Standard Oil Company
Founders: John D. Rockefeller, Samuel Andrews and Henry M.
Distinction: World's largest oil refiner before dismantling by
Primary Products: Kerosene, fuel, lubricant, other petroleum
Founder and president: John D. Rockefeller.
Founding location: Cleveland, Ohio.
Market value before dissolution: $100 million.
Major competitors: None.
Year in Existence: 1870-1911.
Whenever anyone mentions the Standard Oil Company, two things
immediately spring to mind: Rockefeller and monopoly. The linkage is
unavoidable, for nobody but Johan D. Rockefeller could have built this oil
refining goliath–and nothing but a charge of monopoly could have torn it
down. Further, the three are forever intertwined because all reached their
zenith in an era when the industrial revolution was transforming American
business into the global force it remains to this day.
Rockefeller didn't run this gargantuan enterprise on his own, of
course. Even a titan of his stature required an extraordinary management
team to handle the so called "octopus" of the refinery industry, which at its
peak controlled almost all U.S. oil production, processing, marketing and
transportation. But it was J.D., as he was known, who put it all together
and ran it. Until, that is, he and his company ran afoul of the federal antitrust
laws that eventually shut them down.
But Rockefeller was more than one of the most astute businessmen
of his time; Rockefeller's estate was worth about $1 billion when he died at
age 97–a sum that would be 10 times that today. A lifelong philanthropist,
he gave away money even when he barely had any. (He donated $20,000
to help build Cleveland's Euclid Avenue Baptist Church the year Standard
Oil was born. Over the next seven decades he also financed the
Rockefeller Foundation and Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research,
among other charities, while funding the University of Chicago and
presenting countless additional gifts to many more colleges and churches.
During the course of his life, in fact, he gave away an estimated $500
million in philanthropic gifts. Yet these days he is primarily remembered by
many, and none too fondly at that, for the infamous oil refinery from
which he made his fortune.
From most accounts of his remarkable life, however, it is apparent
that this contradiction never bothered him much. John Davison Rockefeller
was born on a farm in upstate New York in 1839. One of four children, he
was raised by a very religious mother while his father was busy swindling
locals with financial con games and phony medical cures. When J.D. was
10, his father was accused of raping a household worker and the family
fled. Eventually, they wound up in Cleveland. Not long after, the elder
Rockefeller ran off to South Dakota on his own.
J.D. landed his first job in 1855, working as an assistant bookkeeper
for the Hewitt & Tuttle commodities house. He earned $3.50 a week and
donated regularly to his church. Nonetheless, he managed to save $800 in
just three years. With that and a small borrowed stake, he and a British
immigrant named Maurice B. Clark opened a commodities business of their
own. The firm, which dealt in hay, grain, meats, and other goods,
Rockefeller was only 19, but he was restless to expand. Oil was then
a booming industry, and had been since a successful well was sunk in
Pennsylvania's Allegheny Mountains about 10 years earlier. Clark had a
friend in the business, and in 1863 he came to the pair seeking funds.
Rockefeller invested $4,000 and took his first step into the field that was
to make him rich.
The exploration and drilling for petroleum always has been an upand-
down business. It certainly was no different in those days, when a
barrel fetched anywhere from 10 cents to $20. By the time Rockefeller
entered the fray, the price was fluctuating around $5. But that wasn't what
really interested him. Rockefeller was savvy refiners to produce and
market the resulting by-products. He also realized that there was much
more money to be mad on this end. So, with Clark and a new partner
named Samuel Andrews, he formed a small Ohio refinery in 1863 and
dubbed it Excelsior Oil Works.
With growth on its mind, the new company began buying other
existing refineries. It quickly picked up 50 in Cleveland, and another 80 in
Pittsburgh. Sensing that profits would be even greater if they controlled all
aspects of their operation, the partners also started purchasing
warehouses, timber stands (to make their own barrels), and even fleets of
ships (to transport the products they produced). In 1865 Rockefeller
bought out Clark's interests and two years later brought in local
businessman Henry Flagler, who had money and the inside track in an
emerging transport mode–railroad–that would prove even more important
to their industry than ships. They renamed the company Rockefeller,
Andrews & Flagler. It evolved into Standard Oil within three years, and
soon could legitimately claim to be the largest operation of its kind in the
Standard initially had competition both domestically and overseas.
The Nobel Brothers of Sweden and Britain's Shell Transport & Trading, for
example, were a large reason why America had captured just over half all
global production by the late 1880s. But Standard continually hired the top
chemists, marketing specialists, attorneys, and other professionals. It also,
according to most accounts, closed secret rapidly grew in size as well as
profitability. Eventually, it was the exclusive supplier of petroleum
products to some 37,000 communities.
The late 19th century was a period of astounding change in American
business. Cities sprang up almost overnight and railroads tied them
together. Manufacturing became the dominant force in the U.S. economy,
and a handful of individuals– Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P.
Morgan, and Rockefeller, among them–controlled the most powerful
companies leading the way. These men were resourceful and imaginative,
and sometimes not opposed to pulling any strings necessary to stay atop
their respective fields. Because most states at the time prohibited local
companies from holding shares in other headquartered outside their
borders, Rockefeller devised a way around the applicable laws in order to
expand. In 1882, he formed the Standard Oil Trust to combine Standard
with affiliated companies in other locations. Utilizing a maze of obscure
legal devices that made the structure difficult to decipher, it brought some
40 corporations under his authority and continued to exercise ironclad
control in its industry.
Charges of illegal rebates, coercive tactics, and predatory pricing
continued to mount. In 1892 the Ohio Supreme Court stepped into the
fray and ordered the trust dissolved. Undaunted, Rockefeller continued
operating from his New York headquarters. In 1899, when states began
relaxing their incorporation statues, he reorganized as the Standard Oil of
New Jersey holding company and transferred all assets to this new entity.
Rockefeller's actions did not go unnoticed by other industrialists.
Some forged similar trusts in the cotton, whiskey, sugar, and tobacco
industries. Others consummated megamergers that created corporate
giants such as General Electric, AT&T, and U.S. Steel. These vast
concentrations of wealth and power increasingly struck observes (and
would-be competitors) as unfair, if not downright criminal. Journalists
began taking notice and one–Ida M. Tarbell–put Standard under the
microscope in a 19-part expose that appeared in a McClure's magazine
beginning in 1902. In issue after issue, Tarbell hammered at Rockefeller's
claims that his corporation did nothing untoward. Rather, she wrote,
Standard Oil's rise to prominence was "accomplished by fraud, deceit,
special privilege, gross illegality, bribery, coercion, corruption,
intimidation, espionage, or outright terror."
The series made Tarbell a celebrity, withy President Theodore
Roosevelt among her many fans. (Rockefeller offered no comment, but
reportedly savaged the writer in private conversations.) The series also
initiated a federal investigation, and in 1906 the government field suit
under its 16-year-old Sherman Anti-Trust Act. This officially alleged what
long had been whispered: that Standard Oil monopolized the oil industry,
and thereby restricted free trade.
In 1907, the company was found in violation of antitrust laws and
fined about one-third of its $100 million market value. That penalty was
thrown, but a little more than four years later–on May 15, 1911–the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled that Standard's structure was indeed "a monopoly in
restraint of trade" and ordered it split into some three dozen separate
companies. Rockefeller was out on the golf course when he heard the
news, and reportedly advised his playing partners to "buy Standard Oil." It
proved a wise tip, as the pieces of his empire soon were worth far more
than the single entity ever had been. Rockefeller's own considerable
fortune soared to even greater heights, and later that year he retired.
The breakup created many names that to this day are well-known in
the oil business, including Exxon, Amoco, Mobil, and Chevron. It long
remained controversial, though as many suspected that Standard might
have escaped its fate had Rockefeller been more politically astute–or more
willing to kowtow to regulators and officials. (Although it was equally in
control of its own industry, for example, the contemporary U.S. Steel did
not similarly fall victim to antitrust regulations.) But Rockefeller was never
one to genuflect to secular powers, or shrink from the doctrine under
which he lived his life. "I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money
you can, fairly and honestly; to keep all you can, and to give away all you
can," he once said. When he died in 1937, no one could dispute that he
ever doubted what he was doing. Or that he hadn't followed those beliefs
unerringly to the end.