A century in the heart of downtown

'We hold their hand through good times and bad.'

Amidst the ever-changing face of downtown Providence remains an investment firm that has endured. Brown, Lisle/Cummings Inc., opened its doors in the heart of the city’s financial district in 1912. The following year it moved into the newly constructed Turk’s Head Building. Despite the Great Depression, two world wars, a Great Recession and numerous market fluctuations it has weathered these storms and remained a loyal tenant to this day. More

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REAL ESTATE

A century in the heart of downtown

'We hold their hand through good times and bad.'

PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
HERE TO STAY: What is now Brown, Lisle/Cummings opened in 1912, moving into the Turk's Head Building the following year. Pictured above are firm members, from left: Scott Lisle, Joe McGinn, Jonathan Knowles, David Izzi, John Marginson, Peter Lisle and Louie Murphy.
Posted 4/23/12

Amidst the ever-changing face of downtown Providence remains an investment firm that has endured. Brown, Lisle/Cummings Inc., opened its doors in the heart of the city’s financial district in 1912. The following year it moved into the newly constructed Turk’s Head Building. Despite the Great Depression, two world wars, a Great Recession and numerous market fluctuations it has weathered these storms and remained a loyal tenant to this day.

While the odds are long against one firm staying in a building it doesn’t own that long, they are not the only tenant to have occupied the building for nearly a century.

The law firm of Gardner, Sawyer, Gates & Sloan and now its last remaining partner have been there from the beginning too. The partnership dissolved in 2010, according to retired partner Robert B. Gates, of South Kingstown. But attorney James M. Sloan remains in the building.

“I started there in 1953,” said the 86-year-old Gates, “and stayed there for 57 years. There were only two partners at the time, so that left only Sloan,” who did not immediately return calls seeking comment. Gates said the company started as Wilson, Gardner & Churchill and soon added Ada Lewis Sawyer, the first woman to pass the Rhode Island bar exam.

“In those days it was a good place to be, in the center of downtown. It’s a nice building,” Gates said.

For Brown, Lisle/Cummings Inc., it is still the place to be.

Throughout the years the firm has thought about buying its own property or moving out of the city. In the end they’ve always decided to stay in the financial district.

“There’s still a core of lawyers and accountants that have stayed here. It’s important to be here,” said partner emeritus Peter Lisle.

In terms of the company’s devotion to the building, it seems the partners just never found a good reason to leave.

“I have to say that we’re long-term planners and investment advisers and I think a lot of that trickles down” to the company’s own planning, partner Scott Lisle said. “We’ve been very loyal to the building for partially that reason. You could always try to cut a lease deal with another building in the city or going somewhere where you could find a cheaper space, but in the end we want to be located here.

“As far as I’m concerned [this is] where financial business takes place and it’s good to be here. It’s also nice that the windows actually open,” he joked.

“The architecture is interesting,” he added. “The Turk’s head on the outside of the building has got an angular cut to it; it’s very unique, and the mosaic tile of the Turk on the first floor is interesting as well. It’s been there forever,” he said.

Of course, Brown, Lisle/Cummings’ longevity its about more than its place of business and unique architectural features. Partners believe the fact that it is has remained family-owned has been a key factor in the firm’s prosperity.

“I started in 1968,” said Peter Lisle. “The firm was started by my grandfather, Frank Lisle.” Along with Cyrus Brown and Carl Marshall, Brown, Lisle & Marshall opened their office across the street from the Turk’s Head Building while it was under construction. In 1984, they merged with Cummings & Co., Inc., which was founded in 1927.

With such a long, physical presence in the city’s banking center, the company’s roots in the community run deep. “From what I have heard, my grandfather understood the market was going crazy in the 1920s and got most of his clients out of stocks and into bonds,” Lisle said. “They were forever thankful for that and the firm got through that awful period.”

Another key to the firm’s survival has been its commitment to showing a “personal touch” with clients, said partner emeritus Jonathan Knowles. “We take customers of all size, shape and form, from large accounts to small accounts and we hold their hand through good times and bad.”

Added partner Joe McGinn: “The focus on long-term investing is key because there are always going to be ups and downs in the financial market.”

According to Scott Lisle, being private and independent gives the firm an advantage. “We’re not trying to hit quarterly earnings, forecasts or appease public shareholders on a regular basis,” he said.

And the firm’s commitment to its landlord is mirrored in its continuity with customers, staff and even the partners.

“When you consider the longevity of our staff the numbers are staggering,” partner David Izzi said. “The seven partners have a combined service of 186 years with the firm and 225 years of total financial experience.”

The firm’s stability is also evidenced by the generations of customers they have served.

“Some of my clients’ families were here three and four generations ago,” Lisle said. “Their great uncles and grandfathers had accounts here. They encouraged their children to invest here and so on.”

Although it has a rich history, the firm is not tied to the past and is always aware of new opportunities. Areas the company has grown in recently include registered investment-adviser services, the management of the assets of high net-worth individuals and institutional investors. Clients are also looking for more comprehensive financial planning, retirement-income planning and insurance options.

When asked about the future economy, in true form, the partners aren’t looking at the next two quarters but the next few years and their observations are broad. They note that U.S. has become one of the lowest-cost producers of oil and natural gas among non-OPEC countries, according to John Dowd, manager of Fidelity Select Energy Portfolio. They praise the country’s focus on technology and its educational institutions. They also believe that there is still a lot of money on the sidelines, not being used.

Gary Brandeis, president of iBuilding, which owns the Turk’s Head Building, said the company is proud to have several long-term tenants, with Brown, Lisle/Cummings at the top of the list.

“Since purchasing the building in 2008, one of [its] most impressive attributes we’ve seen is the loyalty of our tenants,” he said. “In a city like Providence, being in an iconic building means something.” •

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