Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., by Ron Chernow
A story about a man who was lionized or villainized based on the temperament of the times. Depending on who you asked, he was recognized and admired as the world’s richest man. For others, he was nothing more than a corporate monger who stifled marketplace competition at all costs. Undeniably, with the passage of time, he has, however, come to be remembered by history as the greatest charitable benefactor the United States, and perhaps the world, has ever known. For us, he satisfies the entrepreneurship definition. This is a life worth reading about and learning from.
Titan, the biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., teaches us, through the life of a man of incredible complexity and accomplishment, what it was to be an entrepreneur, businessman and investor at a time when the rules of the game were less-defined but when, as of now, ambition, patience, intelligence and perseverance were still the primary indicators of future success.
As crazy as this is to say, this book is an 894-page page-turner. Like learning from the best of the best? This book will teach you:
Always a Step Ahead
Rockefeller, simply stated, got things done while others were still talking about doing them. He was in business at 18. As a teenager, he was issuing interest-bearing loans to his father.
Rockefeller must be remembered as someone who did much more than just sell oil. He changed the fabric of the country. He was the man most principally responsible for blending day with night by introducing an affordable energy source to the masses. Less frequently discussed about his life than oil, he was similarly pioneering in the industries of iron ore, transportation and medical research. Anti-capitalists would have you believe that he built a fortune on the backs of the less fortunate. The actual facts tell a different story. The world is a better place because of the transformative nature in which he did business and brought products to market. His path fits squarely within the meaning of entrepreneurship.
In one word, self-assured. A life defined by the characteristics of entrepreneurship, as a young man, Rockefeller told anyone who would listen that he “would be worth $100,000” one day. By the time of his death, he had repeated that feat 9,900 times in an era where a few thousand dollars a year could be considered a good working wage.
Rockefeller always bet on himself, as we all should. He crowdfunded his own path, investing $4,000 investment in 1863 to go from employee to business owner. A decade later, he was indisputably the world´s richest man. In famous Rockefeller words, and advice all us entrepreneurs and dreamers can live by, we have this quote about entrepreneurship: “[n]ever be kind to skeptics who doubt our bright future.”
Partnerships and Association
Realizing in his early Cleveland oil refining days the power of association and who you surround yourself with, Rockefeller took the risky move, after a fallout with his then business partners, of permitting his entire business at that time to go to auction to the highest bidder so that the partners could cash out their shares in the refinery. Never one to be outmaneuvered, Rockefeller, at the twelfth hour was able to gather the funds needed to be that highest bidder. If they would not leave the business on their own, Rockefeller would make it so. And he did. His explanation for the risky move of potentially being outbid for a business he had built: “Immoral men are poor businessmen and partners . . . never again [will I] have [my] advancement blocked by mediocre and short-sighted men.”
Discipline in All Areas
Titan describes Rockefeller’s business style as “daring in design, cautious in execution.” The unstoppable force that was his own belief in himself gave him the assurance that he needed to borrow huge sums of money to grow his empire. He was not, however, a reckless debtor. To the contrary, he would borrow huge amounts for growth but then track every penny. If you get the book, you will particularly enjoy the story of his conversation with a day laborer responsible for cauterizing the Company’s oil barrels prior to shipment.
Rockefeller asked his employee “how many drops of solder do you use to seal each oil barrel?” “40 drops of solder on each oil barrel,” the worker responded. “Do you suppose 39 may be enough to keep the barrels closed?” Rockefeller than asked. “I suppose they would,” replied the worker. From that point forward, 39 drops of solder instead of 40 were used to seal each oil barrel the company shipped. The result was savings to the Standard Oil Company of $100,000s in just a short period that followed. Rockefeller was a man, the book says, who “[a]rrived at brilliant solutions through slow persistence.”
Post-civil war America and its coincidence with the discovery of vast amounts of oil in northwest Pennsylvania created a get-rich quick atmosphere. Rockefeller, on the other hand, was organizational and principles-based. He believed in the longevity of the industry and he captured more of it than anyone ever would because he put the long-term prosperity of a lasting business over the short-term riches that his, if you can even call them this, competitors, were searching for. We can learn a lot about how we should manage our own businesses and investment portfolios when we study Rockefeller here.
Preparing for Roller Coasters
Peaks and valleys. Ups and downs. Rockefeller was ready for them all. When assets became too expensive, he built cash reserves. When his eyes spotted opportunity, which they often did before anyone else, he attacked those opportunities mercilessly.
“I prefer to say no more than I have to.” – John D. Rockefeller.
Growth through Delegation
Rockefeller built an empire through the work and expertise of trusted confidants and well-trained workers. He, in fact, made more money in retirement by considerable amounts than he ever did while active in the Standard Oil Company because of the business machine that he built. Rockefeller subscribed to the maxims that one “should never do anything that they can train someone else to do” and that “the worst thing you can do for someone is to do for them something they could easily do for themselves.” His idea of the most important work he could do: “Find people who are competent and let them sink or swim so that [I] can cock up my heels and think of ways to make some money for the Standard Oil Company.”
Confidence in the Face of Opposition
A list of the opponents Rockefeller faced in his career: Teddy Roosevelt, the U.S. Supreme Court, the press, Thomas Edison, Russia. A formidable list indeed. You have to get the book to see how those battles all unfolded. That said, the way I have written this article probably foreshadows many of the outcomes, so I will take this time to share one of the stories.
The calmness of Rockefeller in the face of opposition is memorable in this story from the book: In the early 1900s, public sentiment had shifted against corporate monopolies and Rockefeller was publicly seen as by far the worst offender. This led to the prosecution of the Standard Oil Company at the behest of President Teddy Roosevelt and resulted in the largest corporate fine ever issued to that point, $29.4 million, and an order to break up the company into its individual subsidiaries. Learning of the fine during a round of golf, Rockefeller expressed his sentiment by quoting Mark Twain: “Like a virgin newlywed on the day after her wedding might say, I expected it, but didn´t suppose it would be so big.”
Rockefeller, as always, got the last laugh. Dismantling the Standard Oil Company into its separate companies means that instead of owning 30% of the conglomerated company, Rockefeller owned 30% of each of its components parts. As luck would have it, the component parts, a short time thereafter, were worth more collectively than they had been when operating under one parent corporation. Roosevelt’s efforts, all the public backlash about the Standard Oil Company and all the demonizing headlines about Rockefeller, did exactly the opposite of what they were intended to achieve. A short time later, Rockefeller’s wealth had risen from $300 million prior to the prosecution and the dismantling of the trust to almost $1 billion.
The Role of Charity
Say what you will about Rockefeller´s approach to business. But, his charitable contributions and their impact on the world are undeniable. Among other endeavors, he founded and funded the University of Chicago. He invested heavily in black education at a time when the country was still “separate but equal.” He changed forever the approach in the medical field from reactivity to proactivity. Rockefeller knew that with his wealth came great responsibility. The book also shows us that, for Rockefeller, all this giving was perhaps largely personal. “Blessed” with a father who became a famous snake oil salesman throughout the country under the name “Dr. William Livingston”, Rockefeller compensated the world for his father´s shortcomings and was a pioneer in giving to medical research that focused on the actual eradication of the world’s microbiological diseases.
See you in Heaven
I hope there is enough here already to motivate you to read this book and explore the life of John D. Rockefeller and his example of entrepreneurship. One final story.
Rockefeller’s business roots started in Cleveland, Ohio. He was as committed to his Baptist faith as he was the free flow of kerosene, maybe even more so. Sundays in Cleveland were dedicated to time at the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church. Rockefeller died at age 97. His last day was as compelling for him emotionally as we would all hope to experience through our own entrepreneurial endeavours. On the day he died, Rockefeller still found the energy to pay the full outstanding mortgage on that same Euclid Avenue Baptist Church.
Support the site, get the book on Amazon! It is truly one of the best books on entrepreneurship.