John D. Rockefeller was the world’s most successful entrepreneur, and even almost 100 years after his death, his accomplishments remain unparalleled.
The founder of Standard Oil has indeed left his mark on the face of Earth, and he also accumulated impressive wealth along the way. How did he manage to build a trillion-dollar empire?
In part, John D. Rockefeller was probably lucky to be at the right spot at the right time with the right opportunities at hand. Nevertheless, you will surely also appreciate his exceptional trading skills and courage if you get to know his personal story.
Let’s immerse into the incredible story of John D. Rockefeller and learn how he became the icon of the American business and industry.
John D. Rockefeller’s Bio Facts
|Full Name:||John Davison Rockefeller|
|Birth Date:||July 8, 1839|
|Birth Place:||Richford, New York, U.S.|
|Nick Name:||Doc Rockefeller|
|Siblings:||William Avery Rockefeller, Lucy Rockefeller, Mary Rockefeller, Franklin Rockefeller, and Frances Rockefeller|
|Children:||Elizabeth “Bessie” Rockefeller (1866 – 1906), John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874 – 1960), Alice Rockefeller (1869 – 1870), Alta Rockefeller (1871 – 1962), Edith Rockefeller (1872 – 1932)|
|Partner / Spouse:||Laura Celestia Spelman (m. 1864)|
|Profession:||Industrialist, oil magnate, and philanthropist|
|Net Worth:||$400 billion|
|Companies Associated With:||Standard Oil Company|
|Last Updated:||June 2022|
John D. Rockefeller’s Key Facts Summary
- He never achieved formal education.
- He started working as a bookkeeper and formed his product brokerage business when he was just 18 years old.
- He got into the oil refining business and soon overcame all the competition.
- He built a $1 trillion-worth empire, the world’s most successful trust of all times.
- He was the world’s wealthiest entrepreneur in history – even the modern-day billionaires have not managed to beat him so far.
- When his Standard Oil enterprise was dissolved in 1911, he paradoxically got even richer.
- Standard Oil’s 26 Broadway headquarters in New York City was designated the official city landmark in 1995.
- He married Laura Celestia Spelman and had five children with her.
- His son, John D. Rockefeller, followed his father’s footsteps and became a successful businessman.
- Rockefeller family donated 10% of their incomes to charity and engaged in many other philanthropic projects, funds, and activities.
John D. Rockefeller’s Birthplace and Early Life
John Davison Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1839, in Richford, upstate New York. John was the eldest son of William Avery Rockefeller (also known as “Big Bill”), a traveling merchant with snake oil and natural medicine. His mother was Eliza Davison Rockefeller.
John had five siblings. His father, who spent lots of time away from home, also had illegitimate children who lived together with the family, creating a bustling, noisy, and somewhat confusing environment.
It was also a greatly competitive environment, though, and John quickly learned how to turn things in his favor and get the most out of his scarce opportunities.
The family moved around often, and every help with making ends meet was welcome, so young John helped raise some money by raising turkeys or carrying out small jobs for neighbors.
In 1854, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where John properly attended school for the first time. Nevertheless, his education was terminated just one year later when John went to work as a bookkeeper for a local product broker, earning $0.50 a day (approximately $15 today).
Soon, he started helping other businesses on the side too, and just two years later, when he realized his skills were worth more than he was making, John skipped his clients and became a product broker himself, borrowing $4,000 from a bank.x
This was the humble beginning of Rockefeller’s impressive career.
John D. Rockefeller’s Early Career and Business Success
When John started his own business, he first primarily traded meat, hay, grain, and other everyday consumable products.
The commission was low, but still, he managed to achieve sales of $0.5 million, which was a massive success for a barely 18-years old businessman. All doors were suddenly open for John D. Rockefeller, but he felt that the right opportunity for him was yet to come.
Then, in 1859, the first oil well on American soil was discovered. The so-called Pennsylvania oil rush began, producing 4,500 barrels of oil within a single year. John started to be attracted to this industry and contemplated the possibility of investing in it too.
To understand the whole context properly, you must know that oil was far from being as prestigious and sought-after a commodity as it is today. The gasoline-type cars were not even invented, so most of the oil was turned into kerosene for lamps, etc.
But John smartly anticipated that this commodity had big potential, and he also wisely predicted that not producing but refining oil would be a golden business. He eliminated all the risks associated with finding the oil, buying it off once this hardest part was accomplished by someone else.
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Standard Oil Company
In 1863, the railway between the Pennsylvania oil fields and Cleveland was finally constructed, so nothing stood in the way of John D. Rockefeller getting involved with the industry.
He was as ready as ever, with a long list of partners willing to cooperate, bankers eager to fund, and even chemists knowing how to optimize the refinement process and monetize most of the byproducts, including naphtha, paraffin wax, or tar.
It was a recipe for success that couldn’t go wrong. In just two years, Rockefeller’s refinery was worth more than $70,000 (more than $1 million today), and it was one of the largest in the area. Soon, there was hardly any competition.
Using various tactics from buyouts to negotiations to pure extortion (Rockefeller reportedly manipulated the prices of oil and kerosene if it served his goals), he acquired dozens of competitive refineries in the region, leaving only four in the hands of someone else.
Then he managed to buy the last four, too, offering their owners good money and well-paid jobs under his command. In 1870, Rockefeller officially incorporated these businesses as a Standard Oil company and soon moved his headquarters to New York.
Not long after that, the company was already refining more than 90% of all American oil, owning 4,000 miles of pipelines and 20,000 oil wells, and employing more than 100,000 workers. John D. Rockefeller found a business strategy that turned him into one of the most influential Americans of his time.
John D. Rockefeller’s YouTube Videos
The documentary sheds light on John D. Rockefeller’s first steps in the business, the establishment of his Standard Oil company, and also its downfall.
Rare video footage of then 93-years old John D. Rockefeller was shot in 1932 at the businessman’s country estate in Pocantico Hills. Rockefeller shares a message of hope, perseverance, and dedication to making the economy thrive again in the years of the Great Depression.
This short documentary on John D. Rockefeller by Smithsonian Channel focuses on the entrepreneur’s legacy in charity and philanthropy. It explains how the controversial billionaire saved his public image.
John D. Rockefeller’s Business Failures: The Downfall of Standard Oil
The oil industry was still very young when John D. Rockefeller jumped on his opportunity, and it was evolving extremely fast.
Despite being one of the smartest, most courageous, and luckiest entrepreneurs in this field, maintaining the high standards of Standard Oil long-term was impossible to even for him. Let’s look at the main reasons behind Standard Oil’s diminishing primacy.
The oil industry was not thriving only in America. When large oil deposits were discovered in Russia and Asia, the worldwide competition grew exponentially.
One of Rockefeller’s prominent competitors was the Rothschild family, who focused on importing oil from these new locations to the U.S., which significantly affected the demand and prices of Rockefeller’s American oil.
Fear of Monopolization
Another obstacle that stood in the way of Standard Oil’s continuous expansion was the growingly unfavorable legislation targeting its type of business strategy particularly.
John’s huge success couldn’t go unnoticed, not only in a good way. When the entrepreneur started exercising his influence in various areas of industry, including railroad transportation (Rockefeller negotiated big deals on transport), politicians and businessmen became bitter.
The fear that Rockefeller could soon monopolize the whole industrial environment has led to numerous ferocious attempts to stop him, including the proposals of strict antitrust legislation.
Although John was usually one step ahead, timely regrouping and reforming his company as needed, when the federal government passed theSherman Antitrust Act in 1890, his enterprise became much more vulnerable.
Thanks to the enormous complexity of Standard Oil trust’s structure, the government had a tough time investigating the corporation, only able to break its operation in 1911 (on the grounds of anti-competitive practices) when John had already cashed in successfully.
Still, the act marked the beginning of Standard Oil’s end.
In 1911, the trust was officially divided into 34 individual companies. It marked the end of the world’s largest and most powerful trust and the beginning of tighter government control over the business in general.
Nevertheless, John D. Rockefeller maintained his stakes in the companies until his death. Moreover, typically for this genius businessman, he was even able to profit from the breakup itself, becoming reportedly even richer thanks to their successful ongoing businesses.
Many of the companies also merged back with each other over time. Today, most of them can be found operating eiher under Chevron, BP, or ExxonMobil.
So, did John D. Rockefeller ever really fail? It looks more like he was truly living up to his famous quote: “I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity.”
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John D. Rockefeller’s Family
In 1864, John D. Rockefeller married a school teacher Laura Celestia “Cettie” Spelman. They were born in the same year, were oriented toward business and economics (they met while attending the same accounting classes), and were reportedly true soulmates.
The couple had five children together: Four daughters (only four of which lived through their childhood) and one son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., who became the heir of Rockefeller’s empire.
The Rockefeller family was America’s richest clan at the time, but they were also known for their altruism and many charitable activities, mainly curated by Laura, who gave up on her teaching career once her husband succeeded in the refinement industry.
Rockefellers, for example, donate ten percent of their incomes throughout their entire lives to charity. They also financially supported Spelman College, founded to educate Black women, and backed medical science development on different levels.
John D. Rockefeller’s Net Worth and Career Earnings
At its peak times, Standard Oil was worth approximately $1 trillion (converted into the current Worth), making it the world’s most valuable enterprise and John D. Rockefeller the wealthiest entrepreneur.
Over the last two decades of Standard Oil’s operation, the company has paid almost $550 million in dividends (or $9 billion today).
But paradoxically, Rockefeller became even richer when the trust was officially dissolved. Thanks to keeping stakes in all of the now officially separately operating companies, the founder of Standard Oil boasted an estimated net worth of $400 billion.
This achievement has not been beaten by any of the modern-day billionaires so far.
John D. Rockefeller’s Real Estate Holdings
John D. Rockefeller has owned quite a few impressive real estate holdings during his lifetime, and his legacy is alive and present in his buildings until now, even though they are no longer in possession of his heirs.
Here are three of Rockefeller’s most famous properties.
26 Broadway, also known as the Standard Oil Building, is a distinctive 31-story office building in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan in New York City. The construction started in 1884 and was completed a year later, becoming a headquarters for Standard Oil.
The structure was designed by Thomas Hastings of Carrère and Hastings (also responsible for the design of the New York Public Library) in the Renaissance Revival style. Although it’s now recognizable by its light limestone facade, it was originally covered by red brick and granite.
The building was repeatedly reconstructed, updated, and enhanced over the years, mainly in the 1920s (after World War I), and sold to a new owner in 1956. In 1995, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building as an official city landmark.
The Casements mansion
After spending several winters in Florida at his friend’s hotel in Ormond Beach, John D. Rockefeller chose to buy a place of his own in this area. He decided on The Casements mansion, built-in 1913 by a reverend from Connecticut and named by its distinctive windows.
John bought the place in 1918 and planned to use it as his winter residence. He was known for throwing dazzling Christmas parties in the house and organizing golf tournaments with such competitors as Will Rogers and Henry Ford (see ourHenry Ford bio).
On May 23, 1937, just two months shy of his 98th birthday, John D. Rockefeller died in his beloved Florida mansion of arteriosclerosis, almost fulfilling his dream to live 100 years.
Kykuit is a lavish Pocantico Hills mansion constructed in 1913 on a 3,400-acre property John D. Rockefeller owned for about twenty years, ever since his brother William moved into a property nearby.
In fact, the family purchased several properties in the area before settling in Kykuit permanently after the 6-years-long construction of this eclectic manor was finally completed.
The steep-roofed 3-story stone house boasts 40 rooms and today serves as a museum housing a collection of 20th-century artworks (focusing on abstract art). The basement passages contain invaluable paintings by Picasso, Chagall, and Warhol, among others.
Note: The notorious Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan was constructed with the financial support of John D. Rockefeller Jr., Rockefeller’s son, and his father did not have any formal ties with it.
John D. Rockefeller Quotes
“Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.”
“I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.”
“A man has no right to occupy another man’s time unnecessarily.”
“I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity.”
“The only thing which is of lasting benefit to a man is that which he does for himself. Money which comes to him without effort on his part is seldom a benefit and often a curse.”
“It is very important to remember what other people tell you, not so much what you yourself already know.”
“If your only goal is to become rich, you will never achieve it.”
“Go as far as you can see; when you get there, you’ll be able to see farther.”
“I believe that the power to make money is a gift from God..”
“Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing.”
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Are the heirs of John D. Rockefeller still rich?
Answer: Yes. Even though no heir of John D. Rockefeller was able to top his business success or wealth (after all, no one else did either), the Rockefeller family maintains a substantial wealth (approx. $11 billion) to this day, almost a century after the Standard Oil’s founder’s death.
Question: What religion was John D. Rockefeller?
Answer: Rockefeller was a devoted member of the Northern Baptist Convention, following the guidance of his deeply religious mother. He donated money to the church from his childhood and considered all his success a gift from God.
Question: Was John D. Rockefeller a good man?
Answer: The billionaire oil mogul was both admired and loather during his lifetime. While he was undoubtedly highly intelligent, inspirational, skillful, and generous in his philanthropic activities, his business practices were often described as ruthless and unethical.
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