Having just watched the very entertaining and star studded ‘All The Money In The World‘ with that great theatre powerhouse Kevin Spacey, ahem, I mean Christopher Plummer. The story of Jean Paul Getty intrigued me enough to grab a copy of his How to be Rich. It’s essentially a series of short essays with Getty explaining his take on the world of business. And as explained in the movie. Anyone can get rich, that’s easy. How to be rich, now that’s the trick.
In 1957, Fortune magazine named Getty the richest man in America with an estimated worth of $1 billion. He would from then on receive on average 3,000 letters a week from strangers requesting money. So rather than answer them all he decided to explain how he did it.
Beat your own path
The book was written at the zenith of large-company capitalism, when the species ‘organization man’ evolved to make the most of his small place in the corporate machinery. Getty describes this person as “dedicated to serving the complex rituals of memorandum and buck-passing.” In contrast, Getty’s ‘office’ in his early years in the oilfields was the front seat of a battered Model T Ford.
As the Wall Street Crash of 1929 took hold, Getty bought up huge amounts of oil stock at very low prices. He does not mention this as a boast, but to demonstrate that the businessperson who did not follow the pack often ‘reaps fantastic rewards.’ Most executives, Getty observed, would rather become ‘bootlickers’ to those above them than risk rocking the boat. This was actually counter-productive, because the only real security in the workplace was reserved for those who demonstrated they could add value. Successful businesspeople, he believed, were usually rebels of some description whose wealth was built on rejection of the status quo.
At a dinner party at his Sutton Place mansion outside London, Getty had invited an outspoken socialist. Another guest, a fellow American, was appalled. Getty did not apologise; in fact he felt he was honouring the great American tradition of encouragement of dissent. Hearing views different to one’s own, he believed:
“adds spice, spirit and an invigorating quality to life.”
Writing at the beginning of the 1960s, he correctly forecast that the ‘vanished dissenters’ would soon reappear, and knew that the economic future would be brighter because of it. Getty’s moral was that wealth was only ever generated by open minds, because only such intellectual openness enables us to see opportunities others do not. The alternative was a society “lulled into a perilous somnolence”, unable to tell the difference between spin and truth, prey to lobbyists and propagandists. Despite appearances, like many of the truly rich Getty was something of a radical.
Enrich your life with art
Getty humbly saw himself as a patron of the arts on a scale at least equalling the Medicis of Renaissance Florence, and is amusing when discussing the lack of cultural knowledge of the average American. He called art ‘the finest investment’ not just because it more than held its own financially, but because of the pleasure of living with beautiful things. In return for enriching the world, the wealth creator had a duty to support those who lived for their art. Yet he also saw business itself in creative terms, noting that those at the top are ‘creative artists’ instead of simply ‘artisans of business.’
On collecting itself, the author dissolves the myth that it is a rarefied pastime for the rich, mentioning several acquaintances in regular jobs who had built up excellent collections. Anyone with enough money can pay top dollar at Sotheby’s, but the true collector is a scholar who appreciates the background of each piece she buys. As Getty rather poetically puts it: “To me, they are vital embodiments of their creators. They mirror the hopes and frustrations of those who created them – and the times and places in which they were created.” What could be more fascinating or enriching?
Get the facts, then act
In a chapter titled ‘Business blunders and booby traps’, Getty says that many mistakes in business and in life result from a failure to distinguish between fact and opinion or hearsay.
He once commissioned a geologist to report on the potential of an oil lease. The report said there was little chance of finding oil, so he sold it. The lease later turned out to be part of the huge Yale oil pool. Getty writes. Yet he did not blame the expert, only himself for not getting another opinion and accepting it without question.
Businesspeople frequently accept as fact anything they have heard or read without doing their own investigation or study. This is not so bad on its own, but when the results will affect a whole enterprise and the livelihoods of workers, it is an important point. If you have made a decision that is based on facts, stick to it. Have the courage of your convictions. The relaxed businessperson, Getty says, is always much more effective, and if you have done your homework your resolve will be less likely to be sabotaged by worry.
Getty himself gained a reputation as a miser because he famously put a payphone in the hall of his Sutton Place mansion. (Guests had been using the regular phones to make transatlantic calls). Yet with the passage of time, we can see that if it were not for the man’s dedication to eliminating waste and maximising resources, millions today would not be enjoying what he left. The author is now, after all, more famous as ‘Getty the art collector and philanthropist’. The collection he created is one of the world’s best – as anyone who has been to the Getty Museum at Malibu, California, will attest.
The man was a great believer in the free enterprise system, but was not the arch-capitalist many people think he was. He never complained about high wages, taking the Henry Ford view that a workforce that was not well-paid would not buy the products you were trying to sell. As for unions, he respected their desire to better the lot of the worker he considered them a legitimate part of a productive economy.
When he was named ‘richest man in the world’, he had a hard time explaining to journalists that he did not sit on mountains of cash; nearly all his wealth was tied up in infrastructure and operations, and he was working 16-18 hours a day to keep it all going. He admits his marriages suffered and fell apart as the result of his dedication, and there were books he had wanted to read and didn’t have the time for – but on the whole, he reflected, he had led a rich and rewarding life.