The showman who built his fortune from $30 a month in 1876 into $50 million by 1911 placed big bets selling barbed wire and oil. Mostly, he won. But it always had to be on his terms.
Gates refused to yield even when he was a boy. Swimming naked one hot day, he and his buddies watched as some girls tossed their clothes onto a barn roof. Refusing to negotiate, Gates simply got out of the water, scattering the members of the fairer sex.
As a salesman, he once rented the town plaza in San Antonio, built a corral of barbed wire and dared cattlemen to put their meanest animals in it to see if they could bust out. Not one did.
As orders for barbed wire grew, Gates decided to corner as much of the market as he could by digging for ore, refining it into steel and spinning his own barbed wire. His company became United States Steel. Never mind that he and his financier, J.P. Morgan, fought like a cat and a dog.
His greatest skill was risk-taking. Gates bought and sold railroads, copper mines, steel mills and a circus. Toward the end of his life, he bailed out some oil field wildcatters who’d run out of cash, offering them a deal for “51% or nothing.” The gusher came in, his company became Texaco and, according to his biographers, Gates turned down a $25 million offer from Standard Oil.
“Life is a gamble,” he said. “Everything is a gamble.”
Lesson: Refusing to budge won’t work for everybody, but it worked for “Bet-A-Million” Gates.
—Adapted from “You Bet J.W. Gates Cleaned Up,” Peter Benesh, Investor’s Business Daily.