Partner • Brown Brothers Harriman
“I was an ‘army brat’ until the fourth grade,” says Bill Tyree, the partner that runs the combined markets and investor services businesses at Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH). “Which means that, until I was ten years old, I moved around every two or three years.” That peripatetic life began in Berlin just over 50 years ago, where his father commanded a tank company of the United States Army. Its muzzles were trained, among other places, on the Berlin Wall as it went up, but Bill Tyree was too young to remember much of that. Apart from Berlin, his childhood was spent in schools in or near army bases such as Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Alexandria, Virginia; and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This military childhood has given Tyree two lifelong blessings. One is an ability to make friends easily. The other is a lasting respect for the virtues of duty and honor and the important part they play in molding character. “At Brown Brothers Harriman, we all share a strong loyalty to the firm, and a strong sense of personal duty to do the right thing,” explains Tyree. “In 28 years at BBH, I have certainly had my share of career ups and downs, but I have never seriously considered leaving this place to work elsewhere.”
That duty to persevere, and to give something back to the institutions which nurture you, is a philosophy that Tyree certainly lives. He is, for example, treasurer and a trustee of the Hotchkiss School, the boarding prep school he attended in Lakeville, Connecticut in the 1970s. He followed an older brother and two cousins there after his father retired from the army as a full colonel—his last post was a spell at the Pentagon—and took a job in Albany as commissioner of transportation for New York State. “I knew the Hotchkiss School, and enjoyed it, because I played a lot of sports, becoming captain of the soccer team and the Alpine skiing team,” recalls Tyree. “I played tennis too but was thoroughly undistinguished.” But he took the skiing seriously enough to make it a primary focus of his early years at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he hoped to compete at a national level.
Those hopes were not fulfilled, but Tyree did graduate successfully in English Literature as well as Economics, and he argues that his literary skills have proved far more useful at work than anything he learned from economists. “Literature is primarily about communication, and I do a lot more communication in my job than addition and subtraction or economic theory,” says Tyree. “It is excellent preparation for a business career in general, but especially in the securities services business.” As it happens, other adventures postponed his advent to the industry. First came a year of growing up in Europe and Africa, travelling from Scotland in the north to Tunisia in the south, where the father of a friend from Dartmouth was then the United States ambassador to Tunisia. The grand tour was interrupted by a long spell staying with a French family in Lyons, ostensibly to master French. “Sadly, the French has gone,” says Tyree. “Looking back, I wish I had studied Spanish because my wife has a Cuban heritage, and Spanish is spoken in our home.”
Although Tyree joined BBH after Dartmouth, his exposure to banking started much earlier. It took the form of off-term internships while he was studying in college. In 1984 Tyree had a spell in the trade finance department at the Bank of Boston. Later that year, he interned in the loan department with Morgan Guaranty Trust Company at 23 Wall Street. “Both banks had a commitment to hiring college kids as a way to test them out for full-time jobs, but the work was not terribly demanding,” says Tyree. “It was really just to help out the person who hired you.” At Morgan Guaranty, one of his tasks was to use a stopwatch to time how long it took a loan clerk to process a loan. “I felt terrible after I turned in my report,” says Tyree. “What did they do to the slow ones? Someone is probably still angry with that college kid carrying around a stopwatch.” But he must have impressed his superiors at both banks, because in 1985 Tyree received job offers from Bank of Boston and Morgan Guaranty—and rejected them both for Brown Brothers Harriman. Serendipity helped (BBH occupied part of the building opposite Morgan Guaranty on Wall Street, and Tyree wanted to stay in New York), but a personal connection sealed it. A former teammate from the Hotchkiss soccer team, who was already working at the firm, persuaded Tyree over lunch to join BBH.
Sadly, that friend was killed in helicopter crash in his twenties, but it was he who launched Tyree on a career at BBH, which now stretches more than 25 years. Part of the attraction was the modest size and collegial environment of the bank in comparison to Morgan Guaranty. Like every new management trainee, Tyree was vetted by no less than eight partners of the bank. “These people were much older than I and very senior, and I was very impressed that they’d take so much of their time to interview pipsqueaks like me coming out of college,” explains Tyree. “At the other places, I was interviewed by lower- to mid-level employees. At Brown Brothers, it was the senior management of the firm. But the real reason I chose the bank was because I preferred a flatter, more nimble environment with direct access to key decision makers. It was pretty obvious that the opportunity for me was so much better than going to work for a large bank. The management training program had just ten people on it, plus six `foreign visitors,’ as they were called at the time, or young management trainees drawn from our clients, mostly from London, Switzerland and Japan. It was taught by professors from Columbia, Wharton and NYU, which was a fantastic privilege. We learned about corporate finance, accounting, advanced accounting, money and banking.”
Once the four-month training course was complete, trainees were meant to embark on a series of one- and two-month stints in every department of the bank—corporate banking, treasury, international banking, the short term trading desk, foreign exchange and the mysteriously titled credit investigations—but Tyree did most of them in a day. That was because he identified almost immediately exactly what job he wanted. The merchant group in corporate banking, which lent money to import merchants, was the last vestige of the original Brown trading firm. Tyree noticed while rotating through departments that there was an unexpected vacancy in the merchant group and put his hand up for the job. “I thought it was pretty cool that someone senior could make it happen immediately,” says Tyree. “But then that is the reason you choose Brown Brothers.” He ended up lending money mainly to futures brokers, which in the 1980s tended to be subsidiaries of physical commodity merchants. “Brown Brothers Harriman was the only bank in New York which would finance futures and options positions,” explains Tyree. “It was a pretty specialized business. It got to the point where clients would call us, and not us them, which is always a nice position to be in.” The only hitch was that Tyree was dating the woman who sat at the desk next to him. The firm made it possible for both Bill Tyree and Kathryn George to stay. Both are now partners at BBH and have 53 years at the firm between them.
After seven years in Corporate Banking and having developed an expertise in providing collateral and cash management products and services to futures brokers, Tyree was transferred in 1992 to the treasury department, where he stayed for the next 16 years. “The reason the treasury job was open was because Taylor Bodman (see “Taylor Bodman,” Global Custodian, Winter 2009) was moved from New York to Boston to oversee the unification of the Boston and New York offices onto a single platform,” explains Tyree. “At the time, we did not even call it treasury. We called it `the money position.’”
Tyree stayed 16 years in treasury because he turned out to have a flair for it. He improved “the money position” of the bank almost immediately by shifting non-dollar cash deposits from sub-custodians into the treasury department. Predictably, this was not a popular idea with the sub-custodians, which had gotten used to collecting a spread on the money. “The cash needs of the bank took priority,” explains Tyree. “In the end, we had to do it, because you have got to have all your cash, no matter what the currency, in a single pool that you can use to settle securities trades. We could not have grown as we have if we had kept it segregated at sub-custodians like that. It was an early form of liquidity and collateral management.” The solution Tyree hit upon was to automate the cash sweeps out of the sub-custodians. By the time he left the treasury department, Tyree had expanded its empire way beyond “the money position.” Today it encompasses foreign exchange trading, securities lending, and equity and fixed income brokerage. “They all had similar characteristics in terms of trading,” says Tyree “So it was much more efficient to do all these functions under one umbrella.”
In other words, by the time Tyree left the treasury department in 2008 it was responsible for far more than managing the balance sheet of the bank. It was responsible for all of the market activities of BBH and known within the firm as such. The Markets Division also provided the perfect segue into investor services. “Our markets clients are all the same institutions as our investor services clients,” explains Tyree. In fact, he had joined the investor services management committee as early as 2000. When Digger Donahue became managing partner in 2008, the former treasury department was actually merged with investor services, and Tyree became the partner in charge of the combined investor services and markets departments globally. “What I have brought to our investor services team is a balance, because my history had always been about the inner workings of the firm and how the firm operated on the principal side,” says Tyree. “The investor services team is overwhelmingly client focused, so I try to be helpful finding the right balance between the needs of one firm and the needs of our clients.” As it happens, this is a lot less controversial at a partnership bank than it would doubtless be at a joint stock rival. In the end, every partner wants to ensure clients receive superior service while protecting the house. At too many other banks, every managing director is all too willing to bet the farm, let alone the house.