Tag Archives: Robber Baron

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow


  1. Rob Chernow dives into the lives of one of the world’s most famous businessmen. John D. Rockefeller is often deified or vilified and it is because he draws out these extreme emotions in people that this biography is so appealing.

Key Takeaways

  1. General description of JDR – cold, tight-lipped, ruthless, huge donations to research, cunning, villainous in business, richest man in the world from founding Standard Oil (At its height standard oil controlled 84% of the petroleum market) and most popular man in America while he was alive. Everything he said and did was scrutinized, was often distant from his family, and he wrote and did everything to reveal as little about himself as possible as he valued secrecy. However, Rockefeller is often deified or vilified more than he deserves
  2. Two men have helped transform the modern state – Bismarck and Rockefeller
  3. One of the largest philanthropic donors in the history of the world focusing mostly on medicine
  4. Had a “powerfully selective memory” – chose to believe and remember whatever served his needs best
  5. JD had a modest childhood and his father was gone for months at a time.
  6. Father was money crazy and pretty flashy with his money. Quite successful even though shady. Moved his family several times probably due to business deals gone wrong. Finally he would say his mother was a widow even though his father was alive. Distanced himself as much as possible from his dad
  7. Quite religious and drawn to church life. Played a large role in his life and he performed many duties for his Baptist congregation
  8. Huge attention to detail and tough. Kept a ledger with all his expenses and later this would become one of his lost prized possessions. He donated about 6% to charity early on and later much more
  9. Believed his career was blessed and his money came from God. Religious a boost and not a hindrance to his wealth
  10. Civil War was a huge boost to Rockefeller’s new company as inflation rose the price of all the commodities he was selling and this gave him the capital he needed to get into the area where he would truly make his money – oil. Started in the refining business and chose his location wisely so that he could ship his oil by land or water. The oil industry at first was like the Wild West – rules had not been written yet. He was successful because he was able to control himself and as much as he could during these wild times
  11. Negotiated momentous deal with train companies. Would ship such vast quantities of oil that the trains could run their business by just transporting oil. This lowered the amounts of carts they needed and also the time it would take to transport to everything as there would only be one stop. This created an incentive for trains to want a monopoly in oil (lake shore deal). Rebates from railroads a very hot topic and instrumental in Rockefeller building his empire
  12. Lived in a modest house for a long time and was very serious about keeping his kids innocent of their wealth. They never visited his office or his refinery unless accompanied. They earned pocket money from doing chores
  13. When others panicked is when he would be most level headed. When pushed he would stand his ground
  14. Soon started buying and incorporating rivals into Standard Oil which would soon become the largest company of all time
  15. Was meticulous and never did anything haphazardly. Signed his name perfectly on each of the thousands of business letters he wrote
  16. Started controlling pipelines along with railroads and refining and therefore ha a stranglehold on pretty much every stage of oil. Standard Oil even monopolized foreign markets for some time until the Nobel family got in the game and helped Russia lower their prices and compete. Rockefeller slashed European prices and started a whisper campaign about the safety of Russian oil. Rothschilds (French banking family) also got in the game and lent the Nobels a lot of money
  17. Was extremely generous with friends by lending them huge sums of money during their darkest hours. His motto – make as much as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can
  18. His good side was just as good as his bad side was bad. Why he inspires such strong feelings from people
  19. Never donated his money directly to get people out of poverty (such as social welfare) rather to programs which would provide skills to people
  20. Opened one of the first medical research centers which soon became one of the most successful and prominent research centers which discovered many cures
  21. Had strange diets and routines and became obsessed with his health and trying to live forever . Died in 1937 just a couple weeks shy of his 98 and missing his goal of living to 100
  22. Exxon and Chevron are the two biggest descendants of Standard Oil
  23. At his peak, JDR was worth ~$237B in today’s money

What I got out of it

  1. While JDR’s ruthless persona is quite fair, he had a softer and more pragmatic side to him as well. He is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, philanthropist of all time and America owes a lot to this one man. Amazing what a big, audacious goal, determination and guts can create.

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