Sunday, October 19, 2014

Titan: the life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow

This great biography is really a monumental contribution toward the history of US business of the late 19th and early 20th centuries putting into perspective the values and politics of a free capitalistic society and how government becomes involved. The American Oil companies of Mobil, Exxon, Chevron, Soho, Amoco have there origins in the Standard oil monopoly that was ultimately broken up by the government.  This is a story of the investment houses of JP Morgan and Kuhn Loeb (Jacob Schiff) as they pertain to the 'discounts' allotted to Standard oil by the different train companies to transport the oil for kerosene lighting.

Mr. Rockefeller Sr. was described sensitively and realistically showing what one person can achieve through thought, planning and great effort.  He exhibited some formidable qualities worth studying.  Highly sensitive and very intelligent, Mr. Rockefeller showed great restraint and control over his emotions.  Never one to allow a slight to go unanswered, Mr. Rockefeller never was impulsive.  He was a determined person with cunning and sharp insight always seeking an opponent's weak spot.

His way was legendary: be scrupulously honest in accounting and always give an account. (He required his adult son to always account for his expenditures even when their fantastic wealth could not have been affected by any miscalculation.)  He prided himself on honesty since his religious Baptist upbringing, well integrated into his being demanded it.  Similarly, however, he was known to be vindictive in a subtle way.  Only upon reflection does one see that personality flaw because he was so cunning in his retaliation, a way that always could be interpreted without vengeance.  He could always explain away his behavior in a positive manner.  His rapaciousness was constantly justified and explained as "cooperation" is always preferred over "competition".  Many testified that he was probably the most intelligent person of his day.

His antisemitism came out as he prided himself for besting a Jew in business.  Interestingly enough, he could not swallow up Shell Oil (founded by Jewish Marcus Samuel) and the Royal Dutch Oil companies but rather had to compete with them since they were supported by the financially muscular French Rothschild family.  Ironically, his son seemed to claim that his company received better treatment from the Jewish Jacob Schiff of the investment house of Kuhn Loeb then the house of JP Morgan.  There seemed to be a lingering feeling that Rockefeller could not trust Morgan.

Rockefeller showed tremendous restraint.  When he was completely vilified in a series of magazine articles and press coverage, he felt no impulse to respond and defend himself.  He always felt confident that he was guiltless.  As a matter of fact, during his tenure at Standard Oil he prided himself at keeping prices of kerosene low for the consumer.  With the rise of the automobile, Standard Oil supremacy remained through his successors who were responsible for the changes in price.  He shied away from any publicity until his retirement at which point he had already given away millions to a number of philanthropies (including the founding of the University of Chicago).

Rockefeller never understood or appreciated the charges against him.  He condemned the vilification of his person to the evils of 'Unionization' and 'Socialism'.  Teddy Roosevelt capitalized on Rockefeller's lack of appreciation of the charges against him.  He saw a great opportunity to grow the government and curtail free enterprise when the public cry against the rapacity of Rockefeller and Standard Oil rose to a deafening shout.

Ironically, the breakup of Standard oil did not punish John D. Rockefeller Sr.  Since he owned a majority share of the company he benefited by owning majority shares in each separate company which exponentially augmented his wealth to billionaire status.  Before the actual breakup, Mr. Rockefeller recommended buying Standard Oil stock because he understood the benefits of what was essentially a huge stock split! And although he became somewhat bawdy in his old age, by the time he died (well into his 90's) he was known for his philanthropy and not for his avarice.

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