Finance Management – Lessons from John D. Rockefeller

Rockefeller Center


Nearly everyone knows the name “Rockefeller,” but not everyone knows the story behind the name. Born in 1839, John D. Rockefeller came from humble beginnings and by no accident grew to be the wealthiest American of all time.[1][2] He founded the Standard Oil Company, which monopolized the oil industry and was one of the first and largest-ever multinational corporations.

How did a man from an impoverished upbringing manage to not only avoid crippling debt throughout his entire career but to skyrocket his wealth to such astonishing heights, as well? The answers lie in his strict, disciplined financial management. Below, we take a look at a few pieces of Rockefeller’s life and what you can learn from them to manage your finances.


1. Make Informed Decisions

Early on, Rockefeller’s mother instilled in him incredible fortitude and a meticulous attention to detail while his father passed on his keen eye for great business opportunities.[3] Combining the wisdom of his parents, Rockefeller always calculated the potential risk and reward of a business deal and only accepted arrangements that he was certain would be successful.

It was this cautious and precise approach that led to his first successful business in the produce commission industry despite heavy competition. Years later, his constant awareness of changes in the market allowed him to recognize that the industry would soon become irrelevant. He made the well-informed decision to exit that industry and move onto what he saw as the next big opportunity—oil.

When it comes to making big financial decisions, it’s important to pause and ask yourself some questions. When was the last time you checked your balance? (what balance? Credit card balance? Home mortgage? Checking account?) What’s your income velocity? Should you take out a loan? Should it be a short-term installment loan or perhaps a long-term loan? Maintaining awareness of your financial well-being will help you avoid risky situations and negative repercussions.


2. Recognize and Act on Financial Opportunities

Rockefeller’s decision to enter the oil industry in 1963 was not based on a whim. (Standard Oil was founded in 1870 – and since he died in the 30s, this is even more of an accomplishment!).He recognized an immensely opportune situation based on a variety of factors such as: high quality oil had recently been found in Pennsylvania, oil drilling & refining technology was developing quickly, the barrier to entry for the oil industry was very low, and the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad was just about to expand into Cleveland, Ohio. With a low barrier to entry, many entrepreneurs entered the industry, but nobody could compete with Rockefeller’s robust and efficient operations.

Take a moment to reflect on recent financial opportunities you may have had. It may be something as little as babysitting for some extra income, or it might be as big as a seemingly untapped market you could have capitalized on. Would the investment be worth the return? Remember to maintain awareness of your financial situation as you consider these opportunities—but don’t ponder too much, or the opportunity may pass you by!


3. Be Frugal. Be Efficient.

Rockefeller’s mother cultivated frugality, minimalism, and efficiency, and this carried through in Rockefeller’s business practices. He took on some loans and invested every single penny into optimizing the efficiency of his business processes.[4] While it required an initial investment of funds, Rockefeller greatly reduced the amount of work his company outsourced and minimized waste by finding important uses for byproducts such as gasoline, which other oil companies secretly dumped in the Cuyahoga River (which often caught on fire). Thus, he drove down costs greatly, allowing the company to survive through large price drops in the market due to competition, and he eventually began acquiring competing businesses.

Rockefeller’s tenacious resolve to minimize expenditures while maximizing output not only led to higher profits than any other company, but it resulted in numerous innovations that other companies simply could not replicate. Taking out a cash loan allowed Rockefeller to pursue what he knew to be critical actions towards beating the competition.

Think about the excessive costs you may have in your current lifestyle. How could you better spend your money? Initially, it can be difficult to identify such frivolities; however, if you make it a habit to stop and think, “Do I really need this?” before making purchases, you might be surprised at the amount of money you’ve been spending on fleeting sensations and superfluous items.


The Rock Mentality

There is no denying that John D. Rockefeller was a considerably intelligent and powerful force that helped shape the industrial foundation of America. His great success is largely attributable to his unrelenting resolve to stay informed on important contemporary issues, his ability to recognize and act on opportunities, and his determination in reducing costs as much as possible. While it may not be necessary to adhere to these principles as vehemently as Rockefeller did, following them may help you make better financial decisions.





  1. Fortune Magazine lists the richest Americans, not by the changing value of the dollar but by percentage of GDP: Rockefeller is credited with a Wealth/GDP of 1/65. Retrieved 20 Feb 2013.
  2. “The Wealthiest Americans Ever”. The New York Times. July 15, 2007. Retrieved 20 Feb 2013.
  3. Biography: John D. Rockefeller, Senior. PBS. Retrieved 20 Feb 2013.
  4. John D. Rockefeller. Retrieved 20 Feb 2013.