The richest men of all time category is a bit like a revolving door in that the leader is often supplanted. Evidently, times change and so do fortunes — even well after death in some cases. So, let’s see who stands where. We’re looking at estimated net worth at each man’s peak (or peak to date), put in 2008 U.S. dollars through comparisons of the U.S. gross domestic product and using calculations provided by the U.S. Department of Labor — Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Since this article is about numbers, let’s ditch the lengthy introduction and get to know who the richest men of all time are currently.
Carlos Slim Helu (1940 – )
The Mexican communications industry and other interests have been kind to Carlos Slim, to say the least. It’s said that between 2005 and 2007, Slim’s worth has doubled. In that period, his fortune grew around $27 million — daily. The reason is simple: he owns everything in Mexico. Over 200 companies are under his thumb, ranging from the aforementioned telecom to transportation, and from cigarettes to soft drinks. He’s dismissed the title of “world’s richest man” with indifference, claiming that designation isn’t his kind of competition. Whether he wants it or not, he has been designated as one of the world’s richest men of all time.
Warren Buffett (1930 – )
Like many who can afford to do so, Warren Buffett doesn’t mind pursuing new acquisitions when the economy is tanking. His latest was a joint effort with Mars for a $23 billion buy of Wrigley. Still, you might get the impression that he’s not in all this for the same reasons as others. This is the man who appeared before Congress last fall and warned of the rise of “dynastic wealth,” stressing the importance of the estate tax. Buffett also earmarked $31 billion for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Only the richest men of all time can donate billions.
Sam Walton (1918 – 1992)
Sam Walton’s passing in 1992 came too soon for him to see the full potential of his Wal-Mart empire, though he was certainly successful in his lifetime. Much of it came from offering things that we take for granted today: good variety and convenient store hours, for example. He also set the stage for efficient, cost-effective central warehousing of merchandise, extending his competitive reach into smaller markets and well beyond his first store in Arkansas.
Marshall Field (1834 – 1906)
For better or worse, the “customer is always right” philosophy began with Marshall Field. Evidently, Field never saw a little old lady try to return a 20-year-old waffle iron 19 years after its warranty expired. Either way, this early acknowledgment of customer service spelled success. Like the aforementioned Sam Walton, Field’s retail store struck gold by instituting what have become foregone conclusions today. Developing a policy for exchanges was one; displaying merchandise prices was another. Field also did well for himself in his Chicago real estate ventures, but he’ll always be remembered for his department stores.
Frederick Weyerhaeuser (1834 – 1914)
The man whose name would become synonymous with lumber capitalized on timing and access to resources to build his fortune. Frederick Weyerhaeuser’s timber resources after the Civil War were considerable, and demand was even greater. Though it would never fly today, Weyerhaeuser extensively clear-cut in the Midwest, creating farming opportunities in many areas and a permanent economic shift.
John Jacob Astor (1763 – 1848)
If John Jacob Astor were alive to hear industry critics’ “fur kills” cries, he might partially agree. He did, after all, make a killing in fur and it made him the first millionaire in America. Upon overhearing a man discussing fur trading, Astor decided to pursue it himself and realized great success. Along the way, he diversified and dabbled in selling opium — again, he was successful. Decades later, he got out of the fur business and segued into New York City real estate.
Bill Gates (1955 – )
Even if Bill Gates’ currently estimated $58 billion fortune is down from its heady peak nearly a decade ago, the Harvard dropout and Microsoft leader is hardly hurting. After the proposed merger with Yahoo fizzled out and shares dropped in the dominant company he cofounded, he’s probably not losing sleep. He is no doubt looking forward to stepping back from his current role at Microsoft and devoting more time to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, currently $38.7 billion strong.
Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794 – 1877)
You can’t necessarily get rich by playing nice, and Cornelius Vanderbilt apparently took that to heart. If some point to Sam Walton as the one who unfairly undercut prices, they should look a little further back to Vanderbilt. In his early years in the steamboat business, he would undercut competitors to the point of his own unprofitability, just to make a point. That ruthless competitive nature typified Vanderbilt through his years, especially in the way he ran his railroad empire. He may not have always played nice, but without exception, he played to win.
Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919)
Steel wasn’t a bad business pursuit in the late 1800s. It paid off for Andrew Carnegie and continued to pay handsomely through philanthropy long after his death. A self-made man from humble beginnings, Carnegie worked hard from childhood. He didn’t enjoy overnight success, but he did realize almost continual progress. His savings became investments and his investments became capital for the business ventures for which he would later be known. Even if today’s wealth seekers don’t necessarily follow Carnegie’s principles for philanthropy, they do still highly regard his formulas for acquiring the means.
John D. Rockefeller (1839 – 1937)
You have to wonder how John D. Rockefeller would fare as a major player in Big Oil today. After all, he founded Standard Oil in 1870, and it wasn’t long before he dominated the industry. Naturally, some didn’t take kindly to that and the company was eventually found to have monopolized. Yet, for all Rockefeller’s detractors, the U.S.’s first billionaire was a serious philanthropist to education, medicine and science. From a legacy standpoint, however, he’s best remembered for his unfathomable wealth. Even today, the name connotes “money.”