John D. Rockefeller: The Richest Man in Modern History


John D. Rockefeller was a titan of industry, known for his role in the rise of the American oil industry and his incredible wealth. Widely considered to be the richest self-made man in modern history, Rockefeller’s net worth at the height of his career was estimated to be around $400 billion dollars in today’s money. However, his success did not come easily – Rockefeller started from very humble beginnings, born into a large family with a con-man father who frequently left the family to fend for themselves. Despite these challenges, Rockefeller’s entrepreneurial instincts shone through from a young age, and he worked hard to build his own success, eventually becoming one of the most influential and well-known figures in American business history.

From Bookkeeper to Produce Business Owner

John D. Rockefeller was born into a large family, with a father who was frequently absent and was regarded as a con-man. Who sold worthless potions. So, from a young age John needed to help provide for the family and took on odd jobs, like – looking after the neighbor’s turkeys, or selling potatoes and candy, even though these things didn’t pay a lot. John was really good at them and worked really hard, so he was able to save enough money to start offering small loans to other people. So, even as a young boy that entrepreneurial instinct was there. But when he turned 16, he dropped out of school and got his first real job as a bookkeeper earning just 50 cents a day. However, after working there for around two years his employers still refused to give him a meaningful raise, and so he decided to start his own produce business. As he had a goal to make one hundred thousand dollars, and he knew he’d need to build something of his own to reach that target.

Luckily this first job had already taught him a lot, and gave him the experience, connections, and reputation to raise $4,000 dollars for starting his own venture. A business – selling goods, like meat, hay, and grain, which did well in the first year of trading. It made almost half a million dollars, of course Rockefeller didn’t keep all of that himself. A lot of it went back into business expenses and loans, but it meant when a big opportunity arose Rockefeller now had some real money to invest. And that opportunity was oil.

Expansion and Dominance in the Oil Industry

In 1859, the first american oil well was discovered, which began at the Pennsylvania Oil Rush. However, Rockefeller realized that while most people were trying to get rich from drilling oil, the bigger profits were actually in oil refinery. So, at just 24 years old, he used the money from his first business to build an oil refinery.

A Pennsylvania oil field in 1862

Now, around this time he met a man named Henry Flagler, who was interested in investing in his business. And so together they incorporated the Standard Oil Company, and began the process of buying out all the smaller nearby oil refineries that they were in competition with. Whenever any of these refineries refused to sell their business to him, he simply started selling his oil at a loss; so that all their customers flocked to him instead. Which would put these smaller companies out of business, these kind of practices allowed the standard oil company to keep expanding across the entire country. They kept buying out rivals, undercutting competitors, and cutting costs wherever possible. The more they grew the more negotiating power they had, so they could push for better rates and prices and discounts on everything. Rockefeller was also known for some secret shady deals. And so with all of these factors combined by the 1870s Rockefeller’s oil company owned 90% of the world’s oil refining industry. He also hired the owners of the oil refineries he bought as board trustees, which meant that all the smartest oil experts were all working within one super company with rockefeller at the head of it. He owned 20,000 oil wells had over a 100,000 employees. And at the very peak some estimate its total value would today have been worth almost a trillion dollars. This kind of empire was pretty unheard of, but rockefeller wasn’t done yet.

Public perception of Rockefeller

At this point in time the two biggest industries were oil and railroads. So, Rockefeller set out to do a similar thing he’d just done with oil with railroads. However, as he began monopolizing another industry, he also began to become a bit of a public enemy. He was depicted as the ultimate symbol of corporate greed and cruelty. In response to Rockefeller’s ever-growing empire, legislation was passed to try and prevent these kind of monopolies. In particular, The Sherman Anti-trust Act was passed, which would lead to the breakup of standard oil into different subsidiaries. Except, over time many of these subsidiaries would simply merge back together, and are still around to this day, such as bp and Chevron. And since, Rockefeller kept his share in all those companies even after they split up it meant that at the time of his death he was still the richest person in the world and likely the richest self-made man in all of modern history.

John D. Rockefeller in one hand made oil an affordable commodity and brought it to the masses. He went from nothing to building a business empire that may never be matched again. He also gave around $540 million dollars to charitable causes, which if adjusted for inflation now, makes him one of the most accomplished philanthropists ever. However, on the other hand, Rockefeller was a greedy ruthless tyrant of business, who often bullied, extorted, and exploited others on his merciless path to dominance. Especially, the tactics he used to crush the competition. Biographer Ron Chernow argues, “his good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad.”

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