February 12, 2007

Getty

And the man behind the brand is...
Jean Paul Getty

In 1957 Fortune published a list of the richest American men. Atop the list, to the amazement of everybody, was not a Rockefeller, not a Ford, not a Mellon but an unknown oilman named Jean Paul Getty. The billionaire as celebrity was born.

For the first 64 years of Getty built a fortune of one billion dollars in relative obscurity. His father, a lawyer, made a fortune in the Oklahoma oil rush in the early 1900s, staked Jean Paul to explore low cost leases in the midwest.
Getty set up in a seedy $6-a-week room in Tulsa and bounced around Oklahoma in a Model-T Ford checking on prospective leases. In 1915 he capped his first well. The following May the Getty Oil Company was incorporated as a father-son venture. At the age of 23 Getty was a millionaire.

The first thing he did was quit. He bought a Cadillac V8 roadster and spent the next few years on a sybaritic binge through the southwest. In 1919, suddenly bored with the life of a playboy, he rejoined his father, just in time to exploit a new oil rush in southern California. This boom made father and son multimillionaires.

There would be no taking time off this time. Getty bought leases and drilled for oil up and down the California coast. When the stock market collapsed the acquisitive Getty expanded his holdings by buying up distressed oil company stocks. In 1930 Getty’s father died and he became president. The bulk of the senior Getty’s $10 million fortune went to his wife, then aged 78 and in poor health.

Getty immediately began a battle with his ailing mother for control of the company. Legend has it that Getty was so ruthless in his business dealings that when he discovered a well he was drilling was bottoming out on someone else’s property, he tried to sell it to his mother. When informed of the shenanigans Mrs. Getty is supposed to have replied, “What you are trying to tell me is that Paul is a crook. But he’s awfully smart, isn’t he?”

Weary of the fight Mrs. Getty finally relinquished her claim to the bulk of the Getty assets and Paul quickly set out to build a global international oil company. He set his sights on the giant Tide Water Associated Oil, quietly buying up blocks of stock. It took Getty two decades of tussling with the John D. Rockefeller cartel to wrest control of the company and its 1200 service stations. It was the major triumph of his career and gave him the nucleus for a worldwide conglomerate of some 200 companies.

While the financial wrangling was going on Getty did not stray from his wildcatting instincts. In 1949 he paid $12.5 million for the rights to prospect for oil in the Neutral Zone, a barren tract of scrub dessert between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It was one of the few remaining areas in the Middle East unexploited by oilmen. After nearly four years of dry holes Getty struck oil with a last do-or-die drilling. By 1955 Getty had 55 producing wells in the Neutral Zone; his wealth doubled.

With his unveiling as America’s richest man the public clamored for details on Getty’s life. There was plenty to titillate the curious. Getty had five wives, tiring of each almost before the ceremony was over. “My wives married me; I didn’t marry them,” he said.

There were stories of his miserly habits. In 1961 when he appeared on British television for the first time he admitted that, yes, he really had waited five minutes to get into a dog show at a cheaper price. He personally washed his underwear every night - not, he explained, to save money on laundry bills but because he didn’t like the detergent his local laundry used.

Tragedy dogged Getty for the final years of his life. A young son died of a
brain tumor, his oldest son committed suicide, and his grandson was kidnapped.
The boy was returned only after having his ear severed and mailed to an Italian newspaper to convince Getty the plot was real. The old man paid an $850,000 ransom.

In the 1950s Getty moved to England to be centrally located to his global empire. Once there, however, he seldom visited his Middle East holdings and never once set foot in America again. He changed his will 21 times, using it as a weapon to set one person against another. When he died in 1976 at the age of 84 Getty has insured discord in Getty Oil. His company was sold to Texaco for $9.9 billion, history’s biggest corporate takeover.

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