Remaining a partnership long after its Wall Street peers went public, Brown Brothers has been content to provide boring but essential (and profitable) services: “global custody institutional wealth management, foreign exchange, fund accounting, cash management.” And it never worried too much about the league tables. One partner put it this way: “We didn’t ask ourselves what size we should be to meet the business. We asked what business we should take to match our size.”
Brown Brothers, which has about $2 billion in revenue, may be a minor player among the giants of Wall Street. But Karabell concludes that the firm’s size is, in fact, an emblem of success. The number of companies of any sort that last for two centuries is vanishingly small. Bigger may be better. But it doesn’t always make a company built to last.