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Titan: The Life of John D Rockefeller, Sr. Summary

My Personal Summary

This book is about John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the founder of Standard Oil and the richest man to have ever lived.

Rockefeller always had a habit of getting things done fast and was ruthlessly efficient in business, even as a young boy.

He used capital (loans from banks) and labor (thousands of employees) as his main forms of leverage for building wealth along with some shady business practices once Standard Oil got big enough to dominate the market.

Book Notes

  • Rockefeller was born in 1838 in upstate New York. His mother was stern and his father was a sly salesmen who was often away from home traveling. The family moved a lot when he was growing up.
  • Rockefeller’s dad eventually abandoned his family and Rockefeller decided to quit high school at 16 and get a job to support his family as the eldest son. His first job was as a bookkeeper for a commodities trading company in Cleveland. He found work exciting and loved working with numbers.
  • After 3 years, Rockefeller quit and started a produce buying and selling business with a friend in Cleveland.
  • After a few years, oil deposits were found in western Pennsylvania and Rockefeller invested in a refinery with a couple other men (the Clark’s) at age 23.
  • In business, Rockefeller was known for plotting in silence and executing with insane speed.
  • At age 25 Rockefeller and a partner, Sam Andrews, bought out ownership of the oil refinery he shared with the Clark’s. At the time, it was the largest refinery in Cleveland.
  • Rockefeller got married at 25.
  • Following the end of the Civil War, kerosene was in high demand because it provided the main form of light at the time. This meant the oil industry was in high demand.
  • The railroad industry and refining industry went hand in hand because the refiners needed trains to transport barrels of oil to different places. Rockefeller negotiated lower shipping costs by offering railroads higher volumes of oil at regular intervals so the railroads didn’t have to stop as often to pick up other products and could remain busy with shipments. This economy of scale allowed Rockefeller to greatly reduce shipping costs compared to competitors.
  • Even when he acquired his early fortune, Rockefeller remained relatively frugal, buying a house below his means.
  • In 1870, Rockefeller incorporated his refinery business, giving it the name Standard Oil. He owned 2,667 of the original 10,000 shares in the company.
  • By 1872, Standard Oil had bought out nearly all of its smaller competitors and Rockefeller had become a titan in the oil industry by the age of only 31.
  • Rockefeller used labor (employees) and capital (loans from banks) as his forms of leverage for accumulating wealth. This is in contrast to code and media, as Naval says, that can be used as forms of leverage today.
  • “Do not many of us fail to achieve big things because we lack concentration – the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?” -Rockefeller
  • Rockefeller was known for obsessing over figures, keeping a tidy ledger, a being great at math.
  • By age 38, Rockefeller had come to control 90% of the oil refined in the United States.
  • Rockefeller moved to Manhattan in 1883 and bought a house on W. 54th street. He set up the new Standard Oil headquarters on 26 Broadway street
  • Once Standard Oil reached a certain size, it could dominate territories by reducing their prices for oil far below competitors (even to an unprofitable level for a certain amount of time) just to drive competitors out of business. Their economies of scale also enabled them to refine and ship oil for a lower unit cost per barrel than anyone else, which meant they could charge lower prices.
  • Standard Oil intentionally allowed some competition in the market so that it could avoid being called a “monopoly” even though it controlled about 90% of oil production in the U.S. in the 1880s.
  • In 1890 Rockefeller served as the main source of funding to start the University of Chicago.
  • Rockefeller invested his dividends into railroad, steel, steamship, and real estate companies. By the 1890s he was receiving $50 million per year (in todays money) from dividends alone.
  • Rockefeller retired in 1897 but still owned about 30% of all shares in Standard Oil. Around this time, automobiles were invented which massively increased demand for oil and caused Rockefeller to amass much of his fortune after retiring. His one son, John D. Rockefeller, succeeded him as head of the company.
  • When Teddy Roosevelt was president from 1901 to 1909, he brought attention to breaking up trusts. The biggest one in the US was Standard Oil, which accounted for 90% of all kerosene production in the US at the time and was charged with predatory pricing, abuse of railroad rebates, and secretly owning companies they claimed to be their competitors. Standard Oil was broken up in an official ruling by the Supreme Court in 1911 into 34 smaller companies. Since Rockefeller owned about 25% of Standard Oil at the time, he got 25% ownership of each of these smaller companies. Many of these companies are still around today (Standard Oil of New Jersey became Exxon, Standard Oil of New York became Mobil, and Standard Oil of Californian became Chevron).
  • In the 1910s, automobiles became common. This caused demand for oil to skyrocket even more. Rockefeller’s fortune ballooned to 13 billion in the 1910s, meaning he made most of his wealth after officially retiring from day to day operations at Standard Oil.
  • Rockefeller set up the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913 and became the largest philanthropist in US history. Most of the $500 million that he gave away went towards funding scientific research around medicine and setting up research/medical facilities around the world.
  • Rockefeller died in 1937 at age 97 and was buried in Cleveland between the graves of his mother (Eliza) and wife (Cettie).

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