Rockefeller’s John D. Rockefeller

How the richest man in history made his millions

In 1911, 38 major US oil companies, including Exxon, Chevron and Mobil, came into being. They sprung from a US Supreme Court ruling that Standard Oil, whose president was John D Rockefeller, was an illegal monopoly and must be broken up. It was a sad end for a company that had literally created the modern petroleum industry.

Like many great entrepreneurs of his day, Rockefeller’s beginnings were humble, but he went on to become the richest man in history. He showed early promise selling turkeys as a boy, using the money to make loans, and in 1858, as a young adult, he made $500,000 trading with farmers.

During the early 1860s, while the US was consumed by civil war, oil was first beginning to make its impact on his home state of Ohio, and Rockefeller wasted no time investing in liquid black gold. He mitigated risk by buying up competitors and associated businesses, increasing his leverage with every acquisition.

He consistently drove hard bargains and, as the business grew, Rockefeller’s momentum became unstoppable. At its peak, Standard Oil owned roughly 90% of the US oil industry. His ruthless tactics saw him denounced as a “Robber Baron”, but he donated $550m to good causes in his lifetime. The Rockefeller Trust (now the Rockefeller University) is one of his proudest achievements.

What he taught us:
  • That well-calculated risks can pay off in a big way, but they must always be mitigated
  • You need a good team – Rockefeller employed many talented business people



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