On a recent trip to California, I visited the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu, two extraordinary art institutions paid for by the extraordinary career of American oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (1892-1976).
In his day, Getty was the wealthiest man in America. The son of a lawyer who had achieved success as an oil wildcatter, Getty joined the family business in his early twenties. By the time he was 24, Getty had struck oil in Oklahoma and was a millionaire in his own right. This was during WWI, when a million dollars was the equivalent of $20 million or more today.
Realizing his fortune, the young Getty retired to a life of frolicking in Los Angeles. A year or two later, he decided it was time to get back to work, and spent the next decades building the largest private fortune in the United States at the time. In his prime, Getty received over 3000 letters a month from strangers requesting money, often from women “seeking arrangements”.
Getty enjoyed five wives and suffered five divorces and spoke five languages, including Arabic, which helped him win a massively profitable oil concession in Iraq in 1949. Getty counted monarchs, politicians, businessmen and celebrities as friends the world over.
A notoriously frugal man, except when it came to art and his own home furnishings, Getty signed his own checks. When his Grandson was kidnapped in 1973, he initially refused to pay, before negotiating the ransom down to $2.9 million from the $17 million originally requested. Grandson Getty lost an ear in the turmoil but survived to tell the tale.
He may have been frugal, but Getty was not modest when it came to philanthropy. His two exceptional museums in the Los Angeles area would certainly cost billions to build and furnish today. Attendance at the Getty museums remains free of charge some 38 years after his death.
I snagged a copy of As I See It and How To Be Rich, two Getty books on sale at the museums. Flipping through the latter, I came across his fundamental rules for achieving success in business. “If He can’t tell you, who can?” the book jacket promises.
Getty’s lessons are as on-point today as they were when they were first published as a series in Playboy magazine starting in 1961.
So without further adieu, here are J. Paul Getty’s rules for how to be rich:
1. Almost without exception, there is only one way to make a great deal of money in the business world — and that is in one’s own business. The man who wants to go into business for himself should choose a field which he knows and understands. Obviously, he can’t know everything there is to know from the very beginning, but he should not start until he has acquired a good, solid working knowledge of the business.
2. The businessman should never lose sight of the central aim of all business — to produce more and better goods or provide more and better services to more people at lower cost.
3. A sense of thrift is essential for success in business. The businessman must discipline himself to practice economy wherever possible, in his personal life as well as his business affairs. “Make your money first, then think about spending it,” is the best of all credos for the man wishing to succeed.
4. Legitimate opportunities for expansion should never be ignored or overlooked. On the other hand, the businessman must always be on his guard against the temptation to over extend or launch expansion programs blindly, without sufficient justification and planning. Forced growth can be fatal to any business, new or old.
5. A businessman must run his own business. He cannot expect his employees to think or do as well as he can. If they could, they would not be his employees. When ‘The Boss’ delegates authority or responsibility, he must maintain close and constant supervision over the subordinates entrusted with it.
6. The businessman must be constantly alert for new ways to improve his products and services and increase his production and sales. He should also use prosperous periods to find the ways by which techniques may be improved and costs lowered. It is only human for people to give little thought to economies when business is booming. That, however, is just the time when the businessman has the mental elbow room to examine his operations calmly and objectively and thus effect important savings without sacrificing quality or efficiency. Many businessmen wait for lean periods to do these things and, as a result, often hit the panic button and slash costs in the wrong places.
7. A businessman must be willing to take risks — to risk his own capital and to lose his credit and risk borrowed money as well when, in his considered opinion, the risks are justified. But borrowed money must always be promptly repaid. Nothing will write finis to a career faster than a bad credit rating.
8. A businessman must constantly seek new horizons and untapped or under-exploited markets. As I’ve already said at some length, most of the world is eager to buy American products and know-how; today’s shrewd businessman looks to foreign markets.
9. Nothing builds confidence and volume faster or better than a reputation for standing behind one’s work or products. Guarantees should always be honored — and in doubtful cases, the decision should always be in the customer’s favor. A generous service policy should also be maintained. The firm that is known to be completely reliable will have little difficulty filling its order books and keeping them filled.
10. No matter how many millions an individual amasses, if he is in business he must always consider his wealth as a means for improving living conditions everywhere. He must remember that he has responsibilities toward his associates, employees, stockholders, and the public.
Do you want to make a million? Believe me, you can — if you are able to recognize the limitless opportunities and potentials around you and will apply these rules and work hard. For today’s alert, ambitious and able young men, all that glitters truly can be gold.
In assembling this post, the only video of Getty I could find is this commercial for stock brokerage EF Hutton that shows an octogenarian Getty at his England home of Sutton Place. He’s quite the dapper old moneybags.
This short bio of Getty plays at his museums: