Random Reminiscences of Men and Events


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 well-nigh 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 coöperation 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 every one'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.


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 coöperation of persons and aggregation of capital. Much that one man cannot do alone two can do together, and once admit the fact that coöperation, 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 coöperating 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.


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.


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.

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