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Random Reminiscences of Men and Events By John D. Rockefeller Characters: 25484

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Other Business Experiences and Business Principles

Going into the iron-ore fields was one of those experiences in which one finds oneself rather against the will, for it was not a deliberate plan of mine to extend my cares and responsibilities. My connection with iron ores came about through some unfortunate investments in the Northwest country.

These interests had included a good many different industries, mines, steel mills, paper mills, a nail factory, railroads, lumber fields, smelting properties, and other investments about which I have now forgotten. I was a minority stockholder in all these enterprises, and had no part in their management. Not all of them were profitable. As a matter of fact, for a period of years just preceding the panic of 1893, values were more or less inflated, and many people who thought they were wealthy found that the actual facts were quite different from what they had imagined when the hard experiences of that panic forced upon them the unpalatable truth.

Most of these properties I had not even seen, having relied upon the investigation of others respecting their worth; indeed, it has never been my custom to rely alone upon my own knowledge of the value of such plants. I have found other people who knew much better than I how to investigate such enterprises.

Even at this time I had been planning to relieve myself of business cares, and the panic only caused me to postpone taking the long holiday to which I had been looking forward. I was fortunate in making the acquaintance of Mr. Frederick T. Gates, who was then engaged in some work in connection with the American Baptist Education Society, which required him to travel extensively over the country, north, south, east, and west.

It occurred to me that Mr. Gates, who had a great store of common sense, though no especial technical information about factories and mills, might aid me in securing some first-hand information as to how these concerns were actually prospering. Once, as he was going South, I suggested that he look over an iron mill in which I had some interest which happened to be on his route.

His report was a model of what such a report should be. It stated the facts, and in this case they were almost all unfavourable. A little later he happened to be going West, and I gave him the name and address of property in that region in which I held a minority interest. I felt quite sure that this particular property was doing well, and it was somewhat of a shock to me to learn through his clear and definite account that it was only a question of time before this enterprise, too, which had been represented as rolling in money, would get into trouble if things kept on as they were going.

NURSING THE COMMERCIALLY ILL

I then arranged with Mr. Gates to accept a position whereby he could help me unravel these tangled affairs, and become, like myself, a man of business, but it was agreed between us that he should not abandon his larger and more important plans for working out some philanthropic aspirations that he had.

Right here I may stop to give credit to Mr. Gates for possessing a combination of rare business ability, very highly developed and very honourably exercised, overshadowed by a passion to accomplish some great and far-reaching benefits to mankind, the influence of which will last. He is the chairman of the General Education Board and active in many other boards, and for years he has helped in the various plans that we have been interested in where money was given in the hope that it would do something more than temporary service.

Mr. Gates has for many years been closely associated with my personal affairs. He has been through strenuous times with me, and has taken cares of many kinds off my shoulders, leaving me more time to play golf, plan roads, move trees, and follow other congenial occupations. His efforts in the investigations in connection with our educational contributions, our medical research, and other kindred works have been very successful. During the last ten or twelve years my son has shared with Mr. Gates the responsibility of this work, and more recently Mr. Starr J. Murphy has also joined with us to help Mr. Gates, who has borne the heat and burden of the day, and has well earned some leisure which we have wanted him to enjoy.

But to return to the story of our troubled investments: Mr. Gates went into the study of each of these business concerns, and did the best he could with them. It has been our policy never to allow a company in which we had an interest to be thrown into the bankruptcy court if we could prevent it; for receiverships are very costly in many ways and often involve heavy sacrifices of genuine values. Our plan has been to stay with the institution, nurse it, lend it money when necessary, improve facilities, cheapen production, and avail ourselves of the opportunities which time and patience are likely to bring to make it self-sustaining and successful. So we went carefully through the affairs of these crippled enterprises in the hard times of 1893 and 1894, carrying many of them for years after; sometimes buying the interests of others and sometimes selling our own interest, but all or nearly all escaped the expenses and humiliation of bankruptcy, receivership, and foreclosure.

Before these matters were entirely closed up we had a vast amount of experience in the doctoring of the commercially ill. My only excuse for dwelling upon the subject at this late day is to point out the fact to some business men who get discouraged that much can be done by careful and patient attention, even when the business is apparently in very deep water. It requires two things: some added capital, put in by one's self or secured from others, and a strict adherence to the sound natural laws of business.

THE ORE MINES

Among these investments were some shares in a number of ore mines and an interest in the stocks and bonds of a railroad being built to carry the ore from the mines to lake ports. We had great faith in these mines, but to work them the railroad was necessary. It had been begun, but in the panic of 1893 it and all other developments were nearly ruined. Although we were minority holders of the stock, it seemed to be "up to us" to keep the enterprise alive through the harrowing panic days. I had to loan my personal securities to raise money, and finally we were compelled to supply a great deal of actual cash, and to get it we were obliged to go into the then greatly upset money market and buy currency at a high premium to ship west by express to pay the labourers on the railroad and to keep them alive. When the fright of the panic period subsided, and matters became a little more settled, we began to realize our situation. We had invested many millions, and no one wanted to go in with us to buy stock. On the contrary, everybody else seemed to want to sell. The stock was offered to us in alarming quantities-substantially all of the capital stock of the companies came without any solicitation on our part-quite the contrary-and we paid for it in cash.

We now found ourselves in control of a great amount of ore lands, from some of which the ore could be removed by a steam shovel for a few cents a ton, but we still faced a most imperfect and inadequate method of transporting the ore to market.

When we realized that events were shaping themselves so that to protect our investments we should be obliged to go into the business of selling in a large way, we felt that we must not stop short of doing the work as effectively as possible; and having already put in so much money, we bought all the ore land that we thought was good that was offered to us. The railroad and the ships were only a means to an end. The ore lands were the crux of the whole matter, and we believed that we could never have too many good mines.

It was a surprise to me that the great iron and steel manufacturers did not place what seemed to be an adequate value on these mines. The lands which contained a good many of our best ore mines could have been purchased very cheaply before we became interested. Having launched ourselves into the venture, we decided to supply ore to every one who needed it, by mining and transporting with the newest and most effective facilities, and our profits we invested in more ore lands.

Mr. Gates became the president of the various companies which owned the mines and the railroad to the lake to transport the ores, and he started to learn and develop the business of ore mining and transportation. He not only proved to be an apt scholar, but he really mastered the various complexities of the business. He did all the work, and only consulted me when he wished to; yet I remember several interesting experiences connected with the working out of these problems.

BUILDING THE SHIPS

After this railroad problem was solved, it was apparent that we needed our own ships to transport the ore down the lakes. We knew absolutely nothing of building ships for ore transportation, and so, following out our custom, we went to the man who, in our judgment, had the widest knowledge of the subject. He was already well known to us, but was in the ore transportation business on a large scale on his own account and, of course, the moment we began to ship ore we realized that we would become competitors. Mr. Gates got into communication with this expert, and came with him one evening to my house in New York just before dinner. He said he could stay only a few minutes, but I told him that I thought we could finish up our affairs in ten minutes and we did. This is the only time I remember seeing personally any one on the business of the ore company. All the conferences, as I said before, were carried on by Mr. Gates, who seemed to enjoy work, and he has had abundant privileges in that direction.

We explained to this gentleman that we were proposing to transport our ore from these Lake Superior lands ourselves, and that we should like to have him assume charge of the construction of several ships, to be of the largest and most approved type, for our chance of success lay in having boats which could be operated with the greatest efficiency. At that time the largest ships carried about five thousand tons, but in 1900, when we sold out, we had ships that carried seven thousand or eight thousand tons, and now there are some that transport as much as ten thousand tons and more.

This expert naturally replied that as he was in the ore-carrying trade himself, he had no desire to encourage us to go into it. We explained to him that as we had made this large investment, it seemed to us to be necessary for the protection of our interests to control our own lake carriers, so we had decided to mine, ship, and market the ore; that we came to him because he could plan and superintend the construction of the best ships for us, and that we wanted to deal with him for that reason; that notwithstanding that he represented one of the largest firms among our competitors, we knew that he was honest and straightforward; and that we were most anxious to deal with him.

EMPLOYING A COMPETITOR

He still demurred, but we tried to convince him that we were not to be deterred from going into the trade, and that we were willing to pay him a satisfactory commission for looking after the building of the ships. Somebody, we explained, was going to do the work for us, and he might as well have the profit as the next man. This argument finally seemed to impress him and we then and there closed an agreement, the details of which were worked out afterward to our mutual satisfaction. This gentleman was Mr. Samuel Mather of Cleveland. He spent only a few minutes in the house, during which time we gave him the order for about $3,000,000 worth of ships and this was the only time I saw him. But Mr. Mather is a man of high business honour, we trusted him implicitly although he was a competitor, and we never had occasion to regret it.

At that time there were some nine or ten shipbuilding companies located at various points on the Great Lakes. All were independent of each other and there was sharp competition between them. Times were pretty hard with them; their business had not yet recovered from the panic of 1893, they were not able to keep their works in full operation; it was in the fall of the year and many of their employees were facing a hard winter. We took this into account in considering how many ships we should build, and we made up our minds that we would build all the ships that could be built and give employment to the idle men on the Great Lakes. Accordingly we instructed Mr. Mather to

write to each firm of shipbuilders and ascertain how many ships they could build and put in readiness for operation at the opening of navigation the next spring. He found that some companies could build one, some could build two, and that the total number would be twelve. Accordingly we asked him to have constructed twelve ships, all of steel, all of the largest capacity then understood to be practicable on the Great Lakes. Some of them were to be steamships and some consorts, for towing, but all were to be built on substantially the same general pattern, which was to represent the best ideals then prevalent for ore-carrying ships.

In giving such an order he was exposed, of course, to the risk of paying very high prices. This would have been certain if Mr. Mather had announced in advance that he was prepared to build twelve ships and asked bids on them. Just how he managed it I was not told until long after, and though it is now an old story of the lakes I repeat it as it may be new to many. Mr. Mather kept the secret of the number of ships he wished to construct absolutely to himself. He sent his plans and specifications, each substantially a duplicate of the others, to each of the firms, and asked each firm to bid on one or two ships as the case might be. All naturally supposed that at most only two ships were to be built, and each was extremely eager to get the work, or at least one of the two vessels.

On the day before the contracts were to be let, all the bidders were in Cleveland on the invitation of Mr. Mather. One by one they were taken into his private office for special conference covering all the details preparatory to the final bid. At the appointed hour the bids were in. Deep was the interest on the part of all the gentlemen as to who would be the lucky one to draw the prize. Mr. Mather's manner had convinced each that somehow he himself must be the favoured bidder, yet when he came to meet his competitors in the hotel lobby the beams of satisfaction which plainly emanated from their faces also compelled many heart searchings.

At last the crucial hour came, and at about the same moment each gentleman received a little note from Mr. Mather, conveying to him the tidings that to him had been awarded a contract sufficient to supply his works to their utmost capacity. They all rushed with a common impulse to the hotel lobby where they had been accustomed to meet, each bent on displaying his note and commiserating his unsuccessful rivals, only to discover that each had a contract for all he could do, and that each had been actually bidding against nobody but himself. Great was the hilarity which covered their chagrin when they met and compared notes and looked into each others' faces. However, all were happy and satisfied. But it may be said in passing that these amiable gentlemen all united subsequently in one company, which has had a highly satisfactory career, and that we paid a more uniform price for our subsequent purchases of ships after the combination had been made.

A LANDSMAN FOR SHIP MANAGER

With these ships ordered, we were fairly at the beginning of the ore enterprise. But we realized that we had to make some arrangement to operate the ships, and we again turned to our competitor, Mr. Mather, in the hope that he would add this to his cares. Unfortunately, because of his obligations to others, he felt that this was impractical. I asked Mr. Gates one day soon after this:

"How are we to get some one to run these big ships we have ordered? Do you know of any experienced firm?"

"No," said Mr. Gates, "I do not know of any firm to suggest at the moment, but why not run them ourselves?"

"You don't know anything about ships, do you?"

"No," he admitted, "but I have in mind a man who I believe could do it, although when I tell you about him I fear you will think that his qualifications are not the best. However, he has the essentials. He lives up the state, and never was on a ship in his life. He probably wouldn't know the bow from the stern, or a sea-anchor from an umbrella, but he has good sense, he is honest, enterprising, keen, and thrifty. He has the art of quickly mastering a subject even though it be new to him and difficult. We still have some months before the ships will be completed, and if we put him to work now, he will be ready to run the ships as soon as they are ready to be run."

"All right," I said, "let's give him the job," and we did.

That man was Mr. L.M. Bowers; he came from Broome County, New York. Mr. Bowers went from point to point on the lakes where the boats were building, and studied them minutely. He was quickly able to make valuable suggestions about their construction, which were approved and adopted by the designers. When the vessels were finished, he took charge of them from the moment they floated, and he managed these and the dozens which followed with a skill and ability that commanded the admiration of all the sailors on the lakes. He even invented an anchor which he used with our fleet, and later it was adopted by other vessels, and I have heard that it is used in the United States Navy. He remained in his position until we sold out. We have given Mr. Bowers all sorts of hard tasks since we retired from the lake traffic and have found him always successful. Lately the health of a member of his family has made it desirable for him to live in Colorado, and he is now the vigorous and efficient vice-president of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

The great ships and the railroad put us in possession of the most favourable facilities. From the first the organization was successful. We built up a huge trade, mining and carrying ore to Cleveland and other lake ports. We kept on building and developing until finally the fleet grew until it included fifty-six large steel vessels, This enterprise, in common with many other important business undertakings in which I was interested, required very little of my personal attention, owing to my good fortune in having active, competent, and thoroughly reliable representatives who assumed so largely the responsibilities of administration. It gives me pleasure to state that the confidence which I have freely given to business men with whom I have been associated has been so fully justified.

SELLING TO THE STEEL COMPANY

The work went on uninterruptedly and prosperously until the formation of the United States Steel Corporation. A representative of this corporation came to see us about selling the land, the ore, and the fleet of ships. The business was going on smoothly, and we had no pressing need to sell, but as the organizer of the new company felt that our mines and railroads and ships were a necessary part of the scheme, we told him we would be pleased to facilitate the completion of the great undertaking. They had, I think, already closed with Mr. Carnegie for his various properties. After some negotiation, they made an offer which we accepted, whereby the whole plant-mines, ships, railway, etc.-should become a part of the United States Steel Corporation. The price paid was, we felt, very moderate considering the present and prospective value of the property.

This transaction bids fair to show a great profit to the Steel Company for many years, and as our payment was largely in the securities of the company we had the opportunity to participate in this prosperity. And so, after a period of about seven years, I went out of all association with the mining, the transporting, and the selling of iron ore.

FOLLOW THE LAWS OF TRADE

Going over again in my mind the events connected with this ore experience that grew out of investments that seemed at the time, to say the least, rather unpromising, I am impressed anew with the importance of a principle I have often referred to. If I can make this point clear to the young man who has had the patience to follow these Reminiscences so far, it will be a satisfaction to me and I hope it may be a benefit to him.

The underlying, essential element of success in business affairs is to follow the established laws of high-class dealing. Keep to broad and sure lines, and study them to be certain that they are correct ones. Watch the natural operations of trade, and keep within them. Don't even think of temporary or sharp advantages. Don't waste your effort on a thing which ends in a petty triumph unless you are satisfied with a life of petty success. Be sure that before you go into an enterprise you see your way clear to stay through to a successful end. Look ahead. It is surprising how many bright business men go into important undertakings with little or no study of the controlling conditions they risk their all upon.

Study diligently your capital requirements, and fortify yourself fully to cover possible set-backs, because you can absolutely count on meeting set-backs. Be sure that you are not deceiving yourself at any time about actual conditions. The man who starts out simply with the idea of getting rich won't succeed; you must have a larger ambition. There is no mystery in business success. The great industrial leaders have told again and again the plain and obvious fact that there can be no permanent success without fair dealing that leads to wide-spread confidence in the man himself, and that is the real capital we all prize and work for. If you do each day's task successfully, and stay faithfully within these natural operations of commercial laws which I talk so much about, and keep your head clear, you will come out all right, and will then, perhaps, forgive me for moralizing in this old-fashioned way. It is hardly necessary to caution a young man who reads so sober a book as this not to lose his head over a little success, or to grow impatient or discouraged by a little failure.

PANIC EXPERIENCES

I had desired to retire from business in the early nineties. Having begun work so young, I felt that at fifty it was due me to have freedom from absorption in active business affairs and to devote myself to a variety of interests other than money making, which had claimed a portion of my time since the beginning of my business career. But 1891-92 were years of ominous outlook. In 1893 the storm broke, and I had many investments to care for, as I have already related. This year and the next was a trying period of grave anxiety to every one. No one could retire from work at such a time. In the Standard we continued to make progress even through all these panic years, as we had large reserves of cash on account of our very conservative methods of financing. In 1894 or 1895 I was able to carry out my plans to be relieved from any association with the actual management of the company's affairs. From that time, as I have said, I have had little or no part in the conduct of the business.

Since 1857 I can remember all the great panics, but I believe the panic of 1907 was the most trying. No one escaped from it, great or small. Important institutions had to be supported and carried through the time of distrust and unreasoning fear. To Mr. Morgan's real and effective help I should join with other business men and give great praise. His commanding personality served a most valuable end. He acted quickly and resolutely when quickness and decision were the things most needed to regain confidence, and he was efficiently seconded by many able and leading financiers of the country who co?perated courageously and effectively to restore confidence and prosperity. The question has been asked if I think we shall revive quickly from the panic of October, 1907. I hesitate to speak on the subject, since I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet; but as to the ultimate outcome there is, of course, no doubt. This temporary set-back will lead to safer institutions and more conservative management upon the part of every one, and this is a quality we need. It will not long depress our wonderful spirit of initiative. The country's resources have not been cut down nor injured by financial distrust. A gradual recovery will only tend to make the future all the more secure, and patience is a virtue in business affairs as in other things.

Here again I would venture to utter a word of caution to business men. Let them study their own affairs frankly, and face the truth. If their methods are extravagant, let them realize the facts and act accordingly. One cannot successfully go against natural tendencies, and it is folly to fail to recognize them. It is not easy for so impressionable and imaginative a people as we Americans are to come down to plain, hard facts, yet we are doing it without loss of self-esteem or prestige throughout the world.

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