The first Nashville firm to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, J. C. Bradford and Company was founded in 1927 by James Cowdon Bradford Sr. Bradford was born in Nashville to Alexander and Leonora Bradford on November 24, 1892. Alexander Bradford died suddenly, shortly after his son's birth, and his widow returned to her native Louisiana, where the younger Bradford spent the early years of his life. He returned to Nashville in 1907 to attend Montgomery Bell Academy and lived with an uncle, Judge James C. Bradford. After completing high school, Bradford enrolled in Vanderbilt University, leaving in 1912 to enter the business world.
Bradford spent his early business career in insurance. During World War I he was commissioned in the field artillery, serving as an instructor at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. After the war he managed the Davis, Bradford, and Company insurance agency until 1923, when he left to assume the presidency of Piggly Wiggly Stores. In 1922 Clarence Saunders, founder of the Memphis grocery chain, had borrowed heavily to finance efforts to stop a Wall Street raid on Piggly Wiggly stock. Operating under the lax enforcement of New York Stock Exchange rules, Saunders went for a corner on the market and seemingly had it, but when Piggly Wiggly stock plummeted in value, Saunders could not repay his loans to banks and pools. Pool leaders forced Saunders out and hired Bradford to salvage the company. From 1923 to 1926 Bradford led the reorganization efforts and restored Piggly Wiggly to profitability.
After resigning from Piggly Wiggly, Bradford returned to Nashville, serving briefly as a vice-president with American National Bank. In May 1927 Bradford purchased a small securities firm for ten thousand dollars and launched his own brokerage business. J. C. Bradford & Co. began business during the era of the great bull market of the late 1920s and did well until the stock market crash of 1929. The crash concerned Bradford, but he remained optimistic. In 1930 J. C. Bradford & Co. purchased a seat on the New York Stock Exchange for four hundred thousand dollars, the first Nashville-based firm to do so. Within months of purchasing the seat, the firm experienced a declining market that persisted throughout much of the Great Depression. Bradford's firm was the only Nashville-owned broker business to survive the depression, largely because of its small size and the reduction of expenses.
In 1934 the state commissioner of insurance and banking appointed Bradford chairman of the board of a voting trust to oversee the management of Life and Casualty Insurance Company; he served in this capacity until 1951. When life insurance companies emerged as a major investment area after World War II, Bradford's expertise allowed the firm to develop a national reputation in this area.
J. C. Bradford & Co. opened its first branch office in Knoxville in 1943. This expansion continued after the war and included nine offices in four states by the late 1950s. Nevertheless, the firm remained a small regional concern, concentrating its efforts in industrial revenue bonds, municipal bonds, general stock sales, and life insurance stocks. In 1955 Bradford organized Life Insurance Investors, Inc., a mutual fund invested exclusively in life insurance company stocks. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the firm established a national reputation in the brokerage business for its expertise and dealings in life insurance companies, negotiating company sales as well as organizing syndicates for purchasing portions of life insurance companies.
In 1959 Bradford's son, James C. Bradford Jr., joined the firm. Educated at Groton and Princeton, the younger Bradford worked at Lehman Brothers on Wall Street before returning to Nashville. Over the next two decades, the firm moved into its modern era. While Bradford Sr. remained the senior partner until his death in December 1981, the small company became a major regional firm. Under Bradford Jr.'s leadership, the firm diversified its products and services. Beginning in the 1960s the firm grew dramatically, expanding throughout Tennessee and the South as well as opening offices in the Midwest and California. By the 1990s J. C. Bradford & Co. had grown to over eighty offices in fifteen states.
On June 12, 2000, J. C. Bradford & Co. merged with the national financial firm of PaineWebber. In March 2001 the company became UBS PaineWebber after a merger with UBS Wartburg.