An entrepreneur is not an ordinary person. If you plan to organize and operate a business, you are taking a financial risk to do so — as well as personal risks and an investment in time and effort. But, sometimes the risks and investments pay off, as shown by this list of the ten wealthiest entrepreneurs of all time.
The list is ordered by wealth and the focus is in the United States. The businesses created by these individuals range from oil to cars, and from dry goods to lumberyards. The wealth estimates in most cases are based upon several observations from Forbes, mainly based upon modern net worth. You might note that only one person on this list was born in the twentieth century and is still alive — Bill Gates.
- John Davidson Rockefeller: Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1870, which dominated the oil industry and was the first great U.S. business trust. He was 31-years-old at the time, and his pursuits revolutionized the petroleum industry and defined the structure of modern philanthopy. Standard Oil began as an Ohio partnership formed by John D. Rockefeller, his brother William Rockefeller, Henry Flagler, Jabez Bostwick, chemist Samuel Andrews, and a silent partner, Stephen V. Harkness. As kerosene and gasoline grew in importance, Rockefeller’s wealth soared, and he became the world’s richest man and first American worth more than a billion dollars. His peak fortune? $336 billion.
- Andrew Carnegie: After jobs such as a factory worker in a bobbin factory, a messenger boy, and an upwardly-mobile employee for a telegraph company, Carnegie built Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Steel Company. After he sold Carnegie Steel Company to J.P. Morgan in 1901 ($480 million), Carnegie devoted the remainder of his life to large-scale philanthropy, with special emphasis on local libraries, world peace, education and scientific research. Carnegie slowly accumulated capital, the basis for his later success, through investments. His life has often been referred to as a true “rags to riches” story. His peak fortune? $309 billion.
- Henry Ford: As founder of the Ford Motor Company and sponsor of the development of the assembly line of mass production, Ford had a global vision of how to run a company and treat employees. Ford astonished the world in 1914 by offering a $5 per day wage ($110 today), which more than doubled the rate of most of his workers. The move proved extremely profitable; instead of constant turnover of employees, the best mechanics in Detroit flocked to Ford, bringing their human capital and expertise, raising productivity, and lowering training costs. His peak fortune? $188.1 billion.
- Cornelius Vanderbilt: This entrepreneur began working on his father’s New York harbor ferry as a boy and quit school at age 11. He then borrowed $100 from his mother to purchase a boat at age 16, and began to build a complicated shipping business while also fathering 13 children. He also built an interest in railroads, eventually selling all his ships and concentrating on that business. He was the patriarch of the Vanderbilt family and one of the richest Americans in history. He provided the initial gift to found Vanderbilt University, which is named in his honor. His peak fortune? $185 billion.
- Bill Gates: A contemporary entrepreneur, many people know how Bill Gates built his fortune. Gates is the former CEO and current chairman of Microsoft, the software company he founded with Paul Allen. In 1987, Gates was officially declared a billionaire in the pages of Forbes’ 400 Richest People in America issue, just days before his 32nd birthday. As the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, he was worth $1.25 billion, over $900 million more than he’d been worth the year before, when he’d debuted on the list. He is consistently ranked among the world’s wealthiest people and was the wealthiest overall from 1995 to 2009, excluding 2008, when he was ranked third. In 2011 he was the wealthiest American and the second wealthiest person alive. His peak fortune? $136 billion.
- John Jacob Aster: As the first prominent member of the Astor family, John (born Johann), was a German-American business man and investor who was the first multi-millionaire in the United States. He was the creator of the first trust in America. Astor arrived in the U.S. American Revolutionary War to build a fur-trading empire that extended to the Great Lakes region and Canada. He later expanded into the American West and Pacific coast. He also got involved in smuggling opium and then began to purchase land in Manhattan, creating a land-rich empire. At the time of his death in 1848, Astor was the wealthiest person in the United States. His peak fortune? $121 billion.
- Stephen Girard: Born in France, Girard lost the sight in his right eye at age eight, and he had very little education. As an established merchant in Philadelphia, Girard eventually purchased the First Bank of the United States charter. His bank because the principal source of government credit during the War of 1812. Towards the end of the war, when the financial credit of the U.S. government was at its lowest, Girard placed nearly all of his resources at the disposal of the government and underwrote up to 95 percent of the war loan issue, which enabled the United States to carry on the war. He became one of the wealthiest men in America, estimated to have been the fourth richest American of all time, based on the ratio of his fortune to contemporary GDP. Childless, he devoted much of his fortune to philanthropy, particularly the education and welfare of orphans. His peak fortune? $105 billion.
- Alexander Turney Stewart: Also known as “A.T.” Stewart was a successful Irish entrepreneur who made his multi-million fortune in what was at the time the most extensive and lucrative dry goods business in the world. He received an inheritance of somewhere between $5,000 to $10,000, taking this money to New York and creating a store on Broadway. Along with his successful retail store, Stewart also established himself as one of the wealthiest men in the United States by allowing women all over the country to purchase and order items from his wholesale department store. His peak fortune? $88.9 billion.
- Frederick Weyerhaeuser: Weyerhaeuser, a German-born son of farmers, emigrated to the U.S. in 1848 and worked in a brewery, on the railroad, and eventually became an upwardly-mobile employee in a sawmill factory. He eventually purchased the sawmill business and formed the Weyerhaeuser-Denkmann Lumber Company with his brother-in-law, Frederick Denkmann. The Weyerhaeuser Company is still the world’s largest seller of timber. His peak fortune? $79.4 billion.
- Jay Gould: Although being ranked as the eighth worst American CEO of all time by the Conde Nast Portfolio, Jay Gould’s successes made him, at one time, the ninth richest American in history. He was a rail baron and gold speculator, masterminding the 19th-century transportation boom in America. He and financier James Fisk bought up a dominating share of the gold market, enough to directly affect market movements during his lifetime. His peak fortune? $71.2 billion.