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The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr: Reflective Essay

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I read Titan: The life of John D. Rockefeller Sr, a biography by Ron Chernow, and today I will share an important lesson I have realized through my reading of this work. Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1839, in Richford, New York, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio when he was fourteen. He was a pious baptist, the oldest of three boys, and would later become the largest shareholder of Standard Oil, America’s first monopoly. Rockefeller possessed unyielding self-control and patience. He possessed cunning. He possessed single-minded determination. Most importantly, however, he possessed an eye for detail. It was his attention to detail, the small things that don’t seem to matter, which enabled him to monopolize the oil industry. Rockefeller insisted that his goal was to sell cheap kerosene to people so that they could have light when it would otherwise be dark. I’m not going to question this, but he also made a whole lot of money in the process. When Rockefeller first entered the oil industry, it was extremely volatile, and full of inefficiencies. Refineries, which refined crude oil into kerosene,often erupted in flames due to the oil combusting. In addition, some people distrusted using kerosene as it sometimes exploded, burning down homes.

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Rockefeller used this to his advantage, viewing the formidable obstacle instead as an opportunity. He viewed his oil refineries like how an english teacher might view an essay or speech written by a student, infinitely bad and infinitely capable of improvement. He vastly improved the efficiency of his oil refineries, and took full control of the supply chain. However, Rockefeller thought that the end justified the means, and took many less than admirable shortcuts to get there. An anecdote that demonstrates how his attention to detail helped him gain every small advantage on other refineries was how he cut costs associated with the production of kerosene. While visiting one of his oil plants in the 1870s, Rockefeller asked how many drops of solder it took to seal a can of kerosene. When he found out that it took forty drops, he asked the workers to try using thirty-eight drops. When thirty-eight drops were used, some cans leaked, but thirty-nine drops worked perfectly. He applied this with various other portions of manufacturing, such as reducing the size of the iron hoops that hold barrels together. Standard Oil also started selling the byproducts of petroleum that were made while producing kerosene, including waxes used to make chewing gum, lubricants for railroads, and asphalt for roads. This meant that Standard Oil was able to sell what was before just wasted, allowing them to sell more than just kerosene to the consumer. Standard Oil was able to branch out and sell commodities for little to no cost. By meticulously improving the efficiency of these plants, Rockefeller was able to considerably decrease the price of kerosene. Although these changes were minuscule, the savings were amplified by the vast scale of Standard Oil, as well as by time. His parents likely were the driving force behind his eye for detail. Due to his father being continuously absent, the Rockefeller household had to be extremely frugal when buying things, as they didn’t know when their father would come back with money, or how much money he’d come back with. Because of this, his mother made them keep track of every single expense they had.

This eventually ended up landing Rockefeller his first job in 1855, where he worked as a bookkeeper, keeping track of the expenses of a commodities company. This moment was crucial for Rockefeller, as it introduced him to the world of business. His experience as a bookkeeper for both his family and the business taught him this astuteness, simply due to the nature of the job, which required accuracy and avoiding making mistakes in record keeping, and this skill followed him for the rest of his career, with Rockefeller often choosing to audit Standard Oil’s books himself. He also had a ledger in which he kept track of his own daily expenses, which he came to respect almost as much as the bible. Rockefeller’s legacy may be stained with the predatory and anti-competitive practices he used to get an advantage on his competitors and maintain his monopoly, but he also made vast improvements to the way business works. What used to be Standard Oil now makes up Marathon Petroleum, BP, ExxonMobil, and Chevron, which are among the world’s largest oil and gas companies. After Rockefeller’s retirement, Rockefeller, with his mountains of wealth, founded a philanthropic foundation, donating around five hundred forty million dollars in his lifetime. Although he possessed many qualities that helped him become successful, it was ultimately his immaculately meticulous attention to detail that allowed him to do so well in the oil industry. Although some of us won’t choose to go into the oil industry and even less have dreamt of monopolizing it, many of us can still learn from John D. Rockefeller and by paying attention to the even the most minute of things, we can improve the work that we do every day.

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