There may be a century separating the eras in which they single-handedly dominated the global corporate landscape, but the similarities between the careers of Bill Gates and John D. Rockefeller Sr. are too similar to ignore. They’ve been there since Gates helped found Microsoft in 1975 and now, with his announcement that he will be stepping away from the day-to-day operations of his creation in two years, they may give observers a few clues as to what’s in store for Redmond’s top dog.
Rockefeller parlayed a superhuman work ethic and keen business sense into the title of Richest Man in the World throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century. A simple investment in a Cleveland oil refinery turned into Standard Oil, which for all intents and purposes monopolized the burgeoning oil market of the day.
Similarly, Gates used his work ethic, sound business sense and the appearance of another brand new market (personal computing) to earn the same title.
Both men grew their empires so large and so dominant that the firms had to be reined in by the U.S. Department of Justice and split up. Standard Oil was sliced and diced into 34 companies in 1911; Microsoft was split in half 89 years later.
Rockefeller had a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. On one day, he would ruthlessly wrap Standard’s hands around the necks of its competitors until they either bent to his vision or simply expired. On the next, he’d sign away millions in charity and be seen singing hymns in his church.
Behind his Poindexter persona, Gates too has never been shy about using Microsoft’s operating system dominance to mercilessly dispose of pesky competitors. At the same time, he runs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a charity aimed at saving lives in the world’s poorest regions.
Rockefeller’s immense wealth transformed him into a celebrity in spite of his stern, pious and arctic-cold personality. Gates’ inherent nerdiness proved to be but a tumbleweed in the path of his freight train of wealth en route to similar worldwide celebrity status.
And now, Gates says he will leave the running of Microsoft to others. Rockefeller also formally relinquished the Standard Oil reins to his underlings. But he was never far away from the centre of his firm’s war room, and we shouldn’t expect Gates to be, either. Rockefeller was Standard Oil, and Gates is Microsoft. Despite last month’s announcement, don’t expect that to change.