by Lou Mancinelli

At the callow age of 15, local restaurateur, financier, real estate developer, world traveler and former short-time filmmaker Tom Richter had already, after one summer of work, gone from being a packing boy to running a tie factory in Upper Darby.

Richter, now 56, was raised in a Lower Merion mansion across the street from the legendary, just-moved Barnes Foundation behind St. Joseph’s University, off City Line Avenue at the border of the city and Western Montgomery County. He must have observed something in the hard-working character of the workers who maintained his parents’ home. After all, he was the one who talked with the men and women who cooked the dinners and cut the lawns, the masons, electricians and plumbers.

(above) Tom Richter, seen in his restaurant, Isabella, in Conshohocken. (Photo by Lou Mancinelli)

“I knew where every pipe and electrical line in that house was,” said Richter during a recent lunchtime interview at Isabella, his Conshohocken restaurant. “Years later, I felt right at home buying rental properties and fixing them up. I was always the one dealing with the people at the house. These were real salt of the earth people.”

Over the years, Richter has renovated numerous old mansions along the Main Line and converted them into “storybook apartments.” In addition to his Girard Finance Company and a water ice business in Puerto Rico, he’s opened up a day spa in Nepal and a floating bagel and chai shop in Dal Lake, Northern India.

Among other creative business concepts, Tom was once earning $100 a day arranging for tourists to ride with certain eager Bangkok cabdrivers who kicked back a piece of the money. Shop owners would pay the cabbies to bring tourists into their shops. While in Thailand, Richter appeared as an extra in the film “The Deerhunter” as a soldier during a scene along the River Kwai with the same gang of tourists he organized for the cabbies.

Tom will also never forget an encounter with a Chinese doctor in Kathmandu, Nepal, who detected his heart irregularities using a wooden stethoscope? And the case of malaria he caught while working on a Malaysian banana plantation in 1978 that was allegedly cured by a woman’s rhinoceros horn water and a Filipino witch doctor’s crushed flowers.

He might have been privileged to have these rare experiences, but Richter has always earned his way, whether through sweat or imagination. In school, while his friends flipped burgers or drank beer all summer, he put in 75 hours a week at The Happy Tie Company (eventually bought by Ralph Lauren in 1976).

During the school year, he worked a few hours a night after school. Eventually, he had a friend use the money Richter had saved to buy his first motorcycle, a Yamaha 100, because Richter was too young to put the bike in his own name.

After graduating from Episcopal Academy, where he founded groups like the ecology club and workmen’s service, and won awards for sculpture and the glee club, the son of top Philadelphia negligence lawyer B. Nathaniel Richter headed to the University of Miami. He wanted to spend more time with his father, who was by then retired and spending his winters in the sun.

But when Tom went to Miami in 1974, his father died. With his mother in the Fiji Islands and his sister studying at Tufts University in Boston, he returned to Philadelphia to handle the funeral arrangements. In the winter, he stayed in town and enrolled at St. Joseph’s University, the only school that would accept him so late.

As usual, though, Tom got restless and left St. Joe’s in 1976 after two-and-a-half years, moving to Los Angeles just long enough to earn some money to go to Indonesia. In Santa Monica, he started making films for local bands and then was hired in 1978 by Northwest Orient Airlines to shoot a promotional film about traveling to Tokyo. One part of his pay was travel fare.

After six weeks in Tokyo, he used his free one-time ticket to anywhere to get to Bangkok, where he checked into a “freak hotel.” It was there that he organized the taxi trips and appeared in “The Deerhunter.”

After eight weeks in Thailand, Richter went south to the Cameroon Islands in Malaysia. It was while working on the butterfly plantation he started getting tropical ulcers, lost his hearing in one ear and went to see a British doctor. The doctor told him he had malaria. He would have to go home. On the way back to his camp to grab his bags he passed out on the side of the road. That’s when the plantation manager, a Filipino who considered himself a witch doctor, found Richter and applied his crushed flowers. When Richter returned to the British doctor, whatever the flowers and rhinoceros horn water given to him by a woman did to his body, the doctor found no trace of malaria.

So on he went along the Arabian seaside and up the Indian coast to Bombay, where he caught pneumonia but carried on. Then he crossed the Great Indian Desert and visited Jaipur, Kashmir, saw Ravi Shankar perform in a mysterious tent in the desert and crossed into Nepal by 1979.

In Kathmandu, Richter realized tired hikers who came out from excursions in the Himalayan Mountains had nowhere to take hot showers and refresh themselves. His answer was a day spa. The spa was days away from opening when one night, Richter awoke from a strange dream and went home.

“I woke up in the middle of the night because I had a dream that I had to go back to Philly,” said Richter. It turned out, the reason Richter returned home was that his mother had been ignoring all of her mail. He took the pile of unopened envelopes and read them one by one. What he found was his mother was being fined $1,000 a day for a major rat infestation problem at a Wayne property his father bought years ago, the former Hires Root Beer estate. No one had lived at the home for decades. It was infested with thousands of rats. The property was in jeopardy of being taken from the family.

Today, that property is one he still owns and has developed into a 200,000-square-foot office park. If the township approves his plan for a detention basin, Richter claims he can improve the local storm-water runoff issues in Wayne.

After handling the situation local newspapers called “Richter’s Rat Ranch,” Richter started a finance business in 1982 with a friend he’d known for 15 years. Five years later, the two split, and Richter started Girard Finance Company. With Girard, Richter finances taverns, many of them in hard struggling areas like corner locations in North Philadelphia.

It’s not like Richter needs the money. When he contracted 30 tourists he met staying in his freak hotel in Bangkok as extras in “The Deer Hunter,” the producers paid him $50 a day for each extra. Richter paid each extra $20 and pocketed the rest. “It’s the cost of doing business,” he explained. (The movie won “Best Picture of the Year” Oscar.)

Today, in addition to running his finance company and Isabella, Richter focuses on rehabbing old buildings and turning around struggling restaurants, like Coyote Crossing and the 401 Diner in Conshohocken.

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