Stokley Towles, Partner Who Recast Brown Brothers, Dies at 77

Stokley Towles, a mainstay in the Boston office of Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. credited with creating the bank’s global custody business, which now accounts for more than 70 percent of the firm’s employees, has died. He was 77.

He died on Feb. 14 at his home in Westwood, Massachusetts, according to a death notice published yesterday in the New York Times. No cause was given.

Towles (pronounced “tolls”) joined the Boston office of New York-based Brown Brothers after graduating from Harvard Business School in 1960. He spent the rest of his life with the firm, becoming a general partner in 1978 and a limited partner in 2010. The firm is the oldest closely held financial institution in the U.S., with roots reaching back to the founding of Brown Brothers in 1818 in Philadelphia.

In 1969, with Brown Brothers experiencing a decline in its traditional business of extending credit to New England manufacturers and commodities firms, Towles proposed that the firm enter the field of global custody, according to a 2010 profile in Global Custodian magazine. Global custody refers to the settlement, safekeeping and reporting of assets traded across international borders and currencies.

‘Valuable’ Earnings

“Custody was not then considered what professional bankers did,” Towles recalled, according to the magazine. “Professional bankers operated at a much higher level, making loans, financing trade and deal-making with senior corporate executives. We were one of the few banks that chose to focus on international custody at that time.”

As Global Custodian put it, “Towles was among the few senior bankers on the east coast of America to recognize that, if it lacked glamour, custody still threw off valuable ancillary earnings from foreign exchange and cash management.”

Brown Brothers reported $3.3 trillion in assets under custody and administration in 2012. It has 4,200 employees worldwide, with 3,000 working directly or indirectly in global custody, which the firm calls Investor Services.

“In addition to his many other accomplishments, Stokley’s vision during the 1970s led us into the emerging field of global custody, and the firm became a pioneer facilitating the cross-border investment activity of the most sophisticated global asset managers,” Douglas Donahue, the firm’s managing partner, said yesterday in a statement. “This business became, and today remains, the firm’s largest.

Missouri Native

“Stokley was a highly respected industry and civic leader who leaves his legacy at BBH for his unfailing commitment to our clients, many of whom have reached out from around the world to share their reflections in working with Stokes -- which is always memorable. My partners and I will miss his presence.”

Stokley Porter Towles was born on Dec. 12, 1935, in St. Louis. He graduated in 1953 from St. Louis Country Day School and in 1957 from Princeton University before enrolling in Harvard Business School.

At the time he joined Brown Brothers, its Boston office mostly provided banking and brokerage services to clients in the Massachusetts leather, textile and commodities industries, according to the Global Custodian profile.

“We had to begin building new businesses,” Towles recalled, according to the profile. “It did not take long to recognize that was the assignment.”

He became a manager in the banking department in 1969 and a general partner in 1978.

Churchill, Chardonnay

Towles led the board of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 2007 to 2010.

He also was, according to the death notice, “an ardent fan of bridge, chardonnay, ‘Cheers,’ chicken soup, Churchill, common sense, conversation, dinner partners, his dogs, early morning Sunday services, history, Jumbles, life stories, Mediterranean climates, motor-boating, paperback mysteries, people, pop art, problem solving, ‘The Rockford Files,’ routines, ‘Seinfeld,’ simple pleasures, Starbucks, tennis, thrift, the Top 40, vistas, and youth.”

Survivors include his wife, Jeanne; his children Stokley, Amor and Kimbrough; stepsons Clark and Chip Eddy; and 13 grandchildren, according to the death notice.

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