through 40 countries, including 64 offices with 50 or more staff, and larger centers in India and Colombia, for example.

That's down from around 30,000 in the early 2000s, mostly U.S.-based, and 90,000 in 1986.

Around 500 work in the Philadelphia area, half at Unisys' Malvern engineering and research center, half at the slimmed-down Blue Bell offices, which the company considered moving to Center City a few years back, but decided against after neighbors objected to slapping the name on a Liberty Place tower.

Unisys employs more at its managed-services center in Salt Lake City (600), and plans to have 700 at its Augusta, Ga., center by 2021.

(215) 854-5194@PhillyJoeD