John D. Rockefeller’s Faith, Family & Business

John D. Rockefeller spent his life giving away vast fortunes yet by the time died in 1937, his assets equaled 1.5% of America’s total economic output. To control an equivalent share today would require a net worth of about $340 billion dollars, more than four times that of Bill Gates. Eventually his state to state empire Standard Oil Co. grew to country to country, plotting from 26 Broadway entire ocean fleet of tankers transporting millions of gallons of oil. Standard oil had 4,000 miles of pipeline, 5,000 train tank cars and employed over 100,000. The company was so large when the Geodetic Association announced plans to measure the earth it would enable the trust to learn the exact size of their property. So how did he do it? I believe the answers can be revealed in these three categories exposed in the 676 page biography TITAN by Ron Chernow, here is what I learned:

Faith: John D. Rockefeller was drawn to the church, not as some nagging duty or obligation but as something deeply refreshing to the soul. At age 20 he solicited every possible church member to give and help save the church from foreclosure, later admitting “I contributed what I could, and my first ambition to earn money was aroused”. His early hopes were to someday become a Baptist minister, favorite song being I’ve Found A Friend, oh, such a Friend! He bled, He died to save me. “I was trained from the beginning as a boy by my minister to work and to save” Rockefeller explained. “I have always regarded it as a religious duty to get all I could honorably and give all I could.” In his church, he could be found sweeping out the halls, cleaning the sidewalks, ushering people to their seats, studying the Bible or many other duties. He studied his Bible regularly and diligently, and he knew what was in it. His charitable giving surpassed the 10% mark in his early twenties, one entry notes contributing money to a black man in Cincinnati in 1859 so he could buy his wife out of slavery signifying his convictions  went against popular ideals if necessary. Even as his children went to school, he matched to a black scholarship student whose education was paid for by the family. Rockefeller believed his gifting from God was to make money, once quoted “I believe the power to make money is a gift from God – just as the instincts for art, music, literature, the doctors talent, the nurse’s, yours – to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.” In Rockefeller’s travels, he liked to drop in on black Baptist churches, often leaving a substantial donation in his wake. Sometimes on vacation he would search for a good tent meeting. Rockefeller’s faith in God was contagious, once in a heated boardroom as things looked uncertain, he pointed skyward and said “The Lord will provide.” And He did. Always grounded in faith, when someone expressed surprise to Rockefeller that he had not gotten a big head, he would reply, “Only fools get swelled up over money.” Rockefeller’s contributions to medicine completely eradicated hookworm. Eventually his labs stamped out boll weevils and improved crops all across the south.

Family: Born with no silver spoon Rockefeller lived in a 16’ x 22’ house with torturous rocky fields to plow. Humbling surroundings caused young John to dream, one day strolling by a river with a friend, he blurted out “Some day, sometime, when I am a man, I want to be worth a-hundred-thousand-dollars. And I’m going to be, too-some day.” You can only imagine the friends reaction as John and his brother were excluded from the class photos because their suits were too shabby. Rockefeller’s first love was ended when her parents argued that they didn’t want their daughter to throw herself away on a young man with such poor prospects. His Grandfather was a terrible drunk, his uncle once won a $5 bet by staying sober during an entire trip to town. His brother Frank who John D. made very rich as an adult also struggled with alcohol, and no matter Frank’s financial success always resented John D. for having more. Years later when teaching his Sunday school class Rockefeller would say “Boys, do you know why I never became a drunkard? Because I never took the first drink.” Rockefeller’s father was absent leaving months on end, always engaged in some type of less than legitimate endeavors like selling “healing medicine” and calling himself a doctor. This instability had a 7-year-old Rockefeller contributing silver and copper coins into his mother’s blue china bowl from the sale of chicks he had raised. Rockefeller’s school mates described John as “forgettable” and always seemed to be thinking, patient, slow to learn, but persistent. Rockefeller’s only noble role models were his Grandmother and Mother an avid Bible reader who once moved the family from a drunken single church town to a more stable Godly environment. His mother taught young Rockefeller how to reflect coolly before making decisions “We will let it simmer” was a saying John employed throughout his business career. Rockefeller loved his wife and credited her with all his success saying “Without her keen advice, I would be a poor man.” Valuing time, Rockefeller preferred being with his family at home, even if snoring in his easy chair than going out for the evening, he especially enjoyed the company of ministers. Not wanting to spoil his children, Rockefeller insisted they share a bicycle. Once Bessie his daughter was at a shop with some classmates to buy a present for the teacher, discovering they were a little short on enough money, the shop owner soon discovered who her father was and gasped “John D. Rockefeller in the oil business is your father!” then agreed to extend credit and deliver the gift. Later Bessie admitted that she thought that was strange but Rockefeller concealed his vast fortune from his kids. Every morning before breakfast he led the family in prayer, meting out a penny for latecomers, everyone took turns reading the Bible, his wife Cettie explained difficult portions and prayed for guidance. With philanthropy, Rockefeller would often involve the entire family including the children with disposing of his fortune. He knew “Great wealth invariably proves to be one of two things – either a great blessing or a great curse.” The volume of begging letters was unimaginable and almost unbearable for him, one boat from Europe brought 5,ooo. He preferred wholesale giving, as opposed to small, scattershot contributions. He told a friend “I am more and more satisfied no member of a church can afford not to contribute as the Lord prosper him.” Underwriting a black women’s college in Atlanta was another passion, writing “I hope they will in addition to searching knowledge from books, strive to learn to do all kind of work, and better than any other class of men.” Spelman College years later graduated Martin Luther King Jr.’s mother and grandmother.

Business: Rockefeller’s career started without gusto, nobody wanted him, he looked for a job continually for 6 weeks, 8 hours a day, finally hired he honored September 26th as “Job Day” for the rest of his life, he went home, fell to his knees and implored the Lord to bless his new enterprise. “As I began my life as a bookkeeper, I learned to have great respect for figures and facts, no matter how small they were… I had a passion for detail which afterward I was forced to modify.” His humility showed in 1859 when his partnership “Clark & Rockefeller” added George Gardner as a third equal partner, they suggested the new company be called “Clark, Gardner & Co.” and Rockefeller made no objection. Although he wrestled with pride, when refuted by a bank officer once he shot back in anger “Some day I’ll be the richest man in the world!” He went through that week cautioning himself with Proverbs 16:18 Pride goeth before a fall”. Rockefeller was very cautious who he associated with early on, convinced that trustworthy people could inspire confidence and weak, immoral men were destined to be poor businessman. Rockefeller was always thinking of economies of scale, for his oil barrels he brought the sawmill to the woods, then dried the oak in kilns, reducing the weight and slicing his transportation cost in half. After watching a machine solder 40 drops to secure caps to the cans, he suggested testing and discovered 39 drops were all that was needed saving many hundreds of thousands over the next few years. It was terribly difficult legally in the 1800’s to do business over state lines due to laws that were never designed with that in mind, however Rockefeller was thinking internationally as well growing worldwide, Europe was receiving up to 50,000 barrels a day. Surprising to many, he worked at a more leisurely pace than many executives, napping daily after lunch and suggested “I’m here because I did less work, lived more in open air, enjoyed the open air, sunshine and exercise.” Not afraid to borrow money, he regretted the sleepless nights for years as a result stating his fortune that he made did not compensate for the anxiety of that period. One of Rockefeller’s strengths was that he figured out what he wanted, what the other party wanted and then crafted a mutually advantageous agreements. He had an amazing ability to focus on his goals and brush aside obstacles as petty distractions. He was very punctual for all endeavors, he would say “A man has no right to occupy another man’s time unnecessarily.” Rockefeller preferred to be approached in writing and had an allusive schedule as one secretary commented “He’s never there, and yet he’s always there.” In board meetings, it was said “The quieter he was, the more forceful his presence seemed.” His mind was full of beliefs that make bestselling books today, like “Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things… fail because we lack concentration – the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?” this is essentially the bestselling book The One Thing, but this was about 170 years ago! He hired talented people as found, not needed, especially social skills saying “The ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee, and I pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun.” “We have money” he told his son John, “but it will have value for mankind only as we can find able men with ideas, imagination and courage to put it into productive use.” Here is another little Rockefeller nugget that can make you millions, he once told a recruit, “Has anyone given you the law of the offices? No? It is this: nobody does anything if he can get anybody else to do it… as soon as you can, get some one whom you can rely on, train him in the work, sit down, cock up your heels, and think out some way for the Standard Oil to make some money.” He never haphazardly did anything creating an atmosphere of ceaseless improvement, hundreds of thousands of business letters, five to six drafts until he had eliminated every superfluous word and produced precisely the impression desired before his signature with the best penmanship. Rockefeller was not afraid to admit his weaknesses telling a young man, “If you want to succeed in business it does not require chemistry or physics, you can always hire scientists.” He was always careful to couch his decisions as suggestions or questions, inspiring agreement rather than a direct order. “Don’t say that I ought to do this or that,” he preached to colleagues. “We ought to do it. Never forget that we are partners; whatever is done is for the general good of us all.” Once giving a $100,000 donation to an institution Rockefeller discovered it was placed in a non-interest barring account, mortified he borrowed back the money at 6% interest saying “I can’t endure to see that money idle, I feel about it as one does to come into a room, ill swept, with the corners full of cobwebs and dust. I want to clean up that room.” Eventually Rockefeller was a one-man holding company with millions invested outside the oil business, 16 railroads companies, 9 real-estate firms, 6 steel companies, 6 steamship companies, 9 banks and even 2 orange groves. Debt free and under no influence like other trusts Rockefeller was pleased he did not need a J.P. Morgan to conduct business, in fact he began to loan banks money. During the depression, Rockefeller loaned $6 million to 58 individuals and firms who were turned down by banks and desperately needed his intervention, of which $4 million he needed to borrow from Standard Oil. Thanks to the combustion engine, his fortune soared to $1 billion in 1913 all while he was retired. Rockefeller was well aware of the vinum jealousy caused around him and was once quoted “No man can succeed in any calling without provoking the jealousy and envy of some. The strong level-headed man will go straight forward and do his work, and history will rightly record.” And that is has sir, well done.

3 thoughts on “John D. Rockefeller’s Faith, Family & Business

  1. “Do you know,” he would ask, “what would hurt grandfather a great deal? To know that any of you boys should become wasteful, extravagant, careless with his money… Be careful boys, and then you’ll always be able to help unfortunate people. That is your duty and you must never forget it.” – John D. Rockerfeller to his grandchildren

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