W. A. Harriman & Co. Inc. originated as the financial arm of a growing shipping business founded by Averell Harriman. In 1917, four years after graduating Yale, Harriman had acquired the Roach shipyard in Chester, near Philadelphia, and soon won a government contract for 40 merchant vessels that would transport men and materiel to Europe for the rest of the First World War. He went on to acquire controlling or minority stakes in half a dozen other shipping lines. By 1922, Harriman would control one of the largest merchant fleets in the world, with routes extending as far north as Hamburg, as far south as Cape Town, and across the Pacific.
To finance this new maritime empire, Harriman established W. A. Harriman & Co. Inc. (WAH&Co.) in 1919. G. H. (“Bert”) Walker, the former president of Guaranty Trust Company. started out running the firm before turning over day-to-day operations to Roland, Averell’s younger brother, and Prescott Bush, Walker’s son-in-law.
WAH&Co. quickly established itself as a leader in securities and underwriting well beyond shipping. It focused on stock and bond issues and active investments in new corporations—especially in Germany, where it made numerous investments in mining and manufacturing concerns.
An early supporter of aviation, Averell also became one of the original investors in Aviation Corporation of America (AVCO), a forerunner of Pan American Airways founded by former Wall Street bond salesman Juan Trippe. With Yale classmate Robert Lehman, then head of Lehman Brothers, he helped transform AVCO into an aviation conglomerate.
Hoping to expand their influence with foreign banks, Averell and his brother, Roland, founded a sister bank called W. A. Harriman & Co. (without the Inc.) in 1927. (The bank was later renamed Harriman Brothers & Co.) They recruited Knight Woolley, a Yale classmate of Roland’s, who had made a name for himself in bank acceptances at the American Exchange National Bank. Harriman Brothers grew quickly. By 1930, it was doing a robust business in foreign exchange, letters of credit, and deposit taking.
After the 1931 merger with Brown Brothers, the principals of the two Harriman firms—Prescott Bush, Knight Wooley, and the Harriman brothers—would become founding partners of Brown Brothers Harriman.
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