If John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) were around today, he would be the wealthiest American alive. Almost 40 years after his death, he still holds the record. Adjusted for inflation, his personal fortune would add up to $663.4 billion in today’s dollars.
That being said, if he were around today, his business practices would be illegal. He was accused of being unethical and that put a damper on his legacy, but he even if he was a scoundrel of capitalism, he was also one of the first mega philanthropists and put his wealth to work making real changes for the better for his fellow humans.
The founder of Standard Oil Company truly worked his way up to his status. Before he raked in billions, he was born the son of a traveling salesman and earned his pocket money as a child from raising turkeys, selling candy, and doing odd jobs for his neighbors. After high school, he completed a six-month course in business in half the time and landed his first job six weeks later.
When he was 16, he was hired as an assistant bookkeeper. In fact, he celebrated September 26, the day he started work at the Cleveland commission firm, for the rest of his life as “job day,” the day he entered the business world.
Four years later, Rockefeller and a business partner formed a firm of their own. From then on, Rockefeller went on to make the right decision at the right time again and again, earning himself his unmatched prosperity.
Savvy decision #1:
Soon after he and his partners started their firm, the first oil well was drilled. They invested right away, entering the lucrative new industry. They opened their own refinery, and two years later…
Savvy decision #2:
Rockefeller borrowed money to buy out his partners and establish Standard Oil Company, of which he was the president and largest shareholder.
Savvy decision #3:
Standard Oil wasn’t just a refinery and some pipelines. Rockefeller and his new partners bought out their rivals, started their own distribution and marketing companies, built their own barrels, and hired scientists to find new ways to use petroleum. All of these companies lived under the same umbrella – the Standard Oil Trust – because according to Rockefeller, “Competition is a sin.”
Of course, the fact that he owned 90% of America’s refineries combined with his staggering success brought him under scrutiny. While what he was doing wasn’t illegal at the time, journalists and politicians alike lined up to reduce his influence. To take him down a peg or two and prevent other companies from forming similar monopolies in the future, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which banned trusts and combinations that reined in trade. As a result, the Standard Oil Trust was dissolved.
Savvy decision #4:
The same year his life’s work was dismantled, Rockefeller retired at age 57 with the goal of living (and golfing) to be 100.
Drawing inspiration from his own religious beliefs, his wife’s influence, and his admiration of Andrew Carnegie (who gave away most of his money), Rockefeller gave away half a billion dollars. Though he was no saint when it came to business, having claimed that, “The way to make money is to buy when blood is running in the streets,” he also had a strong moral core:
“I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.”
Of course, all of his charitable activities were planned and executed with help from experts, defining the standard for methodical and masterfully-executed corporate philanthropy.
Rockefeller financed colleges, including Spelman College, a historic black women’s college in Atlanta, The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and the General Education Board. His Rockefeller Sanitary Commission is credited with eradicating hookworm disease in the south. All of his efforts were aimed at improving the human condition through education and science. Today, billionaires like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Warren Buffett have taken up the mantel
Rockefeller may have missed his goal of living to be 100 by three years, but he gets a pass on that one. Being an over-achiever never was the best way to make friends, but it leaves one heck of a legacy. Besides, the business world, with all its faults, wouldn’t have the protections it has if he hadn’t pushed the envelope.