Many have debated that the industrial leaders following the 19th Century were “Robber Barron’s”. However, in this very competitive time period, many new businesses were being formed. It took talented businessmen such as Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Rockefeller to get ahead and keep the companies running, building America into what it is today, the most powerful nation in the world.
Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) was a classic Market Entrepreneur, succeeding by creating and marketing a superior product at a low cost. He was a key figure in breaking the steamboat monopoly in the waters around New York City; in the transatlantic steamship business; in the east coast to west coast steamship business; and the builder of the New York Central system, which, in effect, replaced the Erie Canal. Vanderbilt set the example for future “Industrial Statesman” by hard work and dedication; being fiercely competitive, willing to cut prices to get business; reliability, meaning repeat customers; the ability to master the details of a new business and to act boldly when necessary. When he died he was the richest man in America ($105m) and he left a high quality quadrupled track railroad that played a key role in the development of the Midwestern United States.
In 1873, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) became convinced that the future of industry was in the manufacture and use of steel. Concentrating on steel production, he began his acquisition of firms, which were later consolidated into the Carnegie Steel Company. His success was due in part to efficient business methods, to his able lieutenants, and to close alliances with railroads. By 1900, the Carnegie Steel Company controlled iron mines, coke ovens, ore ships, and railroads. It was these circumstances that the U.S. Steel Corp. was formed to buy Carnegie out. In 1901 he transferred possession for $500 million, the largest personal transaction ever made, and retired from business. Carnegie believed that the wealthy had an obligation to give back to society, so he donated much of his fortune to causes like education and peace.
John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was the guiding force behind the creation and development of the Standard Oil Company, which grew to dominate the oil industry and became one of the first big trusts in the United States. Rockefeller was naturally cautious and only undertook a business venture when he calculated that it would be successful. After he carefully weighed a course of action he would then act quickly and boldly to see it through. He had iron nerves and would carry through very complicated deals without hesitation. This combination of caution, precision, and resolve soon brought him attention and respect in the industrial community. Rockefeller also was one of the first major philanthropists in the U.S., establishing several important foundations and donating a total of $540 million to charitable purposes.
“Robber Barron’s” to those who didn’t reap the benefits of these industrial empires but these “Industrial Statesmen” knew what it took to succeed in business. Each had their own characteristics that enabled them to make tough decisions and beat the competition. That Competition has inspired the businessmen of today, and fueling today’s industry and technology.