The philosophy of epic entrepreneurs: John D. Rockefeller

Every era in the course of humanity has witnessed the life of extraordinary achievers, crossing the limits of the impossible and leaving a distinctive mark in the book of eternity. Today, we turn the page on the story of John D. Rockefeller, one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in history...

Richford, New York, 1839.

When he was a young boy, life for John Rockefeller was far from idyllic. With discord, insecurity and a father absent from family life as he indulged in mysterious schemes for making a living. This was the distant world that haunted the personality of Rockefeller, greatly shaping his perception of life and attitude towards business. He was an enigmatic figure that rose to become the world's biggest oil tycoon, arguably the richest man of all time and a philanthropist - who along with Andrew Carnegie - re-defined the face of modern philanthropy.

Rockefeller got his first job in Cleveland at the age of 16, as an assistant bookkeeper with a salary of just $1.50 a week. But he was fast to grasp his first pivotal lessons in life. One: never forget, and two: learn the art of tithing. Rockefeller celebrated throughout his whole life 'Job Day' - that starting point that he humbly entered the world of business and synchronized the chain of events that led him to create his vast empire. Later on, he confessed: "I would never have been able to tithe my first million dollars if I would not have tithed my first salary which was $1.50 a week."

Early on in his career, young Rockefeller sensed that he could become so much more than a humble bookkeeper. Amidst the ambition of his youth, he placed his wish to the abundant universe: "To make a $100,000 and live until 100". The bet would be won.... but a billion times over. No other individual in American history has achieved such a meteoric rise.

To comprehend the financial magnitude of John Rockefeller in current terms, his net worth ranks higher than Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Carlos Slim combined.

One can only wonder how John Rockefeller was as an individual. What was the tapestry of his personality? His image is an amalgamation of contradictions; an intriguing and diverse character. He was a peculiar blend of high ambition, laser-focused concentration, determination, and deep religious devotion coupled with a sage wisdom from India.

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"I have always regarded it as a religious duty to get all I could honorably and to give all I could," remarked Rockefeller in his later years. Religion was a guiding influence throughout his life, and he believed that his faith was the true source of his success. Even when he built his empire, he still taught at Sunday school every week. It was not pretense or a game of impressions. His mother was deeply religious and Rockefeller was his mother's son, a fact that later on in his life would also make him a devoted husband and loving father.

He was known for his iron poise and the stoic nature of his character that proved an invaluable shield against the challenges and adversities of the business world.

The other side of the coin was that he was a hard player, with unparalleled determination to succeed. Rockefeller was a proponent of social Darwinism and held the belief that "The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest." He has been criticised for his business tactics to monopolize the petroleum industry through serial acquisitions and secret deals.

He was fought for undercutting market competition, but in his logic that was the optimal way to centralize the industry - making it stronger and more efficient. Others call it 'monopoly', but he perceived it as 'cooperation'. During that period of time industrial capitalism was new and the rules of the game were still unwritten. So, Rockefeller went ahead to write his own.

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In 1870, Rockefeller founded the Standard Oil Company in Ohio, one of the most iconic businesses in American history. Within a few years, Standard Oil dominated the petroleum industry and was refining over 90 per cent of the oil in the US. The strategy that enabled him to achieve this rapid growth was based on heavy borrowing, a focus on R&D, steady reinvestment of profits, deep insight to market information, fast evaluation and adjustment to changing conditions.

If Rockefeller had a Manifesto, it would have been titled 'Keep the mind strictly focused on facts and know that silence is gold.' One of his most pronounced qualities was that of insisting on facts and figures as the basis of his business philosophy. He knew the preciousness of insider information and would go through all channels to get it. And then, as a 'sphinx', make sure of its absolute secrecy. He was legendary for his coolness under pressure, and his tactical ability to leverage adversity and ride every wave of opportunity in the middle of crises.

Swami Vivekananda, a charismatic spiritual leader and visionary from India, met John Rockefeller while visiting Chicago in 1893. The Hindu teacher of spiritual enlightenment and the philosophy of universality enhanced Rockefeller's perception of philanthropy and inspired him to view himself as a channel for sharing his wealth with the world. 

A few years later, he retired and devoted a great deal of his interests to social betterment and advancement. Rockefeller offered $80 million to a small college in need for funds, that later on became the world-known University of Chicago. His targeted philanthropic action mainly revolved around educational support, medical research and fighting diseases all over the world through the establishment of the Rockefeller Foundation.

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If John D. Rockefeller could be teleported into our life at this very moment, he would appear in his immaculate suit and... most probably hand you over a dime. It was his beloved habit, and gave away myriads of those to young children while he took his walks, friends when playing a great round of golf or for sharing a great tale at dinner. He would stare with his signature piercing gaze, and say:

  • "I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature."
  • "The secret to success is to do the common things uncommonly well."

And, never forget that: "The road to happiness lies in two simple principles: Find what it is that interests you and that you can do well, and when you find it put your whole soul into it – every bit of energy and ambition, and natural ability you have."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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