Greatest Industrial Entrepreneurs of All Time

UPDATED: May 6, 2008
PUBLISHED: May 6, 2008

Benjamin Franklin 1706-1790 No list of greatest entrepreneurs would be complete without America's original entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin. He was a printer and self-taught writer whose witty conversational writing style made his Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanack the most successful publications in the country. His printing operations were so successful that he franchised printing in other cities when the concept of franchising was relatively uncommon. He and his wife also collected cotton rags, invested in paper mills and set up a wholesale paper business–all of this before retiring in his 40s to concentrate on his inventions, science and experiments and, of course, politics and diplomacy.

Quote: "To succeed, jump as quickly at opportunities as you do at conclusions."

Henry Ford 1863-1947 Henry Ford insisted on making a car that was affordable for everyone. His goal ran counter to the wishes of his backers at Ford Motor Co., who sought to maximize profits by building cars for the rich. As a key initiator of the moving assembly line, the company mass-produced cars faster and cheaper than other companies. Ford also paid his workers a real living wage and, through mass consumption, made Ford Motor Co. very profitable–eventually buying out even the most skeptical of backers. Perhaps most importantly, he helped create a middle class with "America's Everyman Car," his black Model T (the only color the company produced for years). While he had many personal flaws, Ford's vision of an affordable car enabled more people to commute to work and be more selective about jobs, eventually leading to more free time, including time for Sunday drives.

Quote: "Stay true to your vision and follow your instincts-even if your backers advise otherwise."

John D.Rockefeller 1839-1937 John D. Rockefeller was the single most important figure in the foundation of the oil industry. With his brother and other partners he founded Standard Oil in 1870 and built it into one of the world’s first and largest multinational corporations. With an extreme focus on effi ciency and buying or shutting down competitors, the company controlled almost 90 percent of the country’s refined oils by the 1890s. Rockefeller, as controlling partner and the largest shareholder, became a billionaire and eventually the world’s richest man. In 1911 because of anti-trust litigation, the Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil must split into 38 companies. Two of those companies eventually became Exxon and Mobil, which merged in 1999.

Rockefeller, who remained a major shareholder although he had retired from running the company in 1896, turned his focus to charitable endeavors. Some argued that he used philanthropy as a moral shield from the critics of his aggressive business practices. But he was as calculating in his giving as he was in business, creating the modern systematic approach to targeted philanthropy, with foundations benefiting medicine, education and scientific research. The Rockefeller wealth, distributed as it was through a system of foundations and trusts, continues to fund family philanthropic ventures today.

Quote: "Good leadership consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people."

Cyrus McCormick Sr. 1809-1884 The “father of modern agriculture,” Cyrus McCormick Sr. invented the horsedrawn mechanical reaper and prevailed as an entrepreneur through his ability to find capitalists to fund the machine and salesmen to get it to farmers. With his innovation, farmers doubled their production, contributing significantly to U.S. prosperity and its status as an agricultural superpower. His company later became International Harvester Co.

Quote: "One step at a time, the hardest one first."

Andrew Carnegie 1835-1919 Once described as the richest man in the world, Andrew Carnegie believed the wealthy have a moral obligation to give away their fortunes. When writing about the mass accumulation of riches during the Gilded Age, he mused in The Gospel of Wealth (1889), “No idol is more debasing than the worship of money!”

But it’s not his well-documented philanthropic efforts that place him as one of the 50 greatest entrepreneurs. Carnegie foresaw the future demand for iron and steel at a time when railroads and bridges were largely wooden. He drove down production costs in his steel factories, where he implemented new, more efficient technologies that helped the United States surpass Britain in steel output. Carnegie attributed his industrial success to placing the right people in the right positions. He suggested for his own epitaph, “Here lies a man who was able to surround himself with men far cleverer than himself.”

Incidentally, his mentorship to personal-development guru Napoleon Hill laid the groundwork for Think and Grow Rich, arguably the greatest success book of all time. What started as an unpaid assignment for Hill, then a young journalist, became a 20-year exploration of the common success traits of the world's most successful entrepreneurs.

Quote: "No man can become rich without him enriching others."

NEXT (Finance)

Journalist, podcaster and southpaw Shelby Skrhak is the former director of digital content and social media for Before joining SUCCESSmagazine, Shelby launched the weekly suburban newspaper Plano Insider, and covered topics ranging from cops and courts to transportation and fashion. Her handwriting should be a font.