It came as no surprise last week when J.C. Bradford & Co., the city’s lone remaining locally owned financial institution of any significant size, cashed in its chips and sold to Paine Webber. Jimmy Bradford, heir to most of the company’s voting stock, and a man often credited with a sense of high ethics in a business where that is easy to dispense with, said the $620 million sale was necessary because the nation’s large financial services companies were moving in on his company’s turf.

Only months ago, when the Nashville-based First American Bank sold to the Birmingham-based AmSouth, Bradford had told newspaper reporters that the sale of that bank was not only astonishing, but sad. Last week, Bradford was trying not to react emotionally to the sale of the company his father started in the middle of the Great Depression. ”I’m still up to my ass in alligators,“ he told a reporter for NashvillePost.com, when asked for his reflections.

If the company was beset by competitive struggles in the marketplace, internal reasons also prompted the sale. For years, the firm has made paper millionaires of dozens of men who have achieved ”partner“ status. For all practical purposes, those guys, some of whom weren’t working very hard any more, wanted to cash out. And so, for them and the Bradford family, a deal was struck. Golf is in their future.

But as they prepared to pocket what is a lot of money, many of them had to feel a lump in their throats. The Bradford name has long been a force in business development in the Southeast; dozens of companies owed their financial wherewithal to the company’s access to capital. From Nashville, the corporate finance and investment banking units of the company made the city a decided force in certain market sectors. At the least, the company gave the city a much-deserved recognition as a hot place to do business.

And yet, in situations such as these, Nashville seems both blessed and accursed by its entrepreneurship. Historically, the city has seen countless businesses grow and expand, become integral parts of the Nashville power structure, and then sell out. National Life & Accident Insurance Co., the city’s major banks, countless health care firms, even its country music industry, have all been absorbed by entities greater than themselves. There was plenty of head-shaking when H.G. Hill sold most of its grocery chain last year. Even a few were critical of this newspaper’s decision to sell much of its equity to a Wall Street concern last year. (Rest assured, the stakes were paltry by comparison.)

Can one assume that the sale of our institutions represents a fatal flaw in the city’s character? Do we not build companies, sell said companies, then go work on our backhands?

The truth is that such an argument, while perhaps relevant 20 years ago, is increasingly specious. Today, you have two choices in the private marketplace. You either scale up to compete with the major heavies in your industry, which requires either taking on debt or selling part of one’s business in order to grow, or you get run over.

Such is life. The pace of today’s economy is hardly one to increase a sense of rootedness in a community. That said, as everything consolidates, and a certain homogenization results from all the mergers and acquisitions, it is almost a certainty that opportunities will arrive for new firms to do what the acquired firms had once done.

In other words, now that J.C. Bradford & Co. is sold, and since Equitable Securities, the other big financial services business in Nashville, was sold two years ago, the time may be ripe for a small, unique company with strong local roots to compete with the big guys. As Bradford told NashvillePost.com, ”The entrepreneurial spirit is great in Nashville.... I wouldn’t be surprised if some people who don’t get on with Paine Webber go out and start a boutique firm. We have a lot of talent around here.“

Seventy-three years ago, Bradford’s father saw an opportunity. He turned it into a fortune. The sale of the company may cause sadness. But the markets are ruthlessly efficient animals, and in situations like these, opportunity almost always comes knocking.


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