John Madden was a legendary figure even by the standards of Brown Brothers Harriman.
At Yale in the late 1930s, he was a gifted athlete—football, lacrosse, and wrestling—and an even more gifted scholar, majoring in classics. He enlisted in the U.S. Army upon graduation and served as an artillery captain in the Allied invasion of Sicily, as well as in the Pacific theater.
After the war, Madden flirted with law school and attended graduate school briefly before landing in March 1946 at BBH, where he made a name for himself in commodities lending, creating a substantial new business in financing South American coffee merchants. He was made a partner in 1955 at the age of 35.
Madden’s most significant contribution to BBH came not as a banker but as a leader. He had begun to exert his influence on the firm long before he assumed the role of managing partner in 1968, working to groom a new generation of partners. Indeed, he thought long and hard about the partnership structure in both theory and practice, and how to reposition this partnership to survive as a private bank amid the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s.
An intellectual by nature, Madden loved ideas and was open to them, cultivating among his partners a newfound willingness to experiment. But he was also a pragmatist who recognized that ideas needed mechanisms in order to grow and take root—not least of all in a partnership of equals. He was also accessible: In a firm of 650-odd employees in the early 1970s, Madden prided himself on meeting every new employee within a month of their joining the firm.
Above all, Madden was committed to BBH and its clients. Sometime in the early 1970s, the pipes burst in the ceiling in the Partners’ Room at BBH’s New York office, flooding the desks. Water found its way into the basement, where the vault was located. Madden was at home in Brooklyn Heights when he heard the news. He immediately walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to the office and stood guard outside the vault—two Colt .45 revolvers in hand—to make sure there was no monkey business with clients’ custody assets.
For clients wondering why they should entrust their assets to a small firm like BBH, that was a pretty good answer.
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