A tale of two titans: Gates and John D. Rockefeller

Bill Gates may say he has nothing in common with John D. Rockefeller, but the author of a new biography begs to differ.
Written by Michael Fitzgerald, Contributor
Bill Gates may say he has nothing in common with John D. Rockefeller, but the author of a new biography begs to differ.

"As businessmen, both are very focused, very intense and very driven men, and with the same missionary faith in themselves, in their companies and in the future of their industries," said Ron Chernow, author of "Titan, The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr."

Rockefeller's net worth was equal to 2.5 percent of the gross national product of the United States, vs one-half of 1 percent of the gross national product for Bill Gates.

Gates, in an interview last week, said he'd read the biography and saw no similarities between himself and Rockefeller.

Never mind that Gates is the richest man in the world, as Rockefeller was in his day. But there are still other parallels, Chernow said.

For instance, both men had blind spots revealed when their companies were slapped with antitrust suits.

Blind spots
"Rockefeller and ... Standard Oil were really blindsided by the power of the press at the turn of the century. There were suddenly talented journalists like Ida Tarbell who were able to take much more complex issues than journalists had dealt with in the past and could really slice open a corporation like Standard Oil to expose its inner-workings."

Similarly, "Gates in a way was blindsided by the power of politics," Chernow noted. "By his own admission, he says that his rivals at Netscape and Sun Microsystems were working much harder to lobby Washington, and he didn't realize how much time and how much of his life would be consumed by politics.

"Both Rockefeller and Gates got very interested in public relations the year that the federal government had filed the antitrust suit," Chernow added.

Ferociously competitive
Another thing in common is a ferocious desire to win.

"To be a monopolist does not mean you're fat, mean and complacent," said Chernow. "John D. Rockefeller did not take his monopoly for granted. He was constantly working to improve his refineries, his pipelines and his tankcars and everything else; and in the same way I've read about Bill Gates, there is this stress he puts on perpetual innovations, and if anything, he seems to be running scared all the time."

The differences between the two men are as significant as their similarities, however.

Rockefeller was a devout Baptist, whereas Chernow cited a Gates comment that he doesn't go to church on Sundays because it represents an inefficient use of his time. Gates is also far better known than Rockefeller was.

Secret and reserved
"Rockefeller was a very secret and reserved man during his active career, as opposed to when he was an old man handing out dimes," Chernow said. "When he was actually running Standard Oil, he almost never gave interviews ... he was a great sphinx."

Chernow noted that Standard Oil didn't employ a single public relations person during Rockefeller's tenure, while "Gates has had 30 people working on his public image."

"Bill Gates' image is ubiquitous. We see him everywhere, we feel as if we know him. And particularly during the last year or so as he's had antitrust problems, he's tried to be more of a regular guy," Chernow said.

While many within the computer industry harbor strong dislike for Gates, he is popular with the public at large. In contrast, Rockefeller in the early 20th century personified the evils of big business.

Indeed, Gates' power pales in comparison to that wielded by Rockefeller's Standard Oil before it was split up in 1911. For much of its history, Standard Oil benefited from little regulation and some of the most voraciously corrupt elected officials in American history.

Standard Oil dwarfed competitors
"It's hard to communicate to people just how large the Standard Oil trust was," Chernow said. "Standard Oil was 20 times bigger than its nearest competitor."

It was also one of the two largest companies in America. When it was broken up, among the 34 companies spun off were what we know today as Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Chevron, Arco, Conoco, BP America and Cheesebrough-Ponds.

"At least four of those companies still are dominant in the oil industry and still among the largest 100 companies in the world," Chernow said. "Rockefeller really owned the whole industry lock, stock and barrel.

"I guess the situation would be equivalent if Microsoft was a personal computer manufacturer and not only controlled the operating system, but controlled all of the applications and the microprocessors and all of the collateral equipment and owned all of the retail outlets at the same time."

Rockefeller's dominance may show why his fortune in fact was larger than Gates', though not in pure numbers.

"Rockefeller's net worth was equal to 2.5 percent of the gross national product of the United States, versus one-half of 1 percent of the gross national product for Bill Gates," said Chernow.

"So while Gates was richer than Rockefeller if you translate 1913 dollars into 1998 dollars, if we ask which man loomed largest in the economy of his day, John D. Rockefeller was infinitely richer," Chernow said.

Gates: postponed philanthropy
While Gates says he intends to give away the bulk of his fortune, much as Rockefeller did, Gates is going about this much differently than Rockefeller.

Chernow noted that when Rockefeller was in his 40s, as Gates is now, he was helping to create what became Spelman College. In his 50s, he founded the University of Chicago, and in his 60s he built what we now know as Rockefeller University.

"I think that there's one kind of warning or perhaps inspiration for Gates [in Rockefeller's philanthropy]," Chernow said. "Rockefeller was a devout Baptist who tithed from the time he was a teen-ager. He was not someone who postponed his philanthropy until his later years.

Rockefeller felt he'd benefited from years of giving experience. While Gates has given away many millions of dollars, he is primarily focused on his business interests now, and not on philanthropy.

"Gates has said he'll wait another 10 to 12 years to give away his fortune, because he's still consumed with business. I think that's a mistake. It takes many years before one's judgment ripens to the point where you can give away money wisely," Chernow said.

Times are different
Of course, times are different now. Rockefeller, Carnegie and the other great philanthropists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries operated in a different era, with different values.

"The ruthless people we know as robber barons were actually giving away much more money at a much earlier point in their careers than the high-tech and biotech and Wall Street billionaires who are so revered today and are seldom described as ruthless," Chernow noted. "It's a paradox."

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