Innovation, Service and Prudence: Managing Partner Bill Tyree on What Keeps BBH Ticking

March 20, 2018
As BBH kicks off its bicentennial anniversary, we speak with Managing Partner Bill Tyree about critical turning points at the firm, the company’s culture and values and the importance of speaking up.

In 2016, Bill Tyree assumed a role that just six other individuals at Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH) had held before him: Managing Partner. As BBH kicks off our bicentennial anniversary, we sat down with Tyree to reflect on the firm’s past and look toward our future. Along the way, we discussed changes and pivotal moments during his tenure at the firm, why and how BBH maintains its values and client-centric culture and the importance of speaking up and challenging ideas.

Brown Brothers Harriman: Tell us about your personal and professional background. How did you come to work at BBH?

Bill Tyree: My dad was Army, so as a kid I moved around a lot. The military upbringing taught me to be comfortable coming into new situations. It also taught me to be receptive to new people entering my environment and to try my best to make them feel comfortable. In that environment, you learn early the importance of building a welcoming, inclusive community.

When in 1985 as a college senior I was looking for a job, I met with a friend who worked at BBH and became instantly intrigued by the firm. It had a similar reputation for integrity and sophistication as the bank where I had been a summer intern, but it was so different – much smaller and privately owned. I ended up applying for a job at BBH and then choosing it over the other bank because of those differences. I liked that it was a partnership and could chart its own course, and I thought that I would have more opportunity to make a difference at BBH early in my career. Those initial impressions turned out to be right.

BBH: What did your roles look like over the years?

BT: I joined BBH as a banking trainee in the firm’s nine-month rotational training program. After two months of classroom work, my first rotation was in the Merchant Group of U.S. Banking (now the Commodities & Logistics group of Private Banking). I spent two months there and left knowing that I wanted to return to Merchant after finishing my training. As I moved to my next rotation, someone in Merchant quit, so I asked my supervisor, Roddy Klotz (then a deputy manager), whether I could have that job if it was still available when I completed my seven months of rotations. Roddy didn’t answer me on the spot, but he did the next day when I received a revised schedule with only five days of training remaining and an instruction to report to my new permanent position in Merchant the next week.

I’ve always considered that placement in Merchant to be one of the greatest opportunities I’ve been given in my career, second only to getting a job here in the first place! It’s a great example of why you should always ask if you want something. The worst thing that can happen is someone says no.

Seven years later in 1992, I was transferred to what was then called the Money Position, which was a perfect fit for me because I had learned about cash management and securities movements while in U.S. Banking and could put the skills I had to immediate work in the MoPo. Over many years, this area grew to become Treasury & Markets after FX Trading, Equity Brokerage and Securities Lending had all been consolidated into it. Then in 2008, we decided to consolidate these Markets activities directly into Investor Services, primarily because the two areas shared the same clients. And so I transitioned again, this time to take over the leadership of InServ & Markets until I moved to my current job in 2016. I’m a real advertisement for internal mobility at BBH!

BBH: What are some of the biggest changes you have seen at BBH during your tenure?

BT: Technology represents the biggest change. When I joined BBH, I didn’t even have a computer on my desk, and tablets and mobile phones of course didn’t exist. Today, virtually all of my work is digital. Most of us carry multiple devices, and I’m almost to the point where my desk computer is no longer the medium through which I do most of my work. This is causing us to think differently about how we run the business and compelling us to reinvest as much as 20% of our revenues back into technology each year.

With all this technology comes much more efficiency, better accuracy and tremendous productivity. This in turn allows us to focus more on our clients and on our core business strengths. But there’s a downside to our increasing dependence on technology. It creates new dimensions of enterprise risk – cyber and resiliency – and we must dedicate significant resources to defending ourselves against the constant threat from the outside and the impact of our systems failing. So while technology has made our lives easy in many ways, in others it’s introduced an entirely new suite of enterprise risks to manage.

Other major changes at BBH over my 33 years include increased functional and technical specialization among all levels of BBHers, many multiples more employees, much larger financial size and investment resources, more open firmwide communication and deliberate community building. What hasn’t changed is our culture of encouraging independent peer review and our singular focus on the client as the center of everything we do.

BBH: One thing that drew you to BBH was that it was private. Is there an advantage to being a privately owned firm, particularly when it comes to developing a trusted, valued and differentiated relationship with clients?

BT: This is a question we debate a lot. Of course being private makes us different. But I don’t think it’s just being private that explains why BBH is so different. There are plenty of privately owned firms that don’t prioritize the client the way we do, don’t build inclusive communities like ours, don’t honor a spirit of independent peer review and don’t strive for constant improvement like we do. Being privately owned gives us independence from outside equity analysts’ opinions and quarterly earnings pressure, which in turn gives us the freedom to pursue the businesses we choose and to operate the way we want. But it’s our unique BBH culture, traditions and values that differentiate us. It’s our common belief that we’re in business to serve our clients the best way we can and that we succeed when they succeed. Trust is hard to earn, and we strive for it in every client interaction by sharing freely what we know and always doing what we say.

At BBH, independent peer review is one of our foundational principles. One of our strengths is that no one singularly owns an idea here. We all know and appreciate that ideas improve when exposed to many perspectives and viewpoints. This principle springs from our ownership structure where Partners are personally liable for all obligations of the firm, which means that the decisions of one Partner can have a very significant impact on other Partners, even if they are not in the same line of business. Because of this, Partners feel empowered to ask any question and expect a complete and honest response – including both the good and the bad. That culture of questioning and seeking better ideas in an honest, open forum where everyone has an equal say, of being both entrepreneurial and prudent at the same time, pervades the entire organization. At BBH, this principle is inviolate.

BBH: You mentioned the growth BBH has undergone during your tenure. How do you think about keeping the culture consistent across a large global organization?

BT: Our firm values service tenure and relevant experience, so many of our leaders have been at BBH for a long time and are natural culture carriers. But we also frequently hire specialty talent from the industry to ensure we have the finest technical expertise in the market. For those who are newer to the organization, we strive to develop a community of inclusion and respect that allows everyone to contribute their individual talents while living the firm’s values. Our executives understand that our unique culture is an important part of our competitive advantage and enables us to punch above our weight as a firm.

Traveling to other offices, in-person presentations, town halls, simulcasts and our various intranet features are all tools we use to reinforce our values and culture cross-office and ‎among all BBHers. We use all of our multimedia and interpersonal tools to ensure that as we grow, we keep our community strong.

BBH: Where do you draw inspiration from as a leader?

BT: The first place from which I draw inspiration is the organization itself. BBH stands for many of the values ‎that I personally hold dear: teamwork, integrity and excellence are the three most often cited. To those I like to add fairness and respect. It’s not easy to always live these principles, but all of us try really hard to – and that’s inspirational.

I also find inspiration in the list of distinguished leaders I have been privileged to know and work with during my 33 years at BBH. Each has unique strengths and qualities, but what they all have in common is a devotion to BBH and a passion for making the place better for clients and for other BBHers.

The third group from whom I draw inspiration is BBHers in general. I’m fortunate to be able to visit every office and spend time with a broad assortment‎ of colleagues. What I notice from these visits is how many of our people go out of their way to make sure our clients are well-served and our co-workers looked after. This level of personal caring is not common and is inspirational.

BBH: There’s been a big focus on reflection as we begin our bicentennial anniversary. If you think about the defining BBH moments – either before or during your tenure – what stands out?

BT: Given we’re nearing completion of our bicentennial book, we’ve been giving a lot of thought ‎to important moments in our 200-year history, whether it’s surviving another financial panic or celebrating a new client win. A few early ones that come to mind include: 1810, when Alexander Brown sent his eldest son, William, to Liverpool to open an office, William Brown & Co., making his firm transatlantic; 1818, when Alexander’s second son, John, opened the Philadelphia office under the name of Brown Brothers & Co.; 1837, when Joseph Shipley successfully petitioned the Bank of England for financial assistance during the panic of 1837, demonstrating the solid reputation the firm already had at that time; 1918, when Alex. Brown & Sons and Brown, Shipley & Co. separated; and 1931, when Brown Brothers & Co. merged with‎ the two Harriman firms to form Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. – a supercharged private partnership. These historic moments illustrate the firm’s expansionary nature, resourcefulness and early reputation during its first 100-plus years of existence.

The defining moments during my lifetime include: the birth of the global custody business in the early 1960s; the 2008 consolidation of our global custody and U.S. sub-custody businesses to create a more efficient, scalable operation; the division of our Investment and Wealth Management line of business in 2011 into two distinct businesses, Investment Management and Private Wealth Management, which liberated both new divisions to pursue distinct business plans and focus on their targeted client segments; and finally, the 2014 consolidation of Private Wealth Management, Private Equity, M&A Advisory and Corporate Banking into a new line of business, Private Banking, to better serve the needs of private companies and their owners.

BBH: On the other end, what are some focal points that will be impactful in the coming years?

BT: It seems to me that we are at an inflection point between reorganizing our business and expansion. Each line of business has a solid business plan, excellent people and the leadership and organization to carry it out. And each line of business controls a very small percentage of its target total addressable market. So there’s plenty of room to grow right in our sweet spots.

Looking forward over the next three to five years, you can count on us to continue to service the specific client sets we have defined, to expand our use of technology both to improve our processing efficiency and to develop information analysis and delivery products for our clients, to remain active in new product development most likely in adjacencies that would appeal to our existing client types and to grow organically and gradually so we can retain the sense of culture and community that defines us.

BBH: What is the best piece of leadership advice you have received and your favorite piece to give?

BT: The best leadership advice I’ve ever received was from a 360 review that I requested from my InServ Partners a few years ago. I was still getting used to my new leadership job and was taking a long time accumulating data and pulling the trigger on important business decisions. The advice that came from my review was, “Go ahead and make the decisions. We trust you, and we’ll support you.” That empowered me to go ahead and make some game-changing calls. I realized that there is a time to gather data and to analyze – and there’s a time to make the decision and get on board. It’s important not to allow too much time to go by while analyzing and advising, because business moves fast, and at some point, you just have to make the decision and get on with it.

The advice I like to give is very customized for BBH. We are all so fortunate to work for a firm that can make decisions and act on them quickly. And we work at a firm where those proposals can come from anyone, not just the executives – so, speak up! Anyone can do just about anything at BBH. Understand that, and ask whatever questions are on your mind. You might find you are solving an as-yet-unknown problem when you put yourself out there. It’s about creating the right community, working hard and smart, living our values, getting along with people and speaking up. This is a people business.

BBH: Bill, thanks for taking the time to sit down with us to discuss BBH’s past, present and future.

Interview conducted by Jake Turner, and article written by Kaitlin Barbour.

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