cover image Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power

Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power

Zachary Karabell. Penguin Press, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-1-59420-661-0

Journalist and former finance executive Karabell (The Last Campaign) delivers a largely flattering history of the private investment firm Brown Brothers Harriman. In 1800, Alexander Brown left Belfast, Ireland, for Baltimore, Md., where he became an importer of linen and an exporter of tobacco. Drawing on company records, Karabell tracks the evolution of the Brown family business from trading to investment banking, and its merger, at the height of the Great Depression, with a bank founded by railroad heir and U.S. diplomat W. Averell Harriman. Along the way, Karabell documents formative moments in America’s economic and political history, including the rise of the cotton industry; the building of the nation’s first railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio; the U.S. invasion and occupation of Nicaragua in the early 20th century; and William Paley’s takeover of the CBS radio network in the 1920s. According to Karabell, Brown Brothers Harriman has weathered wars, banking panics, and stock market crashes by following Alexander Brown’s advice to his sons, including “avoid unnecessary risks,” don’t trade with “unvetted partners,” and “be known as someone whom others could trust.” Though he underplays the seamier aspects of the story, Karabell draws an illuminating contrast between Brown Brothers Harriman and behemoths such as Chase and Goldman Sachs. Fans of business history will be rapt. (May)