Growing up, I had an obsession for learning about great personalities; living or dead, good or bad. I wanted to understand what drove their passion or how they overcame challenges.

I can roughly say I have read the biography of over 100 famous personalities, from the world of sports, music, politics and business.

I was having a chat one sunny afternoon, with Mr. Asenime Gregory, CEO, Orion Express, a domestic logistics company that services online stores, corporate organizations and individuals alike. He told me about an 8-part documentary that had aired on The History Channel titled “The Men Who Built America”. I was awestruck when he made mention of John D. Rockefeller, one of my favourite all-time richest man in the world. I had to see this series.

After watching through each episode, I learnt a thing or two of -not only about John D. Rockefeller- other great business personalities. These great titans of industries I understood, shared certain traits that helped them duck challenges; even the seemingly impasse. Literarily, these men – Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, didn’t build America from its bedrock. While people argue that these men practiced monopolistic businesses, they indeed laid the bedrock for industrialization in America’s history. While watching the series, a series of questions lurked at a corner of my heart. What qualities did these men have that made them see opportunities where others didn’t? How did they turn their companies into super-brands? How did they make money even when the nation was in economic depression?

 I want to share the little business lessons learnt from this incredible business documentary. Here are ten tips I’m sharing in this article from The Men Who Built America documentary;

 –          Understand the power of the people (Consumers are a lot powerful than you think);

In his bestseller, How I lost my Virginity, Sir Richard Branson discussed in one of the chapters how his kids helped him understand the changes in trends. With this knowledge, he understood the shift from game consoles to music gadgets. The customers can inspire innovation across multiple industries. The people, knowingly or sometimes unknowingly, give out signs that shows changes in tastes, fashion sense, cultural trends. Understanding these signals would help a business person know the right direction to paddle his business towards. Even top business brands like Louis Vuitton, Coca-Cola and others understand the strength that the people possess and style new products in line with trends while still maintaining their signature and brand identity. In this business market, the people are the consumers who would come to the market and pay cash for a product that is trendy and in touch with their styles. Please note also, inasmuch as you want to be a company that is dynamic and trendy, what stands a business as a brand is its consistency. Be trendy and dynamic but still stick to your core ideals.

–          Shrewdness and Innovative;

John D. Rockefeller was a shrewd businessman. I have no doubt about that. He introduced techniques that totally reshaped the oil industry. In the mid-19th century, the chief demand was for kerosene but in the refining process of crude oil to kerosene, there were many by-products that were been thrown away. Where others saw waste, he saw wealth. He sold one byproduct paraffin to candle-makers and another byproduct petroleum jelly to medical supply companies. He was smarter than his competition. What a chap! Rockefeller also demanded rebates, or discounted rates from the railroads that transported his oil. He used all these methods to reduce the price of oil to his consumers. His profits soared and his competitors were crushed one by one. Rockefeller also forced smaller companies to surrender their stock to his control thereby building up a giant trust. Wicked!

 –          Be a servant to lead (Mentorship is useful);

Great business leaders were once good followers. Mentorship is acquiring knowledge at the feet of a more experienced individual in a field that you choose to follow. Being someone’s protégé isn’t shameful. Before you can lead, you need to follow and learn. Get tips on how your mentor started up, challenges he faced, and how they overcame them. Study their lifestyle, eating habits but still being true to you. Andrew Carnegie was a student of Thomas Scott, a businessman and railroad executive, Plato learnt at the feet of Socrates, the great Greek Philosopher. Great leaders were once attentive students!

 –          Resilience;

These men were resilient in the face of challenges that they faced. Dean .M. Becker, Managing Director and Principal of Adaptiv Learning Systems, a company that develops and delivers programs about resilience training, puts it: “More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. Cornelius Vanderbilt who was once in charge of the Harlem Rail Roads, encountered conflicts with connecting rail road lines. But in each case, the strife ended in a victory for him.

 –          Reinventing the wheel is no crime (There are no rules!);

Do not limit yourself to creating something new. My partner, Ofuzim Anderson Oriahi, CEO, Zimylink Brand Managers, once told me; “When looking to create something, don’t limit yourself too much to creating something entirely new and different (though, if you strike gold as a pioneer of something new, grab it fast!). Look at previous stuffs and try to create something better from that”. It’s a rarity to see a modern business that is not comparable to another business, either thriving or obsolete. But when reinventing the wheel, be creative, smart and innovative. I don’t mean you have to be ‘Einstein smart’. Tweak the status quo a little bit.

 –          Visionaries;

Foresight into the future is not a must have to make money but it is a necessity to make wealth. I don’t know if you get what I’m trying to piece together. You can solve today’s problem and make money but if you can also solve a problem that is not known yet, you’ll create wealth. A business driven by its impact on the future is a step close to wealth. A business that targets future market is headed in the right direction. I’m not necessarily saying that you must have a business with its target market for the future but it gives a vantage point for business. Imagine I studied the market and I realised that in the nearest future, the demand for palm fruits would be high because of a shift in the economic policies globally towards agriculture and I invested capital into raising a plantation of palm fruits. After 15-25 years, there was an agricultural boom and palm fruit was at the helm of this boom, imagine how much wealth my plantation would provide. Foresight!

 –          Networking;

Cornelius Vanderbilt was at a crossroad with his business. He had realised that the future of railroads was not in building more rails but in transportation of cargoes. He needed a new venture that would not only keep him in business but also give him an edge over his competition. Likewise, the demand for kerosene all over the country was high and John D. Rockefeller also needed something – he needed a means of transportation for his supplies. Both men networked to help each other. John D. got to transport his kerosene at a cheap rate and Vanderbilt always had goods on his train. It was a win-win situation. Or so it seemed!

– Want to get rich, solve a need!

To start a business, research on a need and provide solutions for that need. People needed cheap but quality cars; Henry Ford provided that for them. Safe source of light at night, kerosene was provided by John D. Rockefeller. Steel was in high demand by the Navy for their submarines and also by construction companies, Andrew Carnegie provided them with just that. Help the people solve what they need and they would buy from you.

 – Respect Competition, not fear it;

Because you started a business doesn’t necessarily give you full rights to owning that business. Competition definitely would spring up. Moreso, if you are running a business that already has big-time players in that industry; do not fright but respect and learn from them. When you fear your competition, you give them an edge over you. Respect your competition, study their strength and weakness and provide a better package than they are offering to the customers. At this junction, it pays to be an innovative person or work with a team of innovative mind. John D. Rockefeller had just devised a means of cutting the railroads out of business by transporting his oil through pipes and not by rails. Thomas Scott, a business man who owned the rail road that transported the oil from John D. Rockefeller’s refinery in Pittsburgh, decided to build his own pipeline to connect Pittsburgh and New York and provide stiff competition for as well as to remain relevant to John D. Rockefeller in his oil transport. What did John D. Rockefeller do to crush his new emerging competition? He simply shut down his refinery in Pittsburgh. What a blow to the guts of Thomas Scott. And finally

 – Hard work and determination;

This point is self explanatory. Even though it has being over-flogged over time, enough emphasis cannot be made on the topic. The hardwork of a businessman helps elevate his business from startup to global brands. Hardwork and determination are key proponents of a successful business.

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Thanks for taking your time to read through this business article and a big thanks to The History Channel and Stephen David, the director of the documentary, Men Who Built America. It was such an entertaining and informative show.

 Friendly note: These business tips shared here are not necessarily a prerequisite for a successful business/brand. Other elements abound that make a business successful. These are tips learnt from studying these great business personalities and how they operated their business.

 If you have any suggestions or criticism to this article, kindly comment so we could brainstorm together. You can also share these articles with business colleagues and also on your social media platforms. Thanks!


ABOUT US: Zimylink Brand Managers is a brand management firm. We’re a team with in-depth expertise in developing and deploying effective brand solutions for big and small brands. As part of our approach of bringing ideas to life, we publish our thoughts and theories on branding and also solicit the contributions and opinions of other industry experts. This is to help emphasise the impact of branding on the development of small and medium sized businesses towards building a sustainable economy in Sub-Saharan Africa.