Hernand and Sosthenes Behn

Country of origin: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Year came to U.S.: 1900

Education: St. Barbe College, Paris

Business: ITT (1920), Exelis (2011) and Xylem Inc. (2011)

Headquarters: White Plains, NY

2018 revenue: $2.8 billion (ITT) and $5.2 billion (Xylem)

U.S. employment: 3,100 (ITT) and 5,400 (Xylem)


  • Hernand Behn’s dream was to build the first worldwide system of interconnected telephone lines.

  • In 20-odd years, ITT’s assets grew from $38 million to $535 million in a network spanning more than 30 countries.

Two brothers, Hernand and Sosthenes Behn, went from the island life of sugarcane plantations to building a global telecommunications empire that helped the world communicate.

Hernand Behn moved from the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands) to Puerto Rico in 1900 to assist his uncle in managing a sugarcane plantation. Six years later, his brother joined him and the two launched a brokerage firm. In 1914, they gained control of the Puerto Rican Telephone Company that had been put up as security on a loan for sugar crops. They decided to try to save the failing phone company and after a few years managed to turn it around.

They were so successful that they were able to arrange a merger with the Cuban Telephone Company in 1916 and a joint project with AT&T to lay cable from Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba, in 1919. They had dreams of creating a global telephone company based on the success of AT&T. So, in 1920, they incorporated the International Telegraph and Telephone (ITT) Company in Maryland.

In the 1920s, ITT expanded into a network of local telephone systems in more than 30 countries, and its assets expanded from $38 million to $535 million. Just as social networking technology has been credited with aiding the Arab Spring, ITT was thought to have influenced the Spanish revolution by improving Spain’s communication system.

After Hernand’s death in 1933, Sosthenes took the reins of ITT. At the time of his retirement in 1950, the company had 100 subsidiaries worldwide employing 40,000 people and annual business worth $500 million.

Today, ITT has diversified but is still a vibrant part of the global economy. After its many incarnations over the years, ITT split into three companies in 2011 covering industrial products (ITT), defense and information solutions (Excelis), and water technology products (Xylem). In 2015, Exelis was purchased by competitor Harris Corporation. The combination of Exelis and Harris created one of the top 10 defense contractors in the United States.

Updated December 2019