Reading about the Robber Barons

I just finished reading a long biography of Andrew Mellon, one of the so-called Robber Barons from around the turn of the last century. Mellon was a Pittsburgh banker who became what today would be a billionnaire by founding companies such as Alcoa and Gulf Oil as wel as the Mellon Bank (now the Bank of New York Mellon). I have been reading a number of this biographies in recent years: Roosevelt (both Teddy and FDR), Lyndon Johnson, Rockefeller, Churchill, Stallin, Trudeau, etc. I studied about the Robber Barons in B-School almost 20 years ago but this new book was very interesting.

A few points I found interesting.

1. His grandfather came to America via Saint John, New Brunswick.

2. Many of the largest industrial projects of the day were based in places like Pittsburgh but had much of their operations in the Niagara region (and eventually the Saguenay region in Quebec) because of their cheap power. Competitive energy costs has always been an important site selection factor and I think will be even more in the future.

3. While these guys were in many ways ruthless businessmen (surpresssing unions, cartelizing various businesses, etc.), at the end of it almost all of them gave the bulk of it away – Mellon, Carnegie, etc. Many (not Mellon) did so to keep their name alive for ever through charitable trusts.

4. Most great businessmen get in on the ground floor of the latest trends from steel to aluminum to oil to cars to computers to software to the Internet. I don’t know how it is done but it would be very interesting to see more New Brunswick firms at the front end of some of these industries that are going to drive the 21st century – energy, environmental technologies, health care, entertainment, etc. We all sort of/kind of know the trends out there but how do we get there? I have to think that the universities should be key to this but there is definitely something in the Koolaid in a place like 19th Century Pittsburgh that led to all these great business ideas spewing forth. Don’t get me wrong. Industrial Pittsburgh was a place of great contrast at the turn of the 20th Century – poverty, environmental pollution, urban/industrial fusion/sprawl, etc. but there was some reason why many of the great business ideas of the last century eminated from that area.