The Arrival of Petroleum, Rockefeller, and the Lessons He Taught Us

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Before the arrival of petroleum there were
a number of different fuels that could be used for light and power. Coal became
an important fuel in industry for steam engines, but houses still cooked with
wood and lit their houses with candles or whale oil. A large whaling industry
existed in many parts of the world primarily to secure oil for lighting
(Creighton 1995). However whale oil was expensive and only affordable by the
well to do of society, particularly in 1850 where stocks dwindled due to being
hunted almost to the point of extinction, the price went up dramatically
(Chernow 1998) – a hint and forerunner
into the future petroleum oil scenario.
This created an impetus to find
another source of fuel for lighting.

In the late 1840s and early 1850s there
were a number of people working on extracting oils from naturally occurring
bituminous tars, coal, oil shale, and crude oil. In 1846 a Canadian geologist
Abraham Gesner announced and demonstrated that he could distill a clear thin
fluid from coal which made an excellent lamp oil he called kerosene. As the
cost of dry distillation proved too high, Gesner looked at extracting kerosene
from albertite that occurs in natural bituminous tar. After some difficulties
in finding a place to mine the material due to coal mining companies having the
mining rights, Gesner moved to Long Island in 1854. With the backing of a group
of businessmen they formed the North American Gas Light Company. Gesner later
commenced distilling kerosene from bituminous coal and oil shale around the
Boston area (Loris 2003).

In 1848 a Scottish chemist James Young
experimented with oil seeping from a coal mine as a source of lubricating and
illuminating oil. Young expanded production to extracting what he called
paraffin oil from locally mined torbanite, shale, and bituminous coal. In 1851
Samuel Martin Kier distilled oil from crude oil which he called carbon oil,
selling it as lamp oil. Across in Europe Ignacy Lukasiewicz, a Polish
pharmacist in Lvov and used local seep oil to experiment with different
kerosene distillation techniques, trying to improve upon Gesner’s techniques.
Doctors at his hospital needed a strong light for an emergency operation and called
him to assist with the lighting. The lamps performed extremely well and
Lukasiewicz seeing the potential of this product moved to the Gorlice region of
Poland in 1854 sinking a number of wells over the following decade. He set up a
refinery near Jasto in 1859.

A Professor Benjamin Silliman Jr. was
commissioned by George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth who where mining oil in
Pennsylvania and selling it for medicinal purposes. They were able to extract
kerosene from crude oil in 1855 with much higher yields than coal or bituminous
tar. With the news that crude oil could make a number of high value products,
Bissell and Eveleth formed the Pennsylvania Rock Company (later known as Seneca
Oil) and commissioned Edward Drake to investigate the possibility of oil
deposits in Titusville, Pennsylvania. In 1859 Drake with the help of a salt
driller constructed a 30 ft high derrick and drilled seventy feet into the
ground and stuck oil (Pusateri 1988). This spurred an oil rush with many
speculators coming to the region to prospect for oil. There were so many
speculators drilling for oil that no one could make a profit with Drake himself
dying in poverty. It was an unexpected event, the American Civil War that
eventually drove prices up making it worthwhile to go into the crude oil
drilling business. Within a decade the oil business had expanded to more than 5
million barrels with the majority of oil being converted to kerosene for homes
and later industry, paraffin for candles, and tar for paving, displacing the
use of whale oil which declined rapidly as an industry (Starbuck 1989).

John D. Rockefeller was born in Richmond,
New York in 1810 to a meager family. In his teens, Rockefeller took great
interest in bookkeeping and was a thrifty and devout Baptist who devoted part
of his salary each month to the church. His first job was at a produce company
where he worked long hours. In 1859 Rockefeller set a his own produce company
with Maurice B. Clark and the business steadily grew and returned a profit each
year (Segall 2001). In 1863 during the American Civil War, Clark and
Rockefeller ventured into the oil refining business with Samuel Andrews, a
chemist and inventor[i].
During the Civil War Rockefeller bought out Maurice Clark and his brother’s
shares in the company by auction and renamed the company Rockefeller &
Andrews. This enabled Rockefeller to position himself to take advantage of the
growing demand for fuel with the westward push of the railroads. Rockefeller
borrowed heavily, and obtained $100,000 from Stephen V. Harkness on the
condition that Henry Morrison Flagler[ii] is made
a partner. The company was renamed Rockefeller, Andrews & Flagler. With
Flagler on board Rockefeller was able to quickly adapt to changing markets
(Segall 2001, P. 32). Flagler introduced rebates to customers in order to
strengthen the company’s position against competitors, while Rockefeller looked
at ways to become more production efficient. One of these schemes was to
vertically integrate into the barrel production business (Schweikart & Doti
2010). As this business grew Rockefeller brought in his brother William and
renamed the company, the Standard Oil Company.

Rockefeller focused on finding as many
potential uses for crude oil by-products as possible by bringing in outside
chemists and eliminating waste during the refining process. This had the effect
of pushing prices for kerosene so low that coal and other crude oil extractors
had problems surviving. The whaling industry floundered and the concept of
electricity for lighting was ignored during this time. Standard oil became one
of the most efficient refineries in the industry.

Early on Rockefeller had become one of the
largest shippers of product on the railroads. The railroads were fiercely
competing for business. In an attempt to form a cartel, Standard Oil with a few
other refiners formed the Southern Improvement Company. The scheme involved the
railroad companies raising freight rates and paying back rebates to Southern
Investment Company, both on their own and competitors’ shipments. Independent
competitors and consumers found out about the scheme which led to protests,
boycotts and even vandalism of company property. The Pennsylvania Legislature
revoked the company’s charter. Rockefeller admitted his mistake and abandoned
efforts to create a freight cartel.

Rockefeller turned his attention to
expanding the company and went about acquiring competing refiners, taking on
their managers and employees, improving the efficiencies of the firm’s
operations, and passing on discounts to their customers. Where possible,
Rockefeller exchanged shares for the purchase of his competitors preferring to
save the cash for further expansion. By the late 1870s Standard oil controlled
between 80-90% of the kerosene market and owned the majority of refiners. This
gave Rockefeller an enormous bargaining chip over the railroads and he insisted
on rebates at a time when the railroads were already within a round of price
wars.

Rockefeller planned for the use of
pipelines to transport oil and began to acquire land to do this. The
Pennsylvania Railroad seeing the potential threat of Standard’s incursion into
the transport business began buying up refiners. Rockefeller retaliated by
holding back shipments and using alternative railroads with the effect of
dramatically reducing freight charges. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company
eventually gave in and sold all its oil interests to Standard Oil. In 1879 the
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania indicted Rockefeller on charges of monopoly,
starting a number of court proceedings against the company for monopolistic
practices.

Standard oil had a number of oil fields,
its own tankers, was constructing pipelines, and building networks of dealers
and overseas subsidiaries. Standard used this infrastructure to keep oil prices
low enough to prevent potential competitors entering the market[iii], and
be affordable to the average household, with the price of kerosene dropping
more than 75% during the life of Standard Oil.

Standard Oil faced a number of challenges.
New oil finds in other countries were diluting Standard Oil’s international
dominance. The Russians discovered oil in Baku, Central Asia that was of higher
quality and cheaper to extract. As Russian production increased Standard Oil’s
market share declined to just over 50% of the world market. The Russian fields
were also more centrally located for the European and Asian markets. Robert
Nobel, brother of Alfred Nobel decided to try the oil industry and went to Baku
to develop oil wells and refining operations financed by the Rothschilds.
Additional fields were discovered in Burma and Java and the electric light bulb
was finding interest as an alternative to kerosene for lighting. Nevertheless
Rockefeller retaliated building more tankers and sold oil cheaper than what was
coming out of Baku. Standard Oil was able to win back some of its international
market share.

Back in the United States Standard Oil was
operating across a number of states with a myriad of companies which was unruly
to manage and control. Rockefeller’s lawyers devised a trust which could take
ownership of the equities of all the companies. This came into being by 1882
where all assets were under the control of the trust with Rockefeller as one of
the nine trustees. As the largest business entity in the world Standard Oil
came under criticism of competitors, politicians, and the public and under the
scrutiny of anti-trust laws. Standard oil in 1899 restructured again under a
holding company in New Jersey capitalized at USD $110 Million.

During the 1890s the company expanded into
natural gas production and bought fields in Ohio, Indiana, and West Virginia as
the Pennsylvania fields began to dry out. Standard also began selling gasoline
for automobiles which until then was considered a waste product. Rockefeller
also moved into other industries buying out iron ore interests. Rockefeller
formally retired in 1902, but remained president of the corporation.
Rockefeller became very weary of all the criticisms of himself and Standard Oil
and consequently made himself more accessible to the public. In 1911 the
Supreme Court of the United States found Standard Oil in violation of the
Sherman Anti-Trust Act and ruled that the company originated in illegal
monopoly practices and ordered it to be broken up into 34 separate companies. Today
some of these companies have developed into very successful corporations in
their own right which included Conoco, ConocoPhillips, Amoco (now part of BP),
Mobil (now ExxonMobil), Sohio (now part of BP), Chevron, and Pennzoil.
Rockefeller kept his stock in all the companies at the time of breakup with
increased his personal wealth to almost USD $1 Billion.

Rockefeller was criticized by competitors,
the public and the media all throughout his career for being cruel, ruthless,
pitiless, and engaging in unfair, heavy handed and monopolistic practices to
get his own way and had plenty of enemies. This is paradoxical to the espoused
philosophies of Rockefeller who claimed it was never about the money, but
giving a fair deal to the poor working man by providing them with the best
quality and cheapest product (Nevins 1953). Although critics claim he sanitized
his memoirs published in 1908 as being contrary to his real business methods
(Segall 2001, P. 91), it must not be forgotten that he contributed 10% of his income
to the church and became one of the greatest philanthropists of all time.

There are a number of lessons that can be
learnt from the history of Standard Oil. Opportunities often come from a person
one knows within or outside their business network as was the case with
Rockefeller’s church friend Samuel Andrews. The start-up of a business is
extremely vital to the future trajectory of the business. This is a critical
time. The decisions made and directions taken in the early stages will usually
influence the formation of future strategies. It is also important that the
early formation activities be led in total competence and with skill.
Rockefeller’s assistance came from Andrews on the technical aspects and Flagler
on marketing and strategy were vital to success. A company needs to be well
managed in the growth stage. Company success is influenced strongly by a
founder’s drive, passion, vision and far sighted planning. The culture of the
company is also heavily influenced by the founder and even reflected in the
companies chosen strategies. Rockefeller was considered to be ruthless and many
of the strategies and actions he took reflected this.

In the Standard Oil case, controlling a
limited resource and developing a supply chain that gave an advantage over
other producers was the key to their position within the competitive
environment. Standard Oil sought to control a resource through owning as many
wells as possible, being as efficient as possible, and gaining advantage over
the supply chain to the point where the price of kerosene was low enough to act
as a barrier to entry to potential competitors. Rockefeller also realized the
link between research and development and gaining more products that would
increase revenues.

The start-up of Standard Oil was at a time
where the main product substitute was whale oil which was much more expensive
than kerosene. Standard oil also started before electrical lighting was able to
gain a foothold in the market. During the growth stage of Standard Oil the
automobile industry began to emerge providing a new market for the company.
Finally at the time of start-up the technology required existed to make the
venture viable. There is one final lesson for firms of the future that the
Standard Oil story can provide. Just because a firm gives money away to charity
or works on community projects doesn’t always go into support the company’s
image if it is not seen to be ethical in its business dealings.

As a footnote, it could be argued that
Microsoft has achieved a position of market dominance in the computer industry
that Standard Oil achieved in the petroleum industry. The question is here is
whether the dominance of a single company over any single industry is healthy.
Although there are alternatives to Microsoft products, Windows has become the
default standard and their products are needed so that one can be compatible
with the rest of the world.

However IBM was once in a similar position
until “two” impetuous “boys” got the better of them with their operating
system. So there is also the possibility that current evolution of the market
and merging of various industries like the computing, photography, and
communications will create new winners and losers – a natural guard against
monopoly just like a body has an immune system against disease.

The era of the cloud may change what we
know today. Just as Standard Oil once dominated and was dismantled by
regulation, the market system itself may be self regulating through the power
of evolution. Dec, Wang and now Kodak may all be victims to the grand scheme of
evolution. Will Microsoft also learn that nothing is forever?  


[i] Samuel Andrews immigrated to the United States from England and had
experience in shale oil production in the newly discovered fields of Western
Pennsylvania. Andrews was the person who approached Rockefeller about the oil
business. Andrews was a good creative engineer who was able to develop the
chemical processes of fractional distillation required for isolating the
different fractions or chemicals from crude oil.

[ii] Henry Flagler is credited for his marketing strategies and schemes
that could capitalize on Andrew’s technical knowledge.

[iii] Standard Oil’s major weapons against its competitors were low
pricing through economies of scale, freight rebates and differential pricing to
customers. 

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