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Merchants Fund Expands Mission After 159 Years-plus

By Diane Mastrull, Inquirer Staff Writer

POSTED: February 17, 2014

Seven years ago, Patricia Blakely was hired to make “most purposeful in the 21st century” a Philadelphia charitable agency whose minutes include a notation from 1865 denouncing “the horrid murder of one so greatly and justly beloved by all true and loyal hearts.”

It was a reference to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The organization was the Merchants Fund. Established in 1854, its mission did not waver for more than 150 years: to provide help to Philadelphia’s indigent merchants, either those actively working who met with hard times or those who retired and couldn’t make ends meet. Spouses of deceased merchants were helped, too.

The mission was one its directors in recent years had determined was obsolete, in part because there now are vast social services that didn’t exist when the fund was formed. (The fund, estimated to have aided a couple of hundred legacy clients, still supports about 20.)

Achieving a bigger bang for its buck became the new aim, said board chairman Bruce Hotaling: “There was a bit of frustration – we’ve got money, we’ve got interest, we care, but why can’t we have a bigger impact on the community?”

The answer, the charity’s directors decided, was to provide funding to the city’s small businesses and commercial corridors. The need was quickly affirmed.

“I wrote this e-mail that said we have money to give away and hit the send button,” said Blakely, the Merchants Fund’s executive director and only staff. “All these people came out of the woodwork.”

Since then, the organization has provided $1.5 million to 243 businesses, including a dog groomer, a movie theater, a laundry service, a bakery, a trophy shop, a fashion truck, and a custom book-maker. With some exceptions, the maximum assist is a $10,000 grant that, to some businesses, can mean getting to the next level of growth.

“We’re meeting that unmet need, that thing that can change the way they do business,” Blakely said.

Noting that the shift in giving coincided with the economy’s collapse, she said: “Our timing was great. You have to understand, the banks really tightened up.”

The Merchants Fund had to do a little of that, too, said Hotaling, 53, owner of an investment-management company in Wayne and a director of the fund since the mid-1990s, after three generations of his wife Jennifer’s stockbroker family, the Winsors, served on the board.

“We’re an endowed foundation, and revenue from our investments dropped . . . by 40 and 50 percent,” Hotaling said of the recession’s impact. “When Patricia first started, we were in a kind of hunker-down place. Now, endowments have grown, our budget is twice the size it was in 2007 and 2008.”

About $500,000 of the Merchants Fund’s $15 million endowment is budgeted for giveaways this year, Hotaling said. To qualify, businesses must be in Philadelphia and have been in existence at least three years. (Other eligibility criteria are available at www.merchantsfund.org.)

In the case of the Swiss Haus Bakery, which Jim Hausman opened on 19th Street near Chestnut in 2008, a $10,000 grant enabled him to buy a walk-in freezer and walk-in refrigerator, replacing some that were 50 years old.

“Our electric bill has gone down by 60 percent,” helping free up money to expand, said Hausman, who has eight employees and plans to hire more.

He has a deep reverence for the Merchants Fund: “I don’t want to get too spiritual about it, but it really is an opportunity for small businesses to make that purchase or . . . do something they couldn’t normally afford to do or take the risk to do.”

On 40th Street between Spruce and Locust, a truck has been selling fashionable clothing curbside weekdays since July, an offshoot of Smak Parlour’s storefront in Old City. Fitting out the truck, which has led to increased overall sales for Smak Parlour and the hiring of six employees, was made possible by a $20,000 Merchants Fund grant – and Blakely’s vision, owners Abby Kessler and Katie Lubieski said last week.

“The concept was a little out of the box, and she was able to see it,” they said in a joint e-mail, noting that the new exposure and sales would soon result in another store and more hires.

At Wash Cycle Laundry, a cleaning service started in 2010 that provides pickup and delivery by bicycle, owner Gabriel Mandujano raved about a recent $10,000 grant from the Merchants Fund that helped him open a fourth plant, in East Falls, and buy electric-assist cargo tricycles.

The tricycles are not in use by any other business locally but “could change the game of our operations” by enabling expansion into parts of the city that “are a tad too hilly and remote for the bike and trailer kits we use now,” Mandujano said.

“It’s not something that I would have had the confidence to sink several thousand dollars into without the support of the Merchants Fund,” he said. “So much of managing a growing small business is about managing scarcity, making payroll, and buying equipment so that you can keep growing without flying off the rails.”

Because of its flush endowment and staff of one, the Merchants Fund doesn’t have many of those worries. Yet in this, its 161st year and the seventh as benefactor to small business, Blakely sees the need for a performance evaluation “to make sure we’re still relevant, that the needs haven’t changed.” She counted about 10 “failures” among the businesses the Merchants Fund has helped.

Her guess is small business will be the focus for quite a while:

“We didn’t change our mission for 150 years, so I figure we have a good long run ahead of us.”

 

Thoughts on that ‘foulest blackest’ deed

From the April 20, 1865, minutes of the Merchants Fund, addressing President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination:

The attention of the Board was called – the regular business of the evening having been closed – to the duty of inscribing upon our records some expression of our feelings in relation to the awful event which has occurred since our last meeting – the assassination of President Lincoln of Washington on the 14th. When the following minute was unanimously adopted in reference to the deplorable event.

The Managers of the Merchants Fund most deeply sympathetic in the general gloom which overstresses and oppresses this land at the perpetuation of the horrid murder of one so greatly and justly beloved by all true and loyal hearts.

They regard the deed and the spirit which promoted it as detestable almost beyond precedent and as wanting in no circumstance to class it among the foulest blackest crimes which ever stained the annals of any nation.

It is not merely that the victim was our honored chief magistrate, whom the voice of a free people with almost unexampled unanimity lead a second time elevated to the highest office in their gift, and whose private virtues and humble services had created the strongest claims upon their respect, confidence, and love, but a man of the kindest and gentlest nature, and of the most compassionate and forgiving spirit even towards his bitterest enemies and vilest slanderers, and who could say in the integrity of his heart that “he had never desired to plant a thorn in any one’s pillow.”

The murder of such a man is a fit embodiment and exponent of the treason which has spread sorrow and suffering over this once happy land, and deluged it with kindred blood, and will exhibit its character in all its heinous deformity to future ages; which the name and memory of Abraham Lincoln, will be more and more affectionately cherished and revered as time rolls on, as one of the truest patriots and noblest martyrs whose lives were ever sacrifice of their devotion to the welfare of their county or the precious cause of human freedom.