The First Tycoon: Cornelius Vanderbilt

“The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt” written by T.J. Stiles is one of the finest biographies I have ever read. Not only is the Cornelius Vanderbilt’s life an amazing and exciting one to follow, but the level of research and the way that Mr. Stiles narrates the story, makes this clear why it won the National Book Award.

Born in 1794, Cornelius Vanderbilt was a part of not only a great nation forming, but saw the emergence of New York City as the financial capital of the U.S., the emergence of Steam ships, the war of 1812, railroads, how California and San Francisco came to be and the Civi War. He took advantage of the new entity of the corporation and actually built companies, instead of using them as tools for his own personal wealth (which they became anyway). He was a principled man and took revenge on those who tried to cross him. In fact, one of the big themes of the book is that Vanderbilt grew his wealth and empire precisely because so many people tried to cheat and screw him. His revenge against those people is the primary reason he became so rich. His wealth was so staggering, that at his death it is estimated that if he liquidated all of his stock holdings, he would own $1 out of $20 dollars in circulation. Compare that Bill Gates, the current richest man in the world, who would take only $1 out of every $138.

Here is what I specifically learned from the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt:

1)Whenever he found someone who was capable, who he could trust and was a hard worker, he remembered that person, so that when an opportunity came around he could place that person in charge of a company or investment. This method of attracting subordinates and delegating power and authority was critical to him.

2)He embraced technological change. Once steam ships came, he got out of sailing sail boats. Once railroads came he eventually disposed of steam ships.

3)He was principled and built companies in a time when many “robber barons” and other tycoons ransacked companies and used them to generate wealth for themselves at any means.

4)He avoided politics and rarely if ever took sides.

5)He made sure that any business he was in had a cost advantage and he relentlessly focused on lowering costs for every company he ran or took over.

I think there are many life, history and business lessons in this wonderful biography and I highly recommend it.