Philadelphia’s business tax laws are complex, confusing, and controversial, particularly its high wage tax and practice of double-taxing commercial entities. When Arcweb Technologies CEO Chris Cera was asked a few years ago to serve on the City Council’s “committee with a long name” — aka the Special Committee for Regulatory Review and Reforms — he began studying a subject most people would cross the street to avoid.
“It was an effort to eliminate some of the arcane taxes and barriers to businesses,” says Cera, 44, acknowledging the lack of verve in the committee’s title and directive. “The complexity of taxes in Philly is really a problem.”
This was in 2018, as Amazon was debating where it would build its new East Coast headquarters. Cera suspected the City’s archaic tax system and some of the Commonwealth’s business-killing policies would sink Philadelphia’s bid.
An alternate plan, and perhaps a better one, he thought, was making Philly more start-up friendly by cleaning up its tax code, helping homegrown businesses thrive and grow. Cera began advocating for changes, focusing on two business tax requirements he felt were particularly egregious.
He testified before City Council multiple times, gave interviews to local media and published explanatory opinion pieces. He took time away from his bustling company, his wife and two children, and his volunteer obligations — to do good.
“I appreciate entrepreneurs who are also civically-engaged,” Cera says. “There’s some risk. We’re not politicians. We could just stay under the radar. But it’s part of our mission to challenge the status quo. We can make the world a better place. It requires work, but I’m willing to be one of the workers.”
That’s why Cera is part of Generation Change Philly, a Citizen partnership with Keepers of the Commons that aims to highlight the city’s future leaders. Cera, who serves on the boards of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia and LEADERSHIP Philadelphia, is one to watch.
“I’m a very committed Philadelphian. I live and work here, my kids go to school here and I have no plans to go anywhere,” says Cera, a Delaware County native who lives in Queen Village and works in Old City. “I want to see the city thrive and be the best version of itself. There are tactical ways to achieve that and to fix our systemic challenges.”
“He puts the time in”
Cera left the suburbs to earn his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Computer Science at Drexel University. More than two decades later, he’s still in Philadelphia. He was already familiar with the city: His father, Robert, owned two shoe stores: one in Center City and the other in Upper Darby.
“I’m sure I picked up a ton (about business) from my dad, but one thing that really stuck with me was the way his team members talked about him,” Cera says. “So many people really loved him because of how he took care of folks, and that’s something that’s stayed with me big time.”
Cera says his mother “was the most generous person I’ve ever known.” Kathleen Cera, who died in December 2021, welcomed all comers to family dinners and did more than pay lip service to someone’s struggles. She’d send a card, ask other people to send cards, pay visits, run errands.
“She was a huge influence,” he says.
Cory Donovan, executive director of ImpactPHL, a nonprofit that helps businesses make investments aligned with corporate values, is a friend of Cera. Donovan says the tech leader isn’t someone who tries to draw attention to himself or his good works, but “when you think of people in the Philadelphia ecosystem working for a better future for the city and its population, that’s Chris.”
Cera, Donovan says, “is someone who, when he sees a problem, doesn’t just say, That sucks. Somebody should do something about that. Even if it’s a lot of hard work and of no benefit to him, he puts the time in. I wish there were more Chrises in the world.”
More than just “don’t be evil”
Christopher Wink, CEO and cofounder of Technical.ly, says he’s watched as other American cities have made efforts in the last few decades to revive their economies. All of the successful ones, he says “included some version of Chris Cera: A tech start-up CEO who believes his hometown’s future aligns with his own.”
“There’s an entire class of tech CEOs who don’t care about the places where they happen to be located because their businesses can do work remotely around the country and around the world,” says Wink, who has covered Cera for about 15 years. “Chris is the longest reigning, civic-involved tech CEO in Philadelphia.”
Cera is helping to create his own competition for that title. In 2007, he co-founded Philly Startup Leaders, a non-profit that promotes entrepreneurship. At the time, “If you looked at successful companies and entrepreneurs, it was all in the suburbs and it seemed like it was getting worse, not better,” he says. “Philly Startup Leaders was all about Philadelphia. Not Conshohocken. Not KoP. It was about creating a community for people focused on the city.”
That same year, he walked the walk, co-founding Vuzit, a software company that created a universal way to share official documents.
“It was very empowering,” he says. “It felt like I was in control of my future and I had to figure out how to make money for me to make money.”
Empowering, but not easy. At one point, Cera sold his unused computer equipment and his mutual fund nest egg to stay afloat. “I found a point of confidence in myself that helped me walk forward,” he says. “You know, I never got an MBA … This was like my MBA training period. It was probably cheaper than an MBA, although I had to sell a ton of stuff.”
Vuzit was eventually sold to a Florida-based private software company. (It was a private deal, and Cera would not say how much the sale accrued.)
Arcweb Technologies, a custom software creation company Cera founded about 11 years ago, is guided by seven core values that go far beyond Google’s corporate code of “Don’t be evil.” Cera says it took a few years and much input from others to make this list:
- Listen to every voice.
- Be a role model.
- Do the right thing.
- Be passionate about service.
- Elevate those around you.
- Be generous to your communities.
- Create rabid fans.
“I appreciate entrepreneurs who are also civically-engaged. I recognize that in my own advocacy,” Cera says. “There’s some risk. We’re not politicians. We could just stay under the radar. But it’s part of our mission to challenge the status quo. We can make the world a better place. It requires work, but I’m willing to be one of the workers.”
Arcweb primarily works in the health care and financial sectors. It developed software for Penn Medicine that helps patients create end-of-life advance directives. It partnered with Homestead Smart Health Plans to develop a platform that would help lower medical expenses for employers.
Cera says he’d like to see Arcweb “do more in terms of social impact” in its second decade.
“Companies are systems,” Cera says. “Yours can be a good system, an additive one, or a subtractive one,”
Arcweb, he says, tries to be one of the good ones.
Fighting the “second year slap”
One of the tax issues that inspired Cera to advocate for reform is one he calls “the Second Year Slap.” It required city businesses to pay taxes a full year in advance or face significant penalties. The practice can devastate new small business owners, who often learn of the tax when they file their first year of taxes, and discourage start-ups, Cera says.
He advocated for eliminating the tax, or adjusting it so it only applies to established businesses, including his own. City Council eventually settled on a policy that allows business owners to pay the following year’s taxes in quarterly payments.
“It was a small, small win, but the original pain is not gone,” Cera says.
To be clear: Changing that policy wouldn’t have benefitted Cera or his own business. He fought for the policy change anyway. It’s just how Cera works — promoting progress for all.
Donovan says Cera does the right thing even when people aren’t watching. He offers two examples: Cera retooled his company’s 401K plan to cut ties with funds that invested in businesses he and his staff don’t support, like the for-profit prison industry.
And, he made Arcweb a B Corp-certified business. To earn certification, a company must balance profits with social responsibility. Based in Philly and founded by local Jay Coen-Gilbert, large national B Corps include Ben & Jerry’s, TOMS and Patagonia.
“Even if it’s a lot of hard work and of no benefit to him, he puts the time in. I wish there were more Chrises in the world,” says Cory Donovan.
“It’s not easy to get that certification, but (Cera) is committed to being a good company for people, the planet and society,” Donovan says. “If someone says they’re a good company and they do a lot of good for the community and society or the planet or people, how do you really know? Here’s how.”
Being part of the B Corp community allows Cera to seek best practices advice from like-minded business people. It has also inspired and empowered Arcweb’s 25 employees.
“Our team members will say, We’re going to do this (project) because we’re a B Corp. There’s a self empowerment to it,” says Cera, noting that one such enterprise is developing an open source platform for the healthcare industry. “We can select (projects) that we believe will ultimately be a net positive for humanity.”
A “cautious capitalist” with a purpose
Some men in the technology field — so-called tech bros — get a bad rap. Blame that on a few obnoxious, self-centered, money-forward Silicon Valley dwellers, often wearing hoodies.
Cera is not a tech bro. (Although in the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted the Arcweb’s offices have a basketball hoop.)
“There have been a lot of White men testifying about taxes before City Council over the years, but (Cera) looks different, has a different background,” Technical.ly’s Wink says. “He understands the dynamic of race and privilege.”
Cera has spoken openly about losing a close friend who died by (likely-tainted) heroin and his belief in the decriminalization of most substances. (“We make the drugs more deadly by making them prohibited,” he says.) He’s engaged in urban issues, lives and works in the city, and he lives and works problem-solving. He is, Wink says, a “distinctly Philadelphia example of what a tech CEO can be.”
Cera describes himself as a “cautious capitalist.” He believes in the free market, but notes it’s a designed system that people manipulate. He argues for both “sensible tax policy,” and “a social safety net for people who can’t care for themselves that should provide food, housing, health care, and other support.” He sees Philadelphia as a “tale of two cities” and “the ways equity and systemic racism play into the world we live in today.”
“I think it’s important to help others and diversify the power structure that exists,” he says. “I hope the future of Philadelphia is one where equal access to resources are shared among the population.”
Cera’s a runner, has learned a lot about the city — good and bad — while out jogging. “You see people living in cars and on the streets and it’s impossible to not think about solutions,” he says.
He understands that change takes time, but again, he’s not going anywhere. Friends and colleagues are making the move to the suburbs. Cera believes he has more to do in the city.
“It’s easy to just ignore everything that’s going on and just worry about your own life,” Cera says.
But he doesn’t.
“A single individual,” he says, “can affect a lot of change.”
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Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce