John D. Rockefeller is the richest businessmen to have ever lived, amassing a fortune of an equivalent $340 billion dollars in today’s money. By comparison Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon is worth $160 million.
But little is known about Rockefeller outside of his colossal wealth and the controversy surrounding Standard Oil. What was the man Rockefeller like, and how did his wealth impact his behavior? Today I will give you a glimpse into one of America’s most influential businessmen.
John D. Rockefeller was a staunch Baptist, but his religious views did not see wealth as a negative. On the contrary wealth was viewed as a sign of God showing his favor, as was held by many Baptists. This instilled a sense of heavenly purpose to make as much money as he could and give away as much as he could.
As a result of this belief that wealth was a reward from God Rockefeller developed a sense of righteousness about his work. He would state that Standard Oil was “the salvation of the oil business and making it a reputable pursuit instead of a disgraceful, gambling, mining scheme.” He would further state that he and his business partners were “missionaries of light.” As brazen as these statements are the mountains of wealth that found their way to Rockefeller only further strengthened his belief that he was doing God’s work.
But despite this religious fervor Rockefeller was very restrained in his personal behavior. One instance goes that Rockefeller installed some exercise equipment in his business building. Upon arriving one morning an employee, not recognizing Rockefeller, complained that it was a nuisance. Rather than confront the employee Rockefeller had it removed and never brought it up again. The employee later realized to his shock what he had said to his boss but never received any form of punishment. In fact, Rockefeller was regarded by many of his employees as a fair boss. Sparing in his compliments but trusting and paid above the average salary in their field.
Another reflection of his reserved nature is how he acted in meetings and business dealings. He mostly stayed quiet, absorbing information and uttering what questions were necessary. His observations were recorded in a red notebook he carried with him, and he always followed up on them. As Rockefeller recalled “More than once I have gone to luncheon with a number of our heads of departments and have seen the sweat start out on the foreheads of some of them when that little red notebook was pulled out.”
Concerned with the excess and extravagance of the Gilded Age Rockefeller was concerned with the upbringing of his children. In an attempt to shield them from the ill effects of wealth his children never learned how rich he was till they were adults. Part of this included refraining from unnecessary expenditures, such as only buying one bicycle for his four children. In another example his son John Rockefeller Jr. wore dresses until he was eight, as he wore the hand-me-downs of his three older sisters. Rockefeller prided himself in his restraint and often criticized his business opponents for their lavish life styles and excesses.
Rockefeller, despite his steely business appearance, was a compelling figure. Full of religious fervor and righteousness, compassion, business savvy and controlled silent rage.
The 10 Richest People of All Time by Jacob Davidson, Time.com
Titan The Life of John D. Rockefeller, SR. by Ron Chernov