Oil tycoon and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller is considered the richest man in modern history. With an estimated net worth of nearly $400 billion (adjusted for inflation), he was America’s first billionaire, but he wasn’t born that way. In fact, Rockefeller was a child of abject poverty, with a deadbeat salesman father who was rarely around.
Rather than succumb to these barriers, however, Rockefeller used them as opportunities to grow beyond them and swore to do whatever it took to become successful, following the guidance of his mother and learning from the poor example of his father.
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Setting success early in life
Rockefeller attributed much of his success to his humble beginnings, particularly his first job as a bookkeeper, which paid 50 cents a day. Working for others, and the training received from it, benefited him in the years to come as he began to network and invest and, ultimately, expand his own business ventures. He traveled across Ohio and Indiana, speaking to as many people as he could, looking for potential investors and laborers that would eventually amount to the founding of his oil company, Standard Oil.
The cutthroat business tactics Rockefeller used to amass his wealth were often vilified by average citizens of the time; at the height of his career, Rockefeller was the poster boy for corrupt businessmen everywhere. However, for all his ruthlessness in business, Rockefeller never forgot his roots or the people for whom he was working so hard. At the end of the day, his purpose was to make sure even the poorest man in America could afford his products, and he stopped at nothing to achieve that goal.
Remembering your roots
Rockefeller paid his laborers extremely well. He also gave handsome rewards to engineers and chemists that could find cheaper ways to process, store, and transport his oil. Rockefeller cut deals with railroad companies to supply them with business in exchange for freight discounts and rebates. He was fiercely competitive, going so far as to buy up all his competitors. This became such a problem that the U.S. government had to step in and break up the Standard Oil monopoly! Rockefeller stopped at nothing to make or save money and his tenaciousness paid off handsomely.
While Rockefeller is often painted as a greedy and corrupt man, he was also one of the most charitable philanthropists of his time. Inspired by his Baptist upbringings, his wife, Cettie, and other philanthropic business tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller gave half his wealth away over the course of his life, donating portions of his income to charity, even during his impoverished beginnings.
He believed that the key to an enlightened and prosperous society was a good education and founded multiple universities. He was also potentially the greatest environmentalist of his age. Rockefeller found the common practice of dumping oil waste into rivers repulsive. Fearful of spoiling his children, he even dressed them in hand-me-downs and made them earn money by doing chores.
John D. Rockefeller was a man of contradictions. He was both greedy and giving, arrogant and humble, conservative and progressive. Above all, he was tenacious, hard-working, and saw the world for what it could be, not simply what it was.