John Crosby Brown was a transformational figure at Brown Brothers, which evolved on his watch to serve the new industrial economy in the late 19th century and the enormous fortunes it produced.
The firm underwrote securities for capital-intensive enterprises such as railroads, municipal railways, and utilities, and ventured into businesses, like traveler’s letters of credit and investment advisory and brokerage, that were aimed at wealthy clientele. It also followed the Barings, Rothschilds, and Morgans into sovereign finance, most notably during and after the First World War, when the Partners of Brown Brothers cemented their reputation as international bankers par excellence.
John Crosby might never have had the opportunity to lead the firm were it not for the tragedy that befell his family. Though he had planned to go into the ministry after graduating first in his class from Columbia University in 1859, he decided to join Brown Brothers instead, reluctant to disappoint his father after the deaths of his two older brothers.
He served his apprenticeship at Brown Shipley in Liverpool, where he formed relationships that helped him shepherd Brown Brothers through a succession crisis in the late 1860s and rekindle a sense of transatlantic partnership.
Nevertheless, some younger partners remained critical of John Crosby’s leadership, which they dismissed as too conservative. Not so, John Crosby insisted: “We have neither the capital to handle such large [underwriting] ventures as [larger firms] undertake, nor any great wish to rival them in their special lines of business.” Besides, he added, “most of us are not in business solely for all we can make out of it.” At the same time, John Crosby introduced a new organizational structure that made sure that all partners would have a voice in the future of the firm.
John Crosby devoted much of his later years to chronicling Brown Brothers’ first century. His most enduring memory, he noted toward the end of A Hundred Years of Merchant Banking (1909), was the “sense of commercial honor [and] an absolute fairness in all dealings” that characterized his fathers and uncles and the partners that succeeded them. “Character was prized more than wealth,” he concluded, “and it brought great reward in happy, useful lives.”
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