The Rockefeller Archive Center
“If we assist the highest forms of education – in whatever field – we secure the widest influence in enlarging the boundaries of human knowledge.”
—John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
In Their Own Words


EARLY BUSINESS EXPERIENCES OF JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER

A PLAIN TALK BY A PLAIN MAN
At The Club of The Young Men's Bible Class
Of the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church
Saturday Evening, May 7, 1904


The last word of the eloquent speaker has touched my heart, to be called your friend. As I have looked into your faces from time to time, as I have had the pleasure of meeting you, I felt that you were my friends, and I have always felt that I wanted to be your friend. And so it is a very great pleasure to meet you here tonight - we meet as friends.

And if I were to give one reason among others for my securing the first position in business - my footing - my first start in life - it would be that I had the good fortune to be associated in my early boyhood with such dear friends as you are. The association into which I was called, at fourteen, in the church and in the schools, with good men, with good young men, the association in which I found occupation in the church, in the Sunday School, in the Young Men's Christian Association, helped me more than I can tell you to make the beginning, to get a position and an opportunity to begin my life work.

I would name as another help in this same direction the fact that from my earliest recollection I had a peculiar training in my home. It seemed to be a business training from the very beginning. I was taught to do things, simple things such as a boy could do. I was taught to be self-reliant. At the age of seven or eight I was taught, as a boy in the country, to milk a cow. I could milk a cow as well as a man could. That is a very simple thing to refer to, but that was one of the things I began to learn. I was taught at the age of eight to drive a horse, and to drive him just as carefully as a man could. I remember very well the instruction of my father - "My son, hold very carefully going down the hill. Don't let him stumble. When you are on the level road, let him trot right along." And I never shall forget that.

I was taught to do as much business at the age of ten and eleven as it was possible for me to do. Among other things I was sent over the hills to buy cordwood for the use of the family, and I knew what a cord of good, solid beech and maple wood was, and my father told me to select only the solid wood and the straight wood, and not to put any limbs in or any "punky" wood. That was a good training for me. I didn't need my father or anybody else to tell me how many feet it took make a cord of wood, and I didn't require the presence of anybody to enable me to secure good measure from the man who sold that wood.

And there are many other such things that I was taught to do. When I was a little older my father commissioned me to build a house. He said, "My son, here is the money. I want you to build a good, brick house that will make us a home." I employed an architect, we let out the contracts, and we built the house. We had no trouble with the architect or the contractor. That gave me a great deal of confidence. Everything came out all right, and I have the evidence of that in a little mahogany box that I treasure. I have all those receipts, I have all those settlements that were made. That was a valuable experience for me.

I could hardly enumerate the many experiences of that kind that my father seemed to think it was very desirable for me to have. Soon after, he began to allow me to loan sums of money for him, and meanwhile I was saving a little money from what I could earn myself. I always had a little money. I know of some people, especially young men, who find it very difficult to keep a little money in their pocketbooks. I learned to keep the money, and, as we had a way of saying "it didn't burn a hole in my pocket." I was taught that it was the thing to do to keep the money and to take care of it.

Among the early experiences that were helpful to me, that I recall with pleasure, was one in working a few days for a neighbor, in digging potatoes - a very enterprising, thrifty farmer, who could dig a great many potatoes. I was a boy of perhaps thirteen or fourteen years of age, and it kept me very busy from morning until night - it was a ten-hour day - it was at least ten hours. I was saving these little sums, and soon learned that I could get as much interest for $50 loaned at 7%, the legal rate in the State of New York at that time, for a year, as I could earn by digging potatoes ten days, and the impression was gaining ground with me that it was a good thing to let the money be my servant and not make myself a slave to money. I tried to remember that ever since. I think money is a good thing to have if we know how to use it properly. I think it is very harmful to many people because they do not know how to use it properly.

I was in school. My father had a number of children to educate. He was not a rich man, but he kept me in school all the time until I was sixteen years of age, and I had expected to go through college and enjoy the advantage that many of you gentlemen have enjoyed - and I congratulate you - but I can't say that I regret that circumstances seemed to require me to take care of myself.

I left school at sixteen. I entered a commercial school, where I remained for two or three months, and then, in the year 1855, I began to look for something to do. And all those years, from 1855 to 1860, were very trying years in the business world. Many of you gentlemen are too young to know about that dreadful panic we had in 1857 - it left a blight that we did not recover from for many years. After many days and weeks of earnest endeavor, I succeeded in getting a promise, one morning, that if I would come back in the afternoon they would see if they could give me a situation. I was there in the afternoon - early. I did not fail to go right back to know what the result was going to be. I happened to meet an old gentleman last summer who said to me, "I was there, too, when you came on the sidewalk that day, that 26th day of September, 1855. I was there and I knew you, and I knew that that firm, that forwarding and commission firm, wanted a young man in the office, and I spoke to the gentlemen." This is a circumstance that I had never known before myself. I was very grateful to get that position. I was very gratefu1 that I could keep it, and I did keep it until two years from the following April, when I was engaged in business on my own account - then a boy of less than nineteen years of age.

I could not have done for myself better than I did for my employer. How I wish all young men could know that the way to hold a position is to do just that thing! You who employ young men know that some young men expect to do just as little as they can and are much troubled all the time that they do not get an increase in salary. That doesn't make a very permanent relationship with some business men - they look for some other to fill the place. I was very fortunate in my employers, especially the man who had the accounting in the office and under whom I worked as an assistant bookkeeper for a space of a year and three months, and then, as he desired to leave the position, it was tendered to me.

I should have said in respect to the question of salary that I was to receive, that I knew nothing about that until the first of January. I cared very little about that. I wanted the position and I found myself so much interested in the work. I enjoyed my work, I was happy in it. I had been taught to work from early boyhood and this was so delightful to me - all the method and system of the office. And then, as I say, I was fortunate in the association in the office. I remember one of the many things my employer did for me was to give me a book, "The Life of Amos Lawrence," and that made a very profound impression upon me. A successful Boston merchant he was, such a useful man, who made such good use of his money.

At the end of the second year of my service with this company, I desired a salary of $800. The man who had filled the position previously had received $2,000. My employer was willing to give me, from the first of January of that year, $700. The matter of the difference was a question which was under consideration when an opportunity offered to engage in business with a young man who was ten years older than myself, and who had saved a little money. Accordingly, on the first of April, with some $800 or $900 that I had saved up, and with $1,000 which my father loaned me at 10% until I should become of age, I contributed my part of the capital, which was $4,000. Everything started fairly well with us until we came to June, and in June we had that dreadful frost which was a blight upon a number of the Central States, and my partner was very much discouraged; but we soon found that trade assumed a little different channel, and we pressed forward with our business, and found that our business was much more than could be handled with the capital we had provided. As I had had an experience in this office of a number of years of a peculiarly favorable character in preparing me for financial affairs, I was undertaking to secure the money by loans and otherwise, to meet these growing demands as our business increased.

We were prosperous from the beginning; we had a business of $500,000 in the produce business the first year. Our profits were not very large - I think $4,400, but I think it was better for me than the $800 which I had asked, and we had gained many other things than this money. I had hoped that a dear friend of mine, who had expressed himself very kindly toward me, would, in an emergency, put his name upon my note, don't you know. And with that note I felt sure that I could borrow some money. Accordingly I asked him, and he said, "John, you know I would do it for you. I would be glad to do it for you, but you know I have an agreement with my brothers and we can't endorse paper." It was all right, and I made no complaint. I had no business to ask him for it at all. He was under no obligations to me, and I didn't have any unkindly feeling toward him for declining to give me the endorsement. But I had to set about it in other directions at once, and one of those directions was my father. My father had money to loan and I borrowed some money from my father, and I was very much encouraged that he was willing to trust me. I just gave him my note - he was a very careful business man. After a little while I was very greatly in need of money. My father came to me and said, "My son, I must have that money, I need it very much; I must have it." It was a very serious question in my mind whether he really needed it. I think possibly he could have gotten along without it, but it was along the same line of training that he had been giving me since I was a little boy. I was cross and did not like that. I supposed he was going to let me keep the money until the earnings of the business made it convenient for me to hand it back to him. But he said, "I must have it," and I said, "Certainly, father, I will send you up a check," and I did so. In a few days he came down to me and said, "My son, I have a little left over, I could let you have a little," and I intimated to him that if it was any accommodation to him I would take it, certainly I was willing to oblige the old gentleman. I took it and everything went on smoothly for a month or so, and back he came again and he said, "I am very sorry, my son, I have got to have that money." I knew he didn't need that money, but I said, "Certainly, father, I will send you a check right now," and so I did. He continued to do so for some time, until at last when he had any money he handed it to me and was very glad to have me keep it, and he knew it was all safe and right. That was a very great encouragement to me, for my father was a very able business man.

Meanwhile, I needed more than I could get from him, and I went to my banker, who had known me in Sunday school, and had known me as an employee in this firm, and I said to him, "I must have some money." He said, "Mr. Rockefeller, how are you doing your business?" I told him. He said, "Do you make any advances on merchandise without you have the bills of lading or the properly in the warehouse?" I said, "No, sir." "Well, do you speculate?" "No Sir." "Do you promise me, Mr. Rockefeller, that if I loan you money, you will continue to do so, and be very careful not to make any advances without you have in hand the collateral, in the shape of bills of lading or warehouse receipts?" And I said, "We will." And he said, "How much do you want?" And I said, "A couple of thousand," And he said, "Certainly, Mr. Rockefeller, certainly, all right." That was a happy day for me. What a service that good man rendered to me that day! I knew that my intentions were all right, but to have that man, that careful, well-trained man of finance, say to me, "Certainly, Mr. Rockefeller, all right!" It was all right, and that was the beginning of larger accommodations that I was obliged to have from this bank, and other banks, for our business steadily grew.

And later on, the president of this same bank - I having borrowed many thousands of dollars, many times the $2,000, I do not remember just how much - said to me one day, and it was another president who was then in the position, "Why, Rockefeller, do you know you've got nearly all the money of this bank, and do you know our Board of Directors want to see you and talk with you?" I said, "I thank you, I thank you, I shall be very pleased to come up and see them, and I want to come right away, because I've got to borrow a great deal more." Well, I borrowed a great deal more from that bank and from other banks, and I paid it all back, and the confidence in our young firm grew, and the confidence, our own confidence, in ourselves grew. And we were careful about making our obligations, very.

Another experience came on the heels of this that was interesting and very trying. One of our largest consignors from the country came in. He had been making us very large shipments and his business was profitable and we valued him as a customer, and he said to my partner, who did the talking to him, "I cannot continue these shipments without you giving me some money before the grain is shipped," and my partner said to me, "We are going to lose this customer and I am greatly troubled about it, and what are we to do?" I said, "There is but one thing to do, we can't do any other way than we have been doing, the safe way." "Well," he said, "I can't talk with him. He's cross. He's going to leave us, and we are going to lose that business. Now you talk with him," When the opportunity presented itself I said to the gentleman, "We prize your business very highly. You are one of our best customers. We don't want to lose you. We can furnish you all the money you want, but it is impossible for us to do it in any other way. I hope we shall not lose you. We will do our best to please you. We will try to do your business better than you can get it done anywhere else." And he returned home, but we kept his business, and I have always suspected that a certain old banker back of him in the country was trying to ascertain from him whether these drafts would be all right, and when he found that we took this position, in some way or other he made it possible for this man to get the money. At all events we held the business. That was very gratifying.

At about this time I had an experience that the sermon of last Sunday morning called to my mind. I had never solicited business personally. My partner was the man who attended to the buying and selling, and I attended to the office affairs. When I went out into the country to solicit business for the first time I met with great success. It surprised me. I found that old men had confidence in me right away, and after I stayed for a few weeks in the country I returned home and had a most delightful session with my partner even before going home - it was night, I went to his house - and the consignments came in and our business was increased and it opened up a new world to me. I did not know that I could influence these men to give us the business, but my presentation to them was very simple, I did not even ask for their business in many cases. I said to some, "We are engaged in the business. You may have your other business relations that are entirely satisfactory; if so, I am not asking your business - I just want you to know about us. We are prepared to do the business, we hope we can do it as well as anybody else can do it, and if you make a change, won't you kindly give us young men a chance?" And they did. That was very gratifying to me, that was very gratifying to my partner.

A little later on in the business when we required so much more money, hundreds of thousands of dollars, instead of those smaller amounts, we had a great fire that destroyed a vast amount of property, and some of the banks began to look carefully to see how much of our paper they had. I remember that I was casting about very carefully to see where we could get a large amount of money provided the insurance money was not paid - and I did not wait until our obligations matured - I looked in advance. The circumstance that I am now to refer to I did not know about at the time. I did not know about it until years afterward. An officer in the bank said, "I think we have about enough of that paper." I was not present and knew nothing about it. Another officer in the bank said, "Those young men are all right." He was a positive man, he called to his son-in-law, who was president of the bank, and he said, "Dan, bring my box." And he, brought out his box, and he said, "Here, gentlemen, these young men are all right. Just take what you want. These men are all right." That was very gratifying. I would like to mention the name of that man. His name was Stillman Witt. It was a wellknown name thirty-five or forty years ago. Stillman Witt, a grand old man, a grand good friend of ours, and I shall be grateful to him as long as I live.

And he was not the only man of that sort who knew about us and who had an interest in us and who believed in us. Another man I called upon at that time, a man of large wealth. I said to him, "We have had this fire. We may require some additional money. Can't say now if we do. What can you do? Do you want to do anything?" I remember very well where I found him - in his lumber yard - he was a man having different interests, very large interests, and a man of very great wealth. This was his answer, "All right, J. D., I will let you have anything I've got." Well, that was very gratifying. We did not ask him for anything, but so long as I live the name of that man I shall remember with gratitude - Stephen V. Harkness.

I do not know that I have ever mentioned either of these circumstances before in public, but I owe it to the memory of these men and I am happy to give these circumstances here.

Many such experiences we had all the way along, and though the business increased on every hand it seemed that the successes came comparatively easy, and I dated it all back to, the little beginnings of the training that I got at home and my willingness to work, and the people some way seemed to have confidence in us. What a great boon it is to a man - to have another man tell him that he believes in him, that he trusts him! What a happiness all my business experience has been because my associates believed in me, trusted me implicitly! And many of those associates have long since passed away, but there is hardly a week that ever goes by that I do not recount their names and think of them; hardly a week ever passes that I do not call up the names of those honorable, able, good men with whom it was my pleasure to be associated for long, long years.

If you will pardon me, I will refer just in this connection to something that happens very often to me now. In the dreams at night I find myself taking up that cash account, the first situation, and I remember that the former cashier and bookkeeper in this position was just a little short in his cash, not because he had done anything wrong, but he told me that he had been a little negligent and had not taken up the cash every day, and I saw that he put in his check for the few dollars that were short. Do you know that often I am working at night over the old cash account and I am recalling the fact that I am a little short in my account, instead of the former man in the place, a peculiarity of the dreams, fifty years ago coming back in this way.

You have listened very patiently. I thank you for it. There are some here of the younger men, who are anxious, as I was anxious that day and in all the days preceding that memorable 26th of September, when I secured that position. All the future hung upon that day, upon that chance! Do not be discouraged, young man. I had many refusals, I did not give up. I suppose I should have been soliciting a position until this time if I hadn't got that place. I don't know whether, if I hadn't gotten it, you would have wanted me to address you tonight, but I am thankful all the same that you do. I am obliged to you for your kind attention and I hope with your permission at some other time to have a friendly word with you. I feel it a great honor to be here, to be associated with you. I feel great gratitude to you all, and great respect for you, as I consider what you are doing, what a help you have been to my dear son, how you cooperate in every way to make this work succeed. And you may never know what this means, the association of good men entering upon life, with all its possibilities you may never know what this means. Oh, how grateful I am that these associations were given me in my early boyhood, that I was contented and happy with this sort of work, with the work in the church, with the work in the Sunday school, with the work with good people that was my environment, and I thank God for it.

And pardon me if I say just one further word with respect to many who may be considering the question of whether at this time or in the immediate future you will identify yourself with the Christian Church. From my own experience I beg you not to put it off. Under God, it was the greatest blessing that could have come to me. I not only united with the church as a boy of fourteen years of age, but I went right to work and they found a place for me, and I was happy in the work. It was not all business, that was a part, I enjoyed that. I turned to this work and to other works, and so all my life has been a life full of happiness because full of such works. And the best wish that I could wish for any of you would be that you should have just such a happy life of work. And you won't have a happy life if you don't work.

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