Over the years, many Partners at Brown Brothers have had distinguished careers in public service. The most colorful—and easily one of the most accomplished—was Montagu Collet Norman.
Born in 1871, Norman was raised in refined surroundings, the child of two of England’s most prominent banking dynasties. He showed little promise at first. He dropped out of King’s College, Cambridge, and then bounced around Europe for several years.
Reluctantly, he joined his family’s business at Martins Bank but found commercial banking a bore. He eventually moved to Brown Shipley in London, where his grandfather, Mark Collet, had been a partner. His work there took him to Brown Brothers in New York, where the Americans adored him. After volunteering to fight in the Boer War, he rejoined Brown Shipley in 1900 as a partner himself.
Norman proved to be an astonishingly capable and far-sighted financier. In 1915, he argued to his Brown Shipley Partners that they should not issue securities or participate in underwriting the issues of other bankers while also doing acceptances and other banking functions—the essence of the Glass-Steagall reforms 18 years later, after the stock market crash of 1929. When his partners refused, he resigned.
Norman, who had become a director of the Bank of England in 1907, was appointed governor in 1920. During nearly a quarter century in charge of the bank, he overhauled its organization, bringing in representatives from all sectors of the British economy. He developed friendships with central bankers around the world—most notably Benjamin Strong, by now governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The partnership between Norman and Strong, one eulogist noted, “determined for some crucial years the main direction of world finance.”
Norman’s star dimmed a bit when he resisted moves to abandon the gold standard, which Britain did without incident in 1931.
Norman nonetheless redeemed his reputation in the 1930s, working to repair the damaged international financial order via a series of monetary agreements. Perhaps most important of all, he implemented what one biographer has described as “a battery of controls which ensured that the outbreak of war did not bring the financial chaos” that had erupted in 1914.
At Norman’s death in 1950, the Times of London described him as “for many years the greatest figure in the world of high finance.” Of his many achievements, the Times singled out the transatlantic partnerships he had formed as a template for postwar cooperation between the United States and Great Britain, which many now took for granted.
What the Times might have added was that Norman’s remarkable ability to mediate between the United States and Britain was itself forged in a much earlier time, when Norman had a foot in both countries as the most international and cosmopolitan of the Partners at Brown Brothers.
For Further Reading
- Liaquat Ahamed, Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.
- Andrew Boyle, Montagu Norman: A Biography. London: Webright and Talley, 1968.
- Thatcher M. Brown, Brown Brothers & Co. Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. 1900–1950, typescript (1950)
- Henry Clay, Lord Norman. London: Macmillan, 1957.
- Aytoun Ellis, Heir of Adventure: The Story of Brown, Shipley & Co. Merchant Bankers, 1810–1960. London: Burrup, Mathieson & Co., Ltd., 1960.
- John A. Kouwenhoven, Partners in Banking. New York: Doubleday, 1968.
- Philip Williamson, “Norman, Montagu Collet, Baron Norman (1871–1950),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004, online edition
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