Titan – The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

The name Rockefeller is ingrained within both American History and Business, but why so? This is the question that set me on the quest to read the National Bestseller, Titan – The Life Of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow.

Below are key highlights from this masterpiece that I wanted to share.

John D. Rockefeller’s began displaying and developing his business acumen at a young age:

Though only dimly aware of such distant developments, John D. Rockefeller already seemed a perfect specimen of homo economicus. Even as a boy, he bought candy by the pound, divided it into small portions, then sold it at a tidy profit to his siblings. By age seven, encouraged by his mother, he was dropping gold, silver, and copper coins that he earned into a blue china bowl on the mantel. John’s first business coup came at age seven when he shadowed a turkey hen as it waddled off into the woods, raided its nest, and raised the chicks for sale. To spur his enterprise, Eliza gave him milk curds to feed the turkeys, and the next year he raised an even larger brood. As an old man. Rockefeller said, “To this day, I enjoy the sight of a flock of turkeys, and never miss an opportunity of studying them.”

The same was also true for his attachment to his religious beliefs:

John D. Rockefeller was drawn to the church, not as some nagging duty or obligation but as something deeply refreshing to the soul. The Baptist church of his boyhood provides many clues to the secrets of his character. As a young man. he was raised on a steady diet of maxims, grounded in evangelical Protestantism, that guided his conduct. Many of his puritanical attitudes, which may seem antiquated to a later generation, were merely the religious commonplaces of his boyhood. Indeed, the saga of his monumental business feats is inseparable from the fire-and-brimstone atmosphere that engulfed upstate New York in his childhood.

These two elements formed the two pillars of his life:

He possessed a sense of calling in both religion and business, with Christianity and capitalism forming the twin pillars of his life…When challenges to orthodoxy arose in later decades, he stuck by the spiritual certainties of his boyhood…The church gave Rockefeller the community of friends he craved and the respect and affection he needed.

The role he had to play within his family, tough him responsibility:

Of course, this boyhood responsibility took its toll on John D., who experienced little of the spontaneous joy or levity of youth. Growing up as a miniature adult, burdened with duties. He developed an exaggerated sense of responsibility that would be evident throughout his life. He learned to see himself as a reluctant savior, taking charge of troubled situations that needed to be remedied.

On his entry to the Oil sector:

Tramping the banks. Rockefeller beheld the satanic new world bequeathed by the oil boom, an idyllic valley blackened with derricks and tanks, engine houses and ramshackle huts, thickly crowded together in a crazy-quilt pattern…Rockefeller represented the second, more rational stage of capitalist development, when the colorful daredevils and pioneering speculators give way, as Max Weber wrote, to the “men who had grown up in the hard school of life. calculating and daring at the same time, above all temperate and reliable, shrewd and completely devoted to their business, with strictly bourgeois opinions and principles.”

One of the keys to his business success was that he kept cash on hand, and allies in the banking sectors – which were essential particularly during the times of crisis:

It is impossible to comprehend Rockefeller’s breathtaking ascent without realizing that he always moved into battle backed by abundant cash. Whether riding out downturns or coasting on booms, he kept plentiful reserves and won many bidding contests simply because his war chest was deeper…To have orchestrated such a rapid campaign required a long relationship of trust with the banks.

Rockefeller believed in the importance of balanced work ethic:

Rockefeller bridled at the notion that he was a business-obsessed drudge, a slave to the office. “I know of nothing more despicable and pathetic than a man who devotes all the waking hours of the day to making money for money’s sake,” he recorded in his memoirs. He worked at a more leisurely pace than many other executives, napping daily after lunch and often dozing in a lounge chair after dinner. To explain his extraordinary longevity he later said, doubtless overstating the matter, “I’m here because I shirked: did less work, lived more in the open air, enjoyed the open air, sunshine and exercise.”

On his skillful negotiation skills:

One of Rockefeller’s strengths in bargaining situations was that he figured out what he wanted and what the other party wanted and then crafted mutually advantageous terms. Instead of ruining the railroads, Rockefeller tried to help them prosper, albeit in a way that fortified his own position.

One of his shortcomings was that he remained silent in the face of criticism, which haunted him particularly during the public relation battles he fought:

Only in the twilight of life did Rockefeller realize how poorly his taciturnity had served him in business battles. This was especially true during the SIC furor, which evolved into a political and public-relations battle. By remaining silent in the face of criticism, he thought he would seem confident and secure in his integrity—in fact, he seemed guilty and arrogantly evasive. Throughout his career. Rockefeller endured abuse with so much equanimity that Flagler once shook his head and said, “John, you have a hide like a rhinoceros! “

On his view of capitalism, and how he linked it to his religious beliefs:

In a critical distinction, he viewed competitive capitalism—and not capitalism per se—as producing a vulgar materialism and rapacious business practices that dissolved the bonds of human brotherhood. In a state of ungoverned competition, selfish individuals tried to maximize their profits and thereby impoverished the entire industry What the American economy needed instead were new cooperative forms (trusts, pools, monopolies) that would restrain grasping individuals for the general good. Rockefeller thus tried to reconcile trusts with Christianity, claiming that cooperation would end the egotism and materialism abhorrent to Christian values. It was an ingenious rationalization. While religion did not lead him to the concept of trusts, it did enable him to invest his vision of cooperation with a powerful moral imperative.

On his leadership skills and beliefs:

Even as a young man, Rockefeller was extremely composed in a crisis. In this respect, he was a natural leader: The more agitated others became, the calmer he grew.

Far more than a technocrat, Rockefeller was an inspirational leader who exerted a magnetic power over workers and especially prized executives with social skills.

Few outsiders knew that one of Rockefeller’s greatest talents was to manage and motivate his diverse associates. As he said, “It is chiefly to my confidence in men and my ability to inspire their confidence in me that I owe my success in life.” He liked to note that Napoleon could not have succeeded without his marshals. Free of an autocratic temperament. Rockefeller was quick to delegate authority and presided lightly, genially, over his empire, exerting his will in unseen ways. At meetings. Rockefeller had a negative capability: The quieter he was, the more forceful his presence seemed, and he played on his mystique the resident genius immune to petty concerns.

Rockefeller placed a premium on internal harmony and tried to reconcile his contending chieftains. A laconic man, he liked to canvass everyone’s opinion before expressing his own and then often crafted a compromise to maintain cohesion. He was always careful to couch his decisions as suggestions or questions.

On philanthropy:

Yet by the 1880s, Rockefeller had already formulated certain core principles for his bequests many of them stemming from beliefs he had long entertained as a businessman. For instance, like other industrialists he worried that charity fostered dependence and pauperized recipients…The most important concept Rockefeller bequeathed to philanthropy was that of wholesale giving, as opposed to small, scattershot contributions…Another cardinal principle of Rockefeller philanthropy was to rely upon expert opinion.

On Standard Oils’, the set of companies he started:

In a sense, John D. Rockefeller simplified life for the authors of antitrust legislation. His career began in the infancy of the industrial boom, when the economy was still raw and unregulated. Since the rules of the game had not yet been encoded into law, Rockefeller and his fellow industrialists had forged them in the heat of combat. With his customary thoroughness, Rockefeller had devised an encyclopedic stock of anti-competitive weapons. Since he had figured out every conceivable way to restrain trade, rig markets, and suppress competition, all reform-minded legislators had to do was study his career to draw up a comprehensive antitrust agenda.

Standard Oil had taught the American public an important but paradoxical lesson: Free markets, if left completely to their own devices, can wind up terribly unfree. Competitive capitalism did not exist in a state of nature but had to be defined or restrained by law. Unfettered markets tended frequently toward monopoly or, at least, toward unhealthy levels of concentration, and government sometimes needed to intervene to ensure the full benefits of competition. This was particularly true in the early stages of industrial development. This notion is now so deeply embedded in our laws that it has become all but invisible to us. replaced by secondary debates over the precise nature or extent of antitrust enforcement.

If Tarbell gave an oversimplified account of Standard Oil’s rise, her indictment was perhaps the more forceful for it. In the trust’s collusion with the railroads, the intricate system of rebates and drawbacks, she found her smoking gun, the irrefutable proof that Rockefeller’s empire was built by devious means. She was at pains to refute Rockefeller’s defense that everybody did it. “Everybody did not do it,” she protested indignantly “In the nature of the offense everybody could not do it. The strong wrested from the railroads the privilege of preying upon the weak, and the railroads never dared give the privilege save under the promise of secrecy.”

The following two excerpts summarize Rockefeller’s life and contributions:

The loftiest encomium to Rockefeller’s impact in this field came from Winston Churchill, who wrote shortly before Rockefeller’s death: When history passes its final verdict on John D. Rockefeller, it may well be that his endowment of research will be recognized as a milestone in the progress of the race. For the first time, science was given its head: longer term experiment on a large scale has been made practicable, and those who undertake it are freed from the shadow of financial disaster. Science today owes as much to the rich men of generosity and discernment as the art of the Renaissance owes to the patronage of Popes and Princes. Of these rich men, John D. Rockefeller is the supreme type.

The fiercest robber baron had turned out to be the foremost philanthropist Rockefeller accelerated the shift from the personal, ad-hoc charity that had traditionally been the province of the rich to something both more powerful and more impersonal. He established the promotion of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, as a task no less important than giving alms to the poor or building schools, hospitals, and museums. He showed the value of expert opinion, thorough planning, and competent administration in nonprofit work, setting a benchmark for professionalism in the emerging foundation field. By the time Rockefeller died, in fact, so much good had unexpectedly flowered from so much evil that God might even have greeted him on the other side, as the titan had so confidently expected all along.

On a concluding note:

Although Junior moved into Kykuit after Rockefeller’s death, he knew that his father was inimitable, and so he decided to retain the Jr. after his name. As he was often heard to say in later years, “There was only one John D. Rockefeller.”

Attorney Samuel Untermver issued this paean to the elusive witness he had interrogated: “Next to our beloved President, he was our country’s biggest citizen. It was he who visualized as did no other man the use to which great wealth could wisely be put. Because of him the world is a better place in which to live. Blessed be the memory of World Citizen No. 1.”

After reading this book, I can definitely say that the question I had has been answered. A highly recommended read from a historical, humanitarian and business perspectives. If you are looking to learn more about the Oil/Energy side of the story, I strongly recommend reading The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power by Daniel Yergin.

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