of Men and Events
JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER
Doubleday, Page & Company
COPYRIGHT, 1908, 1909, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
Probably in the life of everyone there comes a time when he is inclined to go over again the events, great and small, which have made up the incidents of his work and pleasure, and I am tempted to become a garrulous old man, and tell some stories of men and things which have happened in an active life.
In some measure I have been associated with the most interesting people our country has produced, especially in business—men who have helped largely to build up the commerce of the United States, and who have made known its products all over the world. These incidents which come to my mind to speak of seemed vitally important to me when they happened, and they still stand out distinctly in my memory.
Just how far any one is justified in keeping what he regards as his own private affairs from the public, or in defending himself from attacks, is a mooted point. If one talks about one's experiences, there is a natural temptation to charge one with traveling the easy road to egotism; if one keeps silence, the inference of wrong-doing is sometimes even more difficult to meet, as it would then be said that there is no valid defence to be offered.
It has not been my custom to press my affairs forward into public gaze; but I have come to see that if my family and friends want some record of things which might shed light on matters that have been somewhat discussed, it is right that I should yield to their advice, and in this informal way go over again some of the events which have made life interesting to me.
There is still another reason for speaking now: If a tenth of the things that have been said are true, then these dozens of able and faithful men who have been associated with me, many of whom have passed away, must have been guilty of grave faults. For myself, I had decided to say nothing, hoping that after my death the truth would gradually come to the surface and posterity would do strict justice; but while I live and can testify to certain things, it seems fair that I should refer to some points which I hope will help to set forth several much-discussed happenings in a new light. I am convinced that they have not been fully understood.
All these things affect the memories of men who are dead and the lives of men who are living, and it is only reasonable that the public should have some first-hand facts to draw from in making up its final estimate.
When these Reminiscences were begun, there was of course no thought that they should ever go so far as to appear between the covers of a book. They were not prepared with the idea of even an informal autobiography, there was little idea of order or sequence, and no thought whatever of completeness.
It would have been a pleasure as well as a satisfaction to dwell with some fulness upon the stories of daily and intimate companionship which existed for so many years with my close partners and associates, but I realize that while these experiences have always been to me among the great pleasures of my life, a long account of them would not interest the reader, and thus it happens that I have but mentioned the names of only a few of the scores of partners who have been so active in building up the business interests with which I have been associated.
I. Some Old Friends
II. The Difficult Art of Getting
III. The Standard Oil Company
IV. Some Experiences in the Oil Business
V. Other Business Experiences and Business Principles
VI. The Difficult Art of Giving
VII. The Benevolent Trust—The Value of the Cooperative Principle in Giving
SOME OLD FRIENDS
Since these Reminiscences are really what they profess to be, random and informal, I hope I may be pardoned for setting down so many small things.
In looking back over my life, the impressions which come most vividly to my mind are mental pictures of my old associates. In speaking of these friends in this chapter, I would not have it thought that many others, of whom I have not spoken, were less important to me, and I shall hope to refer to this subject of my early friends in a later chapter.
It is not always possible to remember just how one first met an old friend or what one's impressions were, but I shall never forget my first meeting with Mr. John D. Archbold, who is now a vice-president of the Standard Oil Company.
At that time, say thirty-five or forty years ago, I was travelling about the country visiting the point where something was happening, talking with the producers, the refiners, the agents, and actually getting acquainted.
One day there was a gathering of the men somewhere near the oil regions, and when I came to the hotel, which was full of oil men, I saw this name writ large on the register:
John D. Archbold, $4.00 a bbl.
He was a young and enthusiastic fellow, so full of his subject that he added his slogan, "$4.00 a bbl.," after his signature on the register, that no one might misunderstand his convictions. The battle cry of $4.00 a barrel was all the more striking because crude oil was selling then for much less, and this campaign for a higher price certainly did attract attention—it was much top good to be true. But if Mr. Archbold had to admit in the end that crude oil is not worth "$4,00 a bbl.," his enthusiasm, his energy, and his splendid power over men have lasted.
He has always had a well-developed sense of humour, and on one serious occasion, when he was on the witness stand, he was asked by the opposing lawyer:
"Mr. Archbold, are you a director of this company?"
"What is your occupation in this company?"
He promptly answered, "To clamour for dividends," which led the learned counsel to start afresh on another line.
I can never cease to wonder at his capacity for hard work. I do not often see him now, for he has great affairs on his hands, while I live like a farmer away from active happenings in business, playing golf, planting trees; and yet I am so busy that no day is long enough.
Speaking of Mr. Archbold leads me to say again that I have received much more credit than I deserve in connection with the Standard Oil Company. It was my good fortune to help to bring together the efficient men who are the controlling forces of the organization and to work hand in hand with them for many years, but it is they who have done the hard tasks.
The great majority of my associations were made so many years ago, that I have reached the age when hardly a month goes by (sometimes I think hardly a week) that I am not called upon to send some message of consolation to a family with whom we have been connected, and who have met with some fresh bereavement. Only recently I counted up the names of the early associates who have passed away. Before I had finished, I found the list numbered some sixty or more. They were faithful and earnest friends; we had worked together through many difficulties, and had gone through many severe trials together. We had discussed and argued and hammered away at questions until we came to agree, and it has always been a happiness to me to feel that we had been frank and aboveboard with each other. Without this, business associates cannot get the best out of their work.
It is not always the easiest of tasks to induce strong, forceful men to agree. It has always been our policy to hear patiently and discuss frankly until the last shred of evidence is on the table, before trying to reach a conclusion and to decide finally upon a course of action. In working with so many partners, the conservative ones are apt to be in the majority, and this is no doubt a desirable thing when the mere momentum of a large concern is certain to carry it forward. The men who have been very successful are correspondingly conservative, since they have much to lose in case of disaster. But fortunately there are also the aggressive and more daring ones, and they are usually the youngest in the company, perhaps few in number, but impetuous and convincing. They want to accomplish things and to move quickly, and they don't mind any amount of work or responsibility. I remember in particular an experience when the conservative influence met the progressive—shall I say?—or the daring side. At all events, this was the side I represented in this case.
ARGUMENTS VERSUS CAPITAL
One of my partners, who had successfully built up a large and prosperous business, was resisting with all his force a plan that some of us favoured, to make some large improvements. The cost of extending the operations of this enterprise was estimated at quite a sum—three million dollars, I think it was. We had talked it over and over again, and with several other associates discussed all the pros and cons; and we had used every argument we could command to show why the plan would not only be profitable, but was indeed necessary to maintain the lead we had. Our old partner was obdurate, he had made up his mind not to yield, and I can see him standing up in his vigorous protest, with his hands in his pockets, his head thrown back, as he shouted "No."
It's a pity to get a man into a place in an argument where he is defending a position instead of considering the evidence. His calm judgment is apt to leave him, and his mind is for the time being closed, and only obstinacy remains. Now these improvements had to be made—as I said before, it was essential. Yet we could not quarrel with our old partner, but a minority of us had made up our minds that we must try to get him to yield, and we resolved to try another line of argument, and said to him:
"You say that we do not need to spend this money?"
"No," he replied, "it will probably prove to be many years before such a sum must be spent. There is no present need for these facilities you want to create, and the works are doing well as they are—let's let well enough alone."
Now our partner was a very wise and experienced man, older and more familiar with the subject than some of us, and all this we admitted to him; but we had made up our minds, as I have said, to carry out this idea if we could possibly get his approval, and we were willing to wait until then. As soon as the argument had calmed down, and when the heat of our discussion had passed, the subject was brought up again. I had thought of a new way to approach it. I said:
"I'll take it, and supply this capital myself. If the expenditure turns out to be profitable the company can repay me; and, if it goes wrong, I'll stand the loss."
That was the argument that touched him. All his reserve disappeared and the matter was settled when he said:
"If that's the way you feel about it, we'll go it together. I guess I can take the risk if you can."
It is always, I presume, a question in every business just how fast it is wise to go, and we went pretty rapidly in those days, building and expanding in all directions. We were being confronted with fresh emergencies constantly. A new oil field would be discovered, tanks for storage had to be built almost over night, and this was going on when old fields were being exhausted, so we were therefore often under the double strain of losing the facilities in one place where we were fully equipped, and having to build up a plant for storing and transporting in a new field where we were totally unprepared. These are some of the things which make the whole oil trade a perilous one, but we had with us a group of courageous men who recognized the great principle that a business cannot be a great success that does not fully and efficiently accept and take advantage of its opportunities.
How often we discussed those trying questions! Some of us wanted to jump at once into big expenditures, and others to keep to more moderate ones. It was usually a compromise, but one at a time we took these matters up and settled them, never going as fast as the most progressive ones wished, nor quite so carefully as the conservatives desired, but always made the vote unanimous in the end.
THE JOY OF ACHIEVEMENT
The part played by one of my earliest partners, Mr. H.M. Flagler, was always an inspiration to me. He invariably wanted to go ahead and accomplish great projects of all kinds, he was always on the active side of every question, and to his wonderful energy is due much of the rapid progress of the company in the early days.
It was to be expected of such a man that he should fulfil his destiny by working out some great problems at a time when most men want to retire to a comfortable life of ease. This would not appeal to my old friend. He undertook, single handed, the task of building up the East Coast of Florida. He was not satisfied to plan a railroad from St. Augustine to Key West—a distance of more than six hundred miles, which would have been regarded as an undertaking large enough for almost any one man—but in addition he has built a chain of superb hotels to induce tourists to go to this newly developed country. Further than this, he has had them conducted with great skill and success.
This one man, by his own energy and capital, has opened up a vast stretch of country, so that the old inhabitants and the new settlers may have a market for their products. He has given work to thousands of these people; and, to crown all, he has undertaken and nearly completed a remarkable engineering feat in carrying his road on the Florida Keys into the Atlantic Ocean to Key West, the point set out for years ago.
Practically all this has been done after what most men would have considered a full business life, and a man of any other nationality situated as he was would have retired to enjoy the fruits of his labour.
I first knew Mr. Flagler as a young man who consigned produce to Clark & Rockefeller. He was a bright and active young fellow full of vim and push. About the time we went into the oil business Mr. Flagler established himself as a commission merchant in the same building with Mr. Clark, who took over and succeeded the firm of Clark & Rockefeller. A little later he bought out Mr. Clark and combined his trade with his own.
Naturally, I came to see more of him. The business relations which began with the handling of produce he consigned to our old firm grew into a business friendship, because people who lived in a comparatively small place, as Cleveland was then, were thrown together much more often than in such a place as New York. When the oil business was developing and we needed more help, I at once thought of Mr. Flagler as a possible partner, and made him an offer to come with us and give up his commission business. This offer he accepted, and so began that life-long friendship which has never had a moment's interruption. It was a friendship founded on business, which Mr. Flagler used to say was a good deal better than a business founded on friendship, and my experience leads me to agree with him.
For years and years this early partner and I worked shoulder to shoulder; our desks were in the same room. We both lived on Euclid Avenue, a few rods apart. We met and walked to the office together, walked home to luncheon, back again after luncheon, and home again at night. On these walks, when we were away from the office interruptions, we did our thinking, talking, and planning together. Mr. Flagler drew practically all our contracts. He has always had the faculty of being able to clearly express the intent and purpose of a contract so well and accurately that there could be no misunderstanding, and his contracts were fair to both sides. I can remember his saying often that when you go into an arrangement you must measure up the rights and proprieties of both sides with the same yardstick, and this was the way Henry M. Flagler did.
One contract Mr. Flagler was called upon to accept which to my surprise he at once passed with his O.K. and without a question. We had concluded to purchase the land on which one of our refineries was built and which was held on a lease from John Irwin, whom we both knew well. Mr. Irwin drew the contract for the purchase of this land on the back of a large manila envelope that he picked up in the office. The description of the property ran as such contracts usually do until it came to the phrase "the line runs south to a mullen stalk," etc. This seemed to me a trifle indefinite, but Mr. Flagler said:
"It's all right, John. I'll accept that contract, and when the deed comes in, you will see that the mullen stalk will be replaced by a proper stake and the whole document will be accurate and shipshape." Of course it turned out exactly as he said it would. I am almost tempted to say that some lawyers might sit at his feet and learn things about drawing contracts good for them to know, but perhaps our legal friends might think I was partial, so I won't press the point.
Another thing about Mr. Flagler for which I think he deserves great credit was that in the early days he insisted that, when a refinery was to be put up, it should be different from the flimsy shacks which it was then the custom to build. Everyone was so afraid that the oil would disappear and that the money expended in buildings would be a loss that the meanest and cheapest buildings were erected for use as refineries. This was the sort of thing Mr. Flagler objected to. While he had to admit that it was possible the oil supply might fail and that the risks of the trade were great, he always believed that if we went into the oil business at all, we should do the work as well as we knew how; that we should have the very best facilities; that everything should be solid and substantial; and that nothing should be left undone to produce the finest results. And he followed his convictions of building as though the trade was going to last, and his courage in acting up to his beliefs laid strong foundations for later years.
There are a number of people still alive who will recall the bright, straightforward young Flagler of those days with satisfaction. At the time when we bought certain refineries at Cleveland he was very active. One day he met an old friend on the street, a German baker, to whom he had sold flour in years gone by. His friend told him that he had gone out of the bakery business and had built a little refinery. This surprised Mr. Flagler, and he didn't like the idea of his friend investing his little fortune in a small plant which he felt sure would not succeed. But at first there seemed nothing to do about it. He had it on his mind for some days. It evidently troubled him. Finally he came to me and said:
"That little baker man knows more about baking than oil refining, but I'd feel better if we invited him to join us—I've got him on my conscience."
I of course agreed. He talked to his friend, who said he would gladly sell if we would send an appraiser to value his plant, which we did, and then there arose an unexpected difficulty. The price at which the plant was to be purchased was satisfactory, but the ex-baker insisted that Mr. Flagler should advise him whether he should take his pay in cash or Standard Oil certificates at par. He told Mr. Flagler that if he took it in cash it would pay all his debts, and he would be glad to have his mind free of many anxieties; but if Mr. Flagler said the certificates were going to pay good dividends, he wanted to get into and keep up with a good thing. It was rather a hard proposition to put up to Mr. Flagler, and at first he declined to advise or express any opinion, but the German stuck to him and wouldn't let him shirk a responsibility which in no way belonged to him. Finally Mr. Flagler suggested that he take half the amount in cash and pay 50 per cent. on account of his debts, and put the other half in certificates, and see what happened. This he did, and as time went on he bought more certificates, and Mr. Flagler never had to apologize for the advice he gave him. I am confident that my old partner gave this affair as much time and thought as he did to any of his own large problems, and the incident may be taken as a measure of the man.
THE VALUE OF FRIENDSHIPS
But these old men's tales can hardly be interesting to the present generation, though perhaps they will not be useless if even tiresome stories make young people realize how, above all other possessions, is the value of a friend in every department of life without any exception whatsoever.
How many different kinds of friends there are! They should all be held close at any cost; for, although some are better than others, perhaps, a friend of whatever kind is important; and this one learns as one grows older. There is the kind that when you need help has a good reason just at the moment, of course, why it is impossible to extend it.
"I can't indorse your note," he says, "because I have an agreement with my partners not to."
"I'd like to oblige you, but I can explain why at the moment," etc., etc.
I do not mean to criticize this sort of friendship; for sometimes it is a matter of temperament; and sometimes the real necessities are such that the friend cannot do as he would like to do. As I look back over my friends, I can remember only a few of this kind and a good many of the more capable sort. One especial friend I had. His name was S.V. Harkness, and from the first of our acquaintance he seemed to have every confidence in me.
One day our oil warehouses and refinery burned to the ground in a few hours—they were absolutely annihilated. Though they were insured for many hundred thousands of dollars, of course, we were apprehensive about collecting such a large amount of insurance, and feared it might take some time to arrange. That plant had to be rebuilt right away, and it was necessary to lay the financial plans. Mr. Harkness was interested with us in the business, and I said to him:
"I may want to call upon you for the use of some money. I don't know that we shall need it, but I thought I'd speak to you in advance about it."
He took in the situation without much explaining on my part. He simply heard what I had to say and he was a man of very few words.
"All right, J.D., I'll give you all I've got." This was all he said, but I went home that night relieved of anxiety. As it turned out, we received the check of the Liverpool, London & Globe Insurance Company for the full amount before the builders required the payments; and while we didn't need his money, I never shall forget the whole-souled way in which he offered it.
And this sort of experience was not, I am grateful to say, rare with me. I was always a great borrower in my early days; the business was active and growing fast, and the banks seemed very willing to loan me the money. About this time, when our great fire had brought up some new conditions, I was studying the situation to see what our cash requirements would be. We were accustomed to prepare for financial emergencies long before we needed the funds.
Another incident occurred at this time which showed again the kind of real friends we had in those days, but I did not hear the full story of it until long years after the event.
There was one bank where we had done a great deal of business, and a friend of mine, Mr. Stillman Witt, who was a rich man, was one of the directors. At a meeting, the question came up as to what the bank would do in case we wanted more money. In order that no one might doubt his own position on the subject, Mr. Witt called for his strong-box, and said:
"Here, gentlemen, these young men are all O.K., and if they want to borrow more money I want to see this bank advance it without hesitation, and if you want more security, here it is; take what you want."
We were then shipping a large quantity of oil by lake and canal, to save in transportation, and it took additional capital to carry these shipments; and we required to borrow a large amount of money. We had already made extensive loans from another bank, whose president informed me that his board of directors had been making inquiries respecting our large line of discounts, and had stated that they would probably want to talk with me on the subject. I answered that I would be very glad of the opportunity to meet the board, as we would require a great deal more money from the bank. Suffice it to say, we got all we wanted, but I was not asked to call for any further explanations.
But I fear I am telling too much about banks and money and business. I know of nothing more despicable and pathetic than a man who devotes all the waking hours of the day to making money for money's sake. If I were forty years younger, I should like to go into business again, for the association with interesting and quick-minded men was always a great pleasure. But I have no dearth of interests to fill my days, and so long as I live I expect to go on and develop the plans which have been my inspiration for a lifetime.
During all the long period of work, which lasted from the time I was sixteen years old until I retired from active business when I was fifty-five, I must admit that I managed to get a good many vacations of one kind or another, because of the willingness of my most efficient associates to assume the burdens of the business which they were so eminently qualified to conduct.
Of detail work I feel I have done my full share. As I began my business life as a bookkeeper, I learned to have great respect for figures and facts, no matter how small they were. When there was a matter of accounting to be done in connection with any plan with which I was associated in the earlier years, I usually found that I was selected to undertake it. I had a passion for detail which afterward I was forced to strive to modify.
At Pocantico Hills, New York, where I have spent portions of my time for many years in an old house where the fine views invite the soul and where we can live simply and quietly, I have spent many delightful hours, studying the beautiful views, the trees, and fine landscape effects of that very interesting section of the Hudson River, and this happened in the days when I seemed to need every minute for the absorbing demands of business. So I fear after I got well started, I was not what might be called a diligent business man.
This phrase, "diligent in business," reminds me of an old friend of mine in Cleveland who was devoted to his work. I talked to him, and no doubt bored him unspeakably, on my special hobby, which has always been what some people call landscape gardening, but which with me is the art of laying out roads and paths and work of that kind. This friend of thirty-five years ago plainly disapproved of a man in business wasting his time on what he looked upon as mere foolishness.
One superb spring day I suggested to him that he should spend the afternoon with me (a most unusual and reckless suggestion for a business man to make in those days) and see some beautiful paths through the woods on my place which I had been planning and had about completed. I went so far as to tell him that I would give him a real treat.
"I cannot do it, John," he said, "I have an important matter of business on hand this afternoon."
"That may all be," I urged, "but it will give you no such pleasure as you'll get when you see those paths—the big tree on each side and ——"
"Go on, John, with your talk about trees and paths. I tell you I've got an ore ship coming in and our mills are waiting for her." He rubbed his hands with satisfaction—"I'd not miss seeing her come in for all the wood paths in Christendom." He was then getting $120 to $130 a ton for Bessemer steel rails, and if his mill stopped a minute waiting for ore, he felt that he was missing his life's chance.
Perhaps it was this same man who often gazed out into the lake with every nerve stretched to try to see an ore ship approaching. One day one of his friends asked him if he could see the boat.
"No-o, no-o," he reluctantly admitted, "but she's most in sight."
This ore trade was of great and absorbing interest at Cleveland. My old employer was paid $4 a ton for carrying ore from the Marquette regions fifty years ago, and to think of the wickedness of this maker of woodland paths, who in later years was moving the ore in great ships for eighty cents a ton and making a fortune at it.
All this reminds me of my experiences in the ore business, but I shall come to that later. I want to say something about landscape gardening, to which I have devoted a great deal of time for more than thirty years.
THE PLEASURES OF ROAD PLANNING
Like my old friend, others may be surprised at my claim to be an amateur landscape architect in a small way, and my family have been known to employ a great landscape man to make quite sure that I did not ruin the place. The problem was, just where to put the new home at Pocantico Hills, which has recently been built. I thought I had the advantage of knowing every foot of the land, all the old big trees were personal friends of mine, and with the views of any given point I was perfectly familiar—I had studied them hundreds of times; and after this great landscape architect had laid out his plans and had driven his lines of stakes, I asked if I might see what I could do with the job.
In a few days I had worked out a plan so devised that the roads caught just the best views at just the angles where in driving up the hill you came upon impressive outlooks, and at the ending was the final burst of river, hill, cloud, and great sweep of country to crown the whole; and here I fixed my stakes to show where I suggested that the roads should run, and finally the exact place where the house should be.
"Look it all over," I said, "and decide which plan is best." It was a proud moment when this real authority accepted my suggestions as bringing out the most favoured spots for views and agreed upon the site of the house. How many miles of roads I have laid out in my time, I can hardly compute, but I have often kept at it until I was exhausted. While surveying roads, I have run the lines until darkness made it impossible to see the little stakes and flags. It is all very vain of me to tell of these landscape enterprises, but perhaps they will offset the business talks which occupy so much of my story.
My methods of attending to business matters differed from those of most well-conducted merchants of my time and allowed me more freedom. Even after the chief affairs of the Standard Oil Company were moved to New York, I spent most of my summers at our home in Cleveland, and I do still. I would come to New York when my presence seemed necessary, but for the most part I kept in touch with the business through our own telegraph wires, and was left free to attend to many things which interested me—among others, the making of paths, the planting of trees, and the setting out of little forests of seedlings.
Of all the profitable things which develop quickly under the hand, I have thought my young nurseries show the greatest yield. We keep a set of account books for each place, and I was amazed not long ago at the increase in value that a few years make in growing things, when we came to remove some young trees from Westchester County to Lakewood, New Jersey. We plant our young trees, especially evergreens, by the thousand—I think we have put in as many as ten thousand at once, and let them develop, to be used later in some of our planting schemes. If we transfer young trees from Pocantico to our home in Lakewood, we charge one place and credit the other for these trees at the market rate. We are our own best customers, and we make a small fortune out of ourselves by selling to our New Jersey place at $1.50 or $2.00 each, trees which originally cost us only five or ten cents at Pocantico.
In nursery stock, as in other things, the advantage of doing things on a large scale reveals itself. The pleasure and satisfaction of saving and moving large trees—trees, say, from ten to twenty inches in diameter, or even more in some cases—has been for years a source of great interest. We build our movers ourselves, and work with our own men, and it is truly surprising what liberties you can take with trees, if you once learn how to handle these monsters. We have moved trees ninety feet high, and many seventy or eighty feet. And they naturally are by no means young. At one time or another we have tried almost all kinds of trees, including some which the authorities said could not be moved with success. Perhaps the most daring experiments were with horse-chestnuts. We took up large trees, transported them considerable distances, some of them after they were actually in flower, all at a cost of twenty dollars per tree, and lost very few. We were so successful that we became rather reckless, trying experiments out of season, but when we worked on plans we had already tried, our results were remarkably satisfactory.
Taking our experiences in many hundreds of trees of various kinds in and out of season, and including the time when we were learning the art, our total loss has been something less than 10 per cent., probably more nearly 6 or 7 per cent. A whole tree-moving campaign in a single season has been accomplished with a loss of about 3 per cent. I am willing to admit that in the case of the larger trees the growth has been retarded perhaps two years, but this is a small matter, for people no longer young wish to get the effects they desire at once, and the modern tree-mover does it. We have grouped and arranged clumps of big spruces to fit the purposes we were aiming for, and sometimes have completely covered a hillside with them. Oaks we have not been successful with except when comparatively young, and we don't try to move oaks and hickories when they have come near to maturity; but we have made some successful experiments with bass wood, and one of these we have moved three times without injury. Birches have generally baffled us, but evergreens, except cedars, have been almost invariably successfully handled.
This planning for good views must have been an early passion with me. I remember when I was hardly more than a boy I wanted to cut away a big tree which I thought interfered with the view from the windows of the dining-room of our home. I was for cutting it down, but some other members of the family objected, though my dear mother, I think, sympathized with me, as she said one day: "You know, my son, we have breakfast at eight o'clock, and I think if the tree were felled some time before we sat down to table, there would probably be no great complaint when the family saw the view which the fallen tree revealed."
So it turned out.
THE DIFFICULT ART OF GETTING
To my father I owe a great debt in that he himself trained me to practical ways. He was engaged in different enterprises; he used to tell me about these things, explaining their significance; and he taught me the principles and methods of business. From early boyhood I kept a little book which I remember I called Ledger A—and this little volume is still preserved—containing my receipts and expenditures as well as an account of the small sums that I was taught to give away regularly.
Naturally, people of modest means lead a closer family life than those who have plenty of servants to do everything for them. I count it a blessing that I was of the former class. When I was seven or eight years old I engaged in my first business enterprise with the assistance of my mother. I owned some turkeys, and she presented me with the curds from the milk to feed them. I took care of the birds myself, and sold them all in business-like fashion. My receipts were all profit, as I had nothing to do with the expense account, and my records were kept as carefully as I knew how.
We thoroughly enjoyed this little business affair, and I can still close my eyes, and distinctly see the gentle and dignified birds walking quietly along the brook and through the woods, cautiously stealing the way to their nests. To this day I enjoy the sight of a flock of turkeys, and never miss an opportunity of studying them.
My mother was a good deal of a disciplinarian, and upheld the standard of the family with a birch switch when it showed a tendency to deteriorate. Once, when I was being punished for some unfortunate doings which had taken place in the village school, I felt called upon to explain after the whipping had begun that I was innocent of the charge.
"Never mind," said my mother, "we have started in on this whipping, and it will do for the next time." This attitude was maintained to its final conclusion in many ways. One night, I remember, we boys could not resist the temptation to go skating in the moonlight, notwithstanding the fact that we had been expressly forbidden to skate at night. Almost before we got fairly started we heard a cry for help, and found a neighbour, who had broken through the ice, was in danger of drowning. By pushing a pole to him we succeeded in fishing him out, and restored him safe and sound to his grateful family. As we were not generally expected to save a man's life every time we skated, my brother William and I felt that there were mitigating circumstances connected with this particular disobedience which might be taken into account in the final judgment, but this idea proved to be erroneous.
STARTING AT WORK
Although the plan had been to send me to college, it seemed best at sixteen that I should leave the high school in which I had nearly completed the course and go into a commercial college in Cleveland for a few months. They taught bookkeeping and some of the fundamental principles of commercial transactions. This training, though it lasted only a few months, was very valuable to me. But how to get a job—that was the question. I tramped the streets for days and weeks, asking merchants and storekeepers if they didn't want a boy; but the offer of my services met with little appreciation. No one wanted a boy, and very few showed any overwhelming anxiety to talk with me on the subject. At last one man on the Cleveland docks told me that I might come back after the noonday meal. I was elated; it now seemed that I might get a start.
I was in a fever of anxiety lest I should lose this one opportunity that I had unearthed. When finally at what seemed to me the time, I presented myself to my would-be employer:
"We will give you a chance," he said, but not a word passed between us about pay. This was September 26, 1855. I joyfully went to work. The name of the firm was Hewitt & Tuttle.
In beginning the work I had some advantages. My father's training, as I have said, was practical, the course at the commercial college had taught me the rudiments of business, and I thus had a groundwork to build upon. I was fortunate, also, in working under the supervision of the bookkeeper, who was a fine disciplinarian, and well disposed toward me.
When January, 1856, arrived, Mr. Tuttle presented me with $50 for my three months' work, which was no doubt all that I was worth, and it was entirely satisfactory.
For the next year, with $25 a month, I kept my position, learning the details and clerical work connected with such a business. It was a wholesale produce commission and forwarding concern, my department being particularly the office duties. Just above me was the bookkeeper for the house, and he received $2,000 a year salary in lieu of his share of the profits of the firm of which he was a member. At the end of the first fiscal year when he left I assumed his clerical and bookkeeping work, for which I received the salary of $500.
As I look back upon this term of business apprenticeship, I can see that its influence was vitally important in its relations to what came after.
To begin with, my work was done in the office of the firm itself. I was almost always present when they talked of their affairs, laid out their plans, and decided upon a course of action. I thus had an advantage over other boys of my age, who were quicker and who could figure and write better than I. The firm conducted a business with so many ramifications that this education was quite extensive. They owned dwelling-houses, warehouses, and buildings which were rented for offices and a variety of uses, and I had to collect the rents. They shipped by rail, canal, and lake. There were many different kinds of negotiations and transactions going on, and with all these I was in close touch.
Thus it happened that my duties were vastly more interesting than those of an office-boy in a large house to-day. I thoroughly enjoyed the work. Gradually the auditing of accounts was left in my hands. All the bills were first passed upon by me, and I took this duty very seriously.
One day, I remember, I was in a neighbour's office, when the local plumber presented himself with a bill about a yard long. This neighbour was one of those very busy men. He was connected with what seemed to me an unlimited number of enterprises. He merely glanced at this tiresome bill, turned to the bookkeeper, and said:
"Please pay this bill."
As I was studying the same plumber's bills in great detail, checking every item, if only for a few cents, and finding it to be greatly to the firm's interest to do so, this casual way of conducting affairs did not appeal to me. I had trained myself to the point of view doubtless held by many young men in business to-day, that my check on a bill was the executive act which released my employer's money from the till and was attended with more responsibility than the spending of my own funds. I made up my mind that such business methods could not succeed.
Passing bills, collecting rents, adjusting claims, and work of this kind brought me in association with a great variety of people. I had to learn how to get on with all these different classes, and still keep the relations between them and the house pleasant. One particular kind of negotiation came to me which took all the skill I could master to bring to a successful end.
We would receive, for example, a shipment of marble from Vermont to Cleveland. This involved handling by railroad, canal, and lake boats. The cost of losses or damage had to be somehow fixed between these three different carriers, and it taxed all the ingenuity of a boy of seventeen to work out this problem to the satisfaction of all concerned, including my employers. But I thought the task no hardship, and so far as I can remember I never had any disagreement of moment with any of these transportation interests. This experience in conducting all sorts of transactions at such an impressionable age, with the helping hand of my superiors to fall back upon in an emergency—was highly interesting to me. It was my first step in learning the principle of negotiation, of which I hope to speak later.
The training that comes from working for some one else, to whom we feel a responsibility, I am sure was of great value to me.
I should estimate that the salaries of that time were far less than half of what is paid for equivalent positions to-day. The next year I was offered a salary of $700, but thought I was worth $800. We had not settled the matter by April, and as a favourable opportunity had presented itself for carrying on the same business on my own account, I resigned my position.
In those days, in Cleveland, everyone knew almost everyone else in town. Among the merchants was a young Englishman named M.B. Clark, perhaps ten years older than I, who wanted to establish a business and was in search of a partner. He had $2,000 to contribute to the firm, and wanted a partner who could furnish an equal amount. This seemed a good opportunity for me. I had saved up $700 or $800, but where to get the rest was a problem.
I talked the matter over with my father, who told me that he had always intended to give $1,000 to each of his children when they reached twenty-one. He said that if I wished to receive my share at once, instead of waiting, he would advance it to me and I could pay interest upon the sum until I was twenty-one.
"But, John," he added, "the rate is ten."
At that time, 10 per cent. a year interest was a very common rate for such loans. At the banks the rate might not have been quite so high; but of course the financial institutions could not supply all the demands, so there was much private borrowing at high figures. As I needed this money for the partnership, I gladly accepted my father's offer, and so began business as the junior partner of the new firm, which was called Clark & Rockefeller.
It was a great thing to be my own employer. Mentally I swelled with pride—a partner in a firm with $4,000 capital! Mr. Clark attended to the buying and selling, and I took charge of the finance and the books. We at once began to do a large business, dealing in carload lots and cargoes of produce. Naturally we soon needed more money to take care of the increasing trade. There was nothing to do but to attempt to borrow from a bank. But would the bank lend to us?
THE FIRST LOAN
I went to a bank president whom I knew, and who knew me. I remember perfectly how anxious I was to get that loan and to establish myself favourably with the banker. This gentleman was T.P. Handy, a sweet and gentle old man, well known as a high-grade, beautiful character. For fifty years he was interested in young men. He knew me as a boy in the Cleveland schools. I gave him all the particulars of our business, telling him frankly about our affairs—what we wanted to use the money for, etc., etc. I waited for the verdict with almost trembling eagerness.
"How much do you want?" he said.
"Two thousand dollars."
"All right, Mr. Rockefeller, you can have it," he replied. "Just give me your own warehouse receipts; they're good enough for me."
As I left that bank, my elation can hardly be imagined. I held up my head—think of it, a bank had trusted me for $2,000! I felt that I was now a man of importance in the community.
For long years after the head of this bank was a friend indeed; he loaned me money when I needed it, and I needed it almost all the time, and all the money he had. It was a source of gratification that later I was able to go to him and recommend that he should make a certain investment in Standard Oil stock. He agreed that he would like to do so, but he said that the sum involved was not at the moment available, and so at my suggestion I turned banker for him, and in the end he took out his principal with a very handsome profit. It is a pleasure to testify even at this late date to his great kindness and faith in me.
STICKING TO BUSINESS PRINCIPLES
Mr. Handy trusted me because he believed we would conduct our young business on conservative and proper lines, and I well remember about this time an example of how hard it is sometimes to live up to what one knows is the right business principle. Not long after our concern was started our best customer—that is, the man who made the largest consignments—asked that we should allow him to draw in advance on current shipments before the produce or a bill of lading were actually in hand. We, of course, wished to oblige this important man, but I, as the financial member of the firm, objected, though I feared we should lose his business.
The situation seemed very serious; my partner was impatient with me for refusing to yield, and in this dilemma I decided to go personally to see if I could not induce our customer to relent. I had been unusually fortunate when I came face to face with men in winning their friendship, and my partner's displeasure put me on my mettle. I felt that when I got into touch with this gentleman I could convince him that what he proposed would result in a bad precedent. My reasoning (in my own mind) was logical and convincing. I went to see him, and put forth all the arguments that I had so carefully thought out. But he stormed about, and in the end I had the further humiliation of confessing to my partner that I had failed. I had been able to accomplish absolutely nothing.
Naturally, he was very much disturbed at the possibility of losing our most valued connection, but I insisted and we stuck to our principles and refused to give the shipper the accommodation he had asked. What was our surprise and gratification to find that he continued his relations with us as though nothing had happened, and did not again refer to the matter. I learned afterward that an old country banker, named John Gardener, of Norwalk, O., who had much to do with our consignor, was watching this little matter intently, and I have ever since believed that he originated the suggestion to tempt us to do what we stated we did not do as a test, and his story about our firm stand for what we regarded as sound business principles did us great good.
About this time I began to go out and solicit business—a branch of work I had never before attempted. I undertook to visit every person in our part of the country who was in any way connected with the kind of business that we were engaged in, and went pretty well over the states of Ohio and Indiana. I made up my mind that I could do this best by simply introducing our firm, and not pressing for immediate consignments. I told them that I represented Clark & Rockefeller, commission merchants, and that I had no wish to interfere with any connection that they had at present, but if the opportunity offered we should be glad to serve them, etc., etc.
To our great surprise, business came in upon us so fast that we hardly knew how to take care of it, and in the first year our sales amounted to half a million dollars.
Then, and indeed for many years after, it seemed as though there was no end to the money needed to carry on and develop the business. As our successes began to come, I seldom put my head upon the pillow at night without speaking a few words to myself in this wise:
"Now a little success, soon you will fall down, soon you will be overthrown. Because you have got a start, you think you are quite a merchant; look out, or you will lose your head—go steady." These intimate conversations with myself, I am sure, had a great influence on my life. I was afraid I could not stand my prosperity, and tried to teach myself not to get puffed up with any foolish notions.
My loans from my father were many. Our relations on finances were a source of some anxiety to me, and were not quite so humorous as they seem now as I look back at them. Occasionally he would come to me and say that if I needed money in the business he would be able to loan some, and as I always needed capital I was glad indeed to get it, even at 10 per cent. interest. Just at the moment when I required the money most he was apt to say:
"My son, I find I have got to have that money."
"Of course, you shall have it at once," I would answer, but I knew that he was testing me, and that when I paid him, he would hold the money without its earning anything for a little time, and then offer it back later. I confess that this little discipline should have done me good, and perhaps did, but while I concealed it from him, the truth is I was not particularly pleased with his application of tests to discover if my financial ability was equal to such shocks.
INTEREST AT 10 PER CENT.
These experiences with my father remind me that in the early days there was often much discussion as to what should be paid for the use of money. Many people protested that the rate of 10 per cent. was outrageous, and none but a wicked man would exact such a charge. I was accustomed to argue that money was worth what it would bring—no one would pay 10 per cent., or 5 per cent., or 8 per cent. unless the borrower believed that at this rate it was profitable to employ it. As I was always the borrower at that time, I certainly did not argue for paying more than was necessary.
Among the most persistent and heated discussions I ever had were those with the dear old lady who kept the boarding-house where my brother William and I lived when we were away from home at school. I used to greatly enjoy these talks, for she was an able woman and a good talker, and as she charged us only a dollar a week for board and lodging, and fed us well, I certainly was her friend. This was about the usual price for board in the small towns in those days, where the produce was raised almost entirely on the place.
This estimable lady was violently opposed to loaners obtaining high rates of interest, and we had frequent and earnest arguments on the subject. She knew that I was accustomed to make loans for my father, and she was familiar with the rates secured. But all the arguments in the world did not change the rate, and it came down only when the supply of money grew more plentiful.
I have usually found that important alterations in public opinion in regard to business matters have been of slow growth along the line of proved economic theory—very rarely have improvements in these relationships come about through hastily devised legislation.
One can hardly realize how difficult it was to get capital for active business enterprises at that time. In the country farther west much higher rates were paid, which applied usually to personal loans on which a business risk was run, but it shows how different the conditions for young business men were then than now.
A NIMBLE BORROWER
Speaking of borrowing at the banks reminds me of one of the most strenuous financial efforts I ever made. We had to raise the money to accept an offer for a large business. It required many hundreds of thousands of dollars—and in cash—securities would not answer. I received the message at about noon and had to get off on the three-o'clock train. I drove from bank to bank, asking each president or cashier, whomever I could find first, to get ready for me all the funds he could possibly lay hands on. I told them I would be back to get the money later. I rounded up all of our banks in the city, and made a second journey to get the money, and kept going until I secured the necessary amount. With this I was off on the three-o'clock train, and closed the transaction. In these early days I was a good deal of a traveller, visiting our plants, making new connections, seeing people, arranging plans to extend our business—and it often called for very rapid work.
RAISING CHURCH FUNDS
When I was but seventeen or eighteen I was elected as a trustee in the church. It was a mission branch, and occasionally I had to hear members who belonged to the main body speak of the mission as though it were not quite so good as the big mother church. This strengthened our resolve to show them that we could paddle our own canoe.
Our first church was not a very grand affair, and there was a mortgage of $2,000 on it which had been a dispiriting influence for years.
The holder of the mortgage had long demanded that he should be paid, but somehow even the interest was barely kept up, and the creditor finally threatened to sell us out. As it happened, the money had been lent by a deacon in the church, but notwithstanding this fact, he felt that he should have his money, and perhaps he really needed it. Anyhow, he proposed to take such steps as were necessary to get it. The matter came to a head one Sunday morning, when the minister announced from the pulpit that the $2,000 would have to be raised, or we should lose our church building. I therefore found myself at the door of the church as the congregation came and went.
As each member came by I buttonholed him, and got him to promise to give something toward the extinguishing of that debt. I pleaded and urged, and almost threatened. As each one promised, I put his name and the amount down in my little book, and continued to solicit from every possible subscriber.
This campaign for raising the money which started that morning after church, lasted for several months. It was a great undertaking to raise such a sum of money in small amounts ranging from a few cents to the more magnificent promises of gifts to be paid at the rate of twenty-five or fifty cents per week. The plan absorbed me. I contributed what I could, and my first ambition to earn more money was aroused by this and similar undertakings in which I was constantly engaged.
But at last the $2,000 was all in hand and a proud day it was when the debt was extinguished. I hope the members of the mother church were properly humiliated to see how far we had gone beyond their expectations, but I do not now recall that they expressed the surprise that we flattered ourselves they must have felt.
The begging experiences I had at that time were full of interest. I went at the task with pride rather than the reverse, and I continued it until my increasing cares and responsibilities compelled me to resign the actual working out of details to others.
THE STANDARD OIL COMPANY
It would be surprising if in an organization which included a great number of men there should not be an occasional employee here and there who acted, in connection with the business or perhaps in conducting his own affairs, in a way which might be criticized. Even in a comparatively small organization it is wellnigh impossible to restrain this occasional man who is over-zealous for his own or his company's advancement. To judge the character of all the members of a great organization or the organization itself by the actions of a few individuals would be manifestly unfair.
It has been said that I forced the men who became my partners in the oil business to join with me. I would not have been so short-sighted. If it were true that I followed such tactics, I ask, would it have been possible to make of such men life-long companions? Would they accept, and remain for many years in positions of the greatest trust, and finally, could any one have formed of such men, if they had been so browbeaten, a group which has for all these years worked in loyal harmony, with fair dealing among themselves as well as with others, building up efficiency and acting in entire unity? This powerful organization has not only lasted but its efficiency has increased. For fourteen years I have been out of business, and in eight or ten years went only once to the company's office.
In the summer of 1907 I visited again the room at the top of the Standard Oil Company's building, where the officers of the company and the heads of departments have had their luncheon served for many years. I was surprised to find so many men who had come to the front since my last visit years ago. Afterward I had an opportunity to talk with old associates and many new ones, and it was a source of great gratification to me to find that the same spirit of cooeperation and harmony existed unchanged. This practice of lunching together, a hundred or more at long tables in most intimate and friendly association, is another indication of what I contend, slight as it may seem to be at first thought. Would these people seek each other's companionship day after day if they had been forced into this relation? People in such a position do not go on for long in a pleasant and congenial intimacy.
For years the Standard Oil Company has developed step by step, and I am convinced that it has done well its work of supplying to the people the products from petroleum at prices which have decreased as the efficiency of the business has been built up. It gradually extended its services first to the large centres, and then to towns, and now to the smallest places, going to the homes of its customers, delivering the oil to suit the convenience of the actual users. This same system is being followed out in various parts of the world. The company has, for example, three thousand tank wagons supplying American oil to towns and even small hamlets in Europe. Its own depots and employees deliver it in a somewhat similar way in Japan, China, India, and the chief countries of the world. Do you think this trade has been developed by anything but hard work?
This plan of selling our products direct to the consumer and the exceptionally rapid growth of the business bred a certain antagonism which I suppose could not have been avoided, but this same idea of dealing with the consumer directly has been followed by others and in many lines of trade, without creating, so far as I recall, any serious opposition.
This is a very interesting and important point, and I have often wondered if the criticism which centred upon us did not come from the fact that we were among the first, if not the first, to work out the problems of direct selling to the user on a broad scale. This was done in a fair spirit and with due consideration for everyone's rights. We did not ruthlessly go after the trade of our competitors and attempt to ruin it by cutting prices or instituting a spy system. We had set ourselves the task of building up as rapidly and as broadly as possible the volume of consumption. Let me try to explain just what happened.
To get the advantage of the facilities we had in manufacture, we sought the utmost market in all lands—we needed volume. To do this we had to create selling methods far in advance of what then existed; we had to dispose of two, or three, or four gallons of oil where one had been sold before, and we could not rely upon the usual trade channels then existing to accomplish this. It was never our purpose to interfere with a dealer who adequately cultivated his field of operations, but when we saw a new opportunity or a new place for extending the sale by further and effective facilities, we made it our business to provide them. In this way we opened many new lines in which others have shared. In this development we had to employ many comparatively new men. The ideal way to supply material for higher positions is, of course, to recruit the men from among the youngest in the company's service, but our expansion was too rapid to permit this in all cases. That some of these employees were over-zealous in going after sales it would not be surprising to learn, but they were acting in violation of the expressed and known wishes of the company. But even these instances, I am convinced, occurred so seldom, by comparison with the number of transactions we carried on, that they were really the exceptions that proved the rule.
Every week in the year for many, many years, this concern has brought into this country more than a million dollars gold, all from the products produced by American labour. I am proud of the record, and believe most Americans will be when they understand some things better. These achievements, the development of this great foreign trade, the owning of ships to carry the oil in bulk by the most economical methods, the sending out of men to fight for the world's markets, have cost huge sums of money, and the vast capital employed could not be raised nor controlled except by such an organization as the Standard is to-day.
To give a true picture of the early conditions, one must realize that the oil industry was considered a most hazardous undertaking, not altogether unlike the speculative mining undertakings we hear so much of to-day. I well remember my old and distinguished friend, Rev. Thomas W. Armitage, for some forty years pastor of a great New York church, warning me that it was worse than folly to extend our plants and our operations. He was sure we were running unwarranted risks, that our oil supply would probably fail, the demand would decline, and he, with many others, sometimes I thought almost everybody, prophesied ruin.
None of us ever dreamed of the magnitude of what proved to be the later expansion. We did our day's work as we met it, looking forward to what we could see in the distance and keeping well up to our opportunities, but laying our foundations firmly. As I have said, capital was most difficult to secure, and it was not easy to interest conservative men in this adventurous business. Men of property were afraid of it, though in rare cases capitalists were induced to unite with us to a limited extent. If they bought our stock at all, they took a little of it now and then as an experiment, and we were painfully conscious that they often declined to buy new stock with many beautiful expressions of appreciation.
The enterprise being so new and novel, on account of the fearfulness of certain holders in reference to its success, we frequently had to take stock to keep it from going begging, but we had such confidence in the fundamental value of the concern that we were willing to assume this risk. There are always a few men in an undertaking of this kind who would risk all on their judgment of the final result, and if the enterprise had failed, these would have been classed as visionary adventurers, and perhaps with good reason.
The 60,000 men who are at work constantly in the service of the company are kept busy year in and year out. The past year has been a time of great contraction, but the Standard has gone on with its plans unchecked, and the new works and buildings have not been delayed on account of lack of capital or fear of bad times. It pays its workmen well, it cares for them when sick, and pensions them when old. It has never had any important strikes, and if there is any better function of business management than giving profitable work to employees year after year, in good times and bad, I don't know what it is.
Another thing to be remembered about this so-called "octopus" is that there has been no "water" introduced into its capital (perhaps we felt that oil and water would not have mixed); nor in all these years has any one had to wait for money which the Standard owed. It has suffered from great fires and losses, but it has taken care of its affairs in such a way that it has not found it necessary to appeal to the general public to place blocks of bonds or stock; it has used no underwriting syndicates or stock-selling schemes in any form, and it has always managed to finance new oil field operations when called upon.
It is a common thing to hear people say that this company has crushed out its competitors. Only the uninformed could make such an assertion. It has and always has had, and always will have, hundreds of active competitors; it has lived only because it has managed its affairs well and economically and with great vigour. To speak of competition for a minute: Consider not only the able people who compete in refining oil, but all the competition in the various trades which make and sell by-products—a great variety of different businesses. And perhaps of even more importance is the competition in foreign lands. The Standard is always fighting to sell the American product against the oil produced from the great fields of Russia, which struggles for the trade of Europe, and the Burma oil, which largely affects the market in India. In all these various countries we are met with tariffs which are raised against us, local prejudices, and strange customs. In many countries we had to teach the people—the Chinese, for example—to burn oil by making lamps for them; we packed the oil to be carried by camels or on the backs of runners in the most remote portions of the world; we adapted the trade to the needs of strange folk. Every time we succeeded in a foreign land, it meant dollars brought to this country, and every time we failed, it was a loss to our nation and its workmen.
One of our greatest helpers has been the State Department in Washington. Our ambassadors and ministers and consuls have aided to push our way into new markets to the utmost corners of the world.
I think I can speak thus frankly and enthusiastically because the working out of many of these great plans has developed largely since I retired from the business fourteen years ago.
The Standard has not now, and never did have a royal road to supremacy, nor is its success due to any one man, but to the multitude of able men who are working together. If the present managers of the company were to relax efforts, allow the quality of their product to degenerate, or treat their customers badly, how long would their business last? About as long as any other neglected business. To read some of the accounts of the affairs of the company, one would think that it had such a hold on the oil trade that the directors did little but come together and declare dividends. It is a pleasure for me to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work these men are doing, not only for the company they serve, but for the foreign trade of our country; for more than half of all the product that the company makes is sold outside of the United States. If, in place of these directors, the business were taken over and run by anyone but experts, I would sell my interest for any price I could get. To succeed in a business requires the best and most earnest men to manage it, and the best men rise to the top. Of its origin and early plans I will speak later.
THE MODERN CORPORATION
Beyond question there is a suspicion of corporations. There may be reason for such suspicion very often; for a corporation may be moral or immoral, just as a man may be moral or the reverse; but it is folly to condemn all corporations because some are bad, or even to be unduly suspicious of all, because some are bad. But the corporation in form and character has come to stay—that is a thing that may be depended upon. Even small firms are becoming corporations, because it is a convenient form of partnership.
It is equally true that combinations of capital are bound to continue and to grow, and this need not alarm even the most timid if the corporation, or the series of corporations, is properly conducted with due regard for the rights of others. The day of individual competition in large affairs is past and gone—you might just as well argue that we should go back to hand labour and throw away our efficient machines—and the sober good sense of the people will accept this fact when they have studied and tried it out. Just see how the list of stockholders in the great corporations is increasing by leaps and bounds. This means that all these people are becoming partners in great businesses. It is a good thing—it will bring a feeling of increased responsibility to the managers of the corporations and will make the people who have their interests involved study the facts impartially before condemning or attacking them.
On this subject of industrial combinations I have often expressed my opinions; and, as I have not changed my mind, I am not averse to repeating them now, especially as the subject seems again to be so much in the public eye.
The chief advantages from industrial combinations are those which can be derived from a cooeperation of persons and aggregation of capital. Much that one man cannot do alone two can do together, and once admit the fact that cooeperation, or, what is the same thing, combination, is necessary on a small scale, the limit depends solely upon the necessities of business. Two persons in partnership may be a sufficiently large combination for a small business, but if the business grows or can be made to grow, more persons and more capital must be taken in. The business may grow so large that a partnership ceases to be a proper instrumentality for its purposes, and then a corporation becomes a necessity. In most countries, as in England, this form of industrial combination is sufficient for a business co-extensive with the parent country, but it is not so in America. Our Federal form of government making every corporation created by a state foreign to every other state, renders it necessary for persons doing business through corporate agency to organize corporations in some or many of the different states in which their business is located. Instead of doing business through the agency of one corporation they must do business through the agencies of several corporations. If the business is extended to foreign countries, and Americans are not to-day satisfied with home markets alone, it will be found helpful and possibly necessary to organize corporations in such countries, for Europeans are prejudiced against foreign corporations, as are the people of many of our states. These different corporations thus become cooeperating agencies in the same business and are held together by common ownership of their stocks.
It is too late to argue about advantages of industrial combinations. They are a necessity. And if Americans are to have the privilege of extending their business in all the states of the Union, and into foreign countries as well, they are a necessity on a large scale, and require the agency of more than one corporation.
The dangers are that the power conferred by combination may be abused, that combinations may be formed for speculation in stocks rather than for conducting business, and that for this purpose prices may be temporarily raised instead of being lowered. These abuses are possible to a greater or less extent in all combinations, large or small, but this fact is no more of an argument against combinations than the fact that steam may explode is an argument against steam. Steam is necessary and can be made comparatively safe. Combination is necessary and its abuses can be minimized; otherwise our legislators must acknowledge their incapacity to deal with the most important instrument of industry.
In the hearing of the Industrial Commission in 1899, I then said that if I were to suggest any legislation regarding industrial combinations it would be: First, Federal legislation under which corporations may be created and regulated, if that be possible. Second, in lieu thereof, state legislation as nearly uniform as possible, encouraging combinations of persons and capital for the purpose of carrying on industries, but permitting state supervision, not of a character to hamper industries, but sufficient to prevent frauds upon the public. I still feel as I did in 1899.
THE NEW OPPORTUNITIES
I am far from believing that this will adversely affect the individual. The great economic era we are entering will give splendid opportunity to the young man of the future. One often hears the men of this new generation say that they do not have the chances that their fathers and grandfathers had. How little they know of the disadvantages from which we suffered! In my young manhood we had everything to do and nothing to do it with; we had to hew our own paths along new lines; we had little experience to go on. Capital was most difficult to get, credits were mysterious things. Whereas now we have a system of commercial ratings, everything was then haphazard and we suffered from a stupendous war and all the disasters which followed.
Compare this day with that. Our comforts and opportunities are multiplied a thousand fold. The resources of our great land are now actually opening up and are scarcely touched; our home markets are vast, and we have just begun to think of the foreign peoples we can serve—the people who are years behind us in civilization. In the East a quarter of the human race is just awakening. The men of this generation are entering into a heritage which makes their fathers' lives look poverty-stricken by comparison. I am naturally an optimist, and when it comes to a statement of what our people will accomplish in the future, I am unable to express myself with sufficient enthusiasm.
There are many things we must do to attain the highest benefit from all these great blessings; and not the least of these is to build up our reputation throughout the whole world.
The great business interests will, I hope, so comport themselves that foreign capital will consider it a desirable thing to hold shares in American companies. It is for Americans to see that foreign investors are well and honestly treated, so that they will never regret purchases of our securities.
I may speak thus frankly, because I am an investor in many American enterprises, but a controller of none (with one exception, and that a company which has not been much of a dividend payer), and I, like all the rest, am dependent upon the honest and capable administration of the industries. I firmly and sincerely believe that they will be so managed.
THE AMERICAN BUSINESS MAN
You hear a good many people of pessimistic disposition say much about greed in American life. One would think to hear them talk that we were a race of misers in this country. To lay too much stress upon the reports of greed in the newspapers would be folly, since their function is to report the unusual and even the abnormal. When a man goes properly about his daily affairs, the public prints say nothing; it is only when something extraordinary happens to him that he is discussed. But because he is thus brought into prominence occasionally, you surely would not say that these occasions represented his normal life. It is by no means for money alone that these active-minded men labour—they are engaged in a fascinating occupation. The zest of the work is maintained by something better than the mere accumulation of money, and, as I think I have said elsewhere, the standards of business are high and are getting better all the time.
I confess I have no sympathy with the idea so often advanced that our basis of all judgments in this country is founded on money. If this were true, we should be a nation of money hoarders instead of spenders. Nor do I admit that we are so small-minded a people as to be jealous of the success of others. It is the other way about: we are the most extraordinarily ambitious, and the success of one man in any walk of life spurs the others on. It does not sour them, and it is a libel even to suggest so great a meanness of spirit.
In reading the newspapers, where so much is taken for granted in considering things on a money standard, I think we need some of the sense of humour possessed by an Irish neighbour of mine, who built what we regarded as an extremely ugly house, which stood out in bright colours as we looked from our windows. My taste in architecture differed so widely from that affected by my Irish friend, that we planted out the view of his house by moving some large trees to the end of our property. Another neighbour who watched this work going on asked Mr. Foley why Mr. Rockefeller moved all these big trees and cut off the view between the houses. Foley, with the quick wit of his country, responded instantly: "It's invy, they can't stand looking at the ividence of me prosperity."
In my early days men acted just as they do now, no doubt. When there was anything to be done for general trade betterment, almost every man had some good reason for believing that his case was a special one different from all the rest. For every foolish thing he did, or wanted to do, for every unbusiness-like plan he had, he always pleaded that it was necessary in his case. He was the one man who had to sell at less than cost, to disrupt all the business plans of others in his trade, because his individual position was so absolutely different from all the rest. It was often a heart-breaking undertaking to convince those men that the perfect occasion which would lead to the perfect opportunity would never come, even if they waited until the crack o' doom.
Then, again, we had the type of man who really never knew all the facts about his own affairs. Many of the brightest kept their books in such a way that they did not actually know when they were making money on a certain operation and when they were losing. This unintelligent competition was a hard matter to contend with. Good old-fashioned common sense has always been a mighty rare commodity. When a man's affairs are not going well, he hates to study the books and face the truth. From the first, the men who managed the Standard Oil Company kept their books intelligently as well as correctly. We knew how much we made and where we gained or lost. At least, we tried not to deceive ourselves.
My ideas of business are no doubt old-fashioned, but the fundamental principles do not change from generation to generation, and sometimes I think that our quick-witted American business men, whose spirit and energy are so splendid, do not always sufficiently study the real underlying foundations of business management. I have spoken of the necessity of being frank and honest with oneself about one's own affairs: many people assume that they can get away from the truth by avoiding thinking about it, but the natural law is inevitable, and the sooner it is recognized, the better.
One hears a great deal about wages and why they must be maintained at a high level, by the railroads, for example. A labourer is worthy of his hire, no less, but no more, and in the long run he must contribute an equivalent for what he is paid. If he does not do this, he is probably pauperized, and you at once throw out the balance of things. You can't hold up conditions artificially, and you can't change the underlying laws of trade. If you try, you must inevitably fail. All this may be trite and obvious, but it is remarkable how many men overlook what should be the obvious. These are facts we can't get away from—a business man must adapt himself to the natural conditions as they exist from month to month and year to year. Sometimes I feel that we Americans think we can find a short road to success, and it may appear that often this feat is accomplished; but real efficiency in work comes from knowing your facts and building upon that sure foundation.
Many men of wealth do not retire from business even when they can. They are not willing to be idle, or they have a just pride in their work and want to perfect the plans in which they have faith, or, what is of still more consequence, they may feel the call to expand and build up for the benefit of their employees and associates, and these men are the great builders up in our country. Consider for a moment how much would have been left undone if our prosperous American business men had sat down with folded hands when they had acquired a competency. I have respect for all these reasons, but if a man has succeeded, he has brought upon himself corresponding responsibilities, and our institutions devoted to helping men to help themselves need the brain of the American business man as well as part of his money.
Some of these men, however, are so absorbed in their business affairs that they hardly have time to think of anything else. If they do interest themselves in a work outside of their own office and undertake to raise money, they begin with an apology, as if they are ashamed of themselves.
"I am no beggar," I have heard many of them say, to which I could only reply: "I am sorry you feel that way about it."
I have been this sort of beggar all my life and the experiences I have had were so interesting and important to me that I will venture to speak of them in a later chapter.
SOME EXPERIENCES IN THE OIL BUSINESS
During the years when I was just coming to man's estate, the produce business of Clark & Rockefeller went on prosperously, and in the early sixties we organized a firm to refine and deal in oil. It was composed of Messrs. James and Richard Clark, Mr. Samuel Andrews, and the firm of Clark & Rockefeller, who were the company. It was my first direct connection with the oil trade. As the new concern grew the firm of Clark & Rockefeller was called upon to supply a large special capital. Mr. Samuel Andrews was the manufacturing man of the concern, and he had learned the process of cleansing the crude oil by the use of sulphuric acid.
In 1865 the partnership was dissolved; it was decided that the cash assets should be collected and the debts paid, but this left the plant and the good-will to be disposed of. It was suggested that they should go to the highest bidder among ourselves. This seemed a just settlement to me, and the question came up as to when the sale should be held and who would conduct it. My partners had a lawyer in the room to represent them, though I had not considered having a legal representative; I thought I could take care of so simple a transaction. The lawyer acted as the auctioneer, and it was suggested that we should go on with the sale then and there. All agreed, and so the auction began.
I had made up my mind that I wanted to go into the oil trade, not as a special partner, but actively on a larger scale, and with Mr. Andrews wished to buy that business. I thought that I saw great opportunities in refining oil, and did not realize at that time that the whole oil industry would soon be swamped by so many men rushing into it. But I was full of hope, and I had already arranged to get financial accommodation to an amount that I supposed would easily pay for the plant and good-will. I was willing to give up the other firm of Clark & Rockefeller, and readily settled that later—my old partner, Mr. Clark, taking over the business.
The bidding began, I think, at $500 premium. I bid a thousand; they bid two thousand; and so on, little by little, the price went up. Neither side was willing to stop bidding, and the amount gradually rose until it reached $50,000, which was much more than we supposed the concern to be worth. Finally, it advanced to $60,000, and by slow stages to $70,000, and I almost feared for my ability to buy the business and have the money to pay for it. At last the other side bid $72,000. Without hesitation I said $72,500. Mr. Clark then said:
"I'll go no higher, John; the business is yours."
"Shall I give you a check for it now?" I suggested.
"No," Mr. Clark said, "I'm glad to trust you for it; settle at your convenience."
The firm of Rockefeller & Andrews was then established, and this was really my start in the oil trade. It was my most important business for about forty years until, at the age of about fifty-six, I retired.
The story of the early history of the oil trade is too well known to bear repeating in detail. The cleansing of crude petroleum was a simple and easy process, and at first the profits were very large. Naturally, all sorts of people went into it: the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker began to refine oil, and it was only a short time before more of the finished product was put on the market than could possibly be consumed. The price went down and down until the trade was threatened with ruin. It seemed absolutely necessary to extend the market for oil by exporting to foreign countries, which required a long and most difficult development; and also to greatly improve the processes of refining so that oil could be made and sold cheaply, yet with a profit, and to use as by-products all of the materials which in the less-efficient plants were lost or thrown away.
These were the problems which confronted us almost at the outset, and this great depression led to consultations with our neighbors and friends in the business in the effort to bring some order out of what was rapidly becoming a state of chaos. To accomplish all these tasks of enlarging the market and improving the methods of manufacture in a large way was beyond the power or ability of any concern as then constituted. It could only be done, we reasoned, by increasing our capital and availing ourselves of the best talent and experience.