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TYCOONS: American Original

6 minute read

Jean Paul Getty was one of a not-yet-vanished American breed, the lone wolf operator who, through cunning, luck and a sharp sense of timing, builds vast wealth and a far-flung business colossus almost singlehandedly. “If I were starting again,” he liked to tell visitors at Sutton Place, his 16th century estate outside London, “I’d do it the same way —exploring, wildcatting. If you hit it you get rich. If you don’t you go broke.”

Getty hit it. When he died last week at 83, after a long illness, his fortune, built mostly around his majority interest in Los Angeles-based Getty Oil Co., stood at more than $1 billion. Like that other billionaire loner, the late Howard Hughes, Getty started out with inherited wealth. But he was certainly less like Hughes, the eccentric playboy-pilot, than like the original Mellons and Rockefellers, a crusty, supremely self-disciplined original who determinedly set out to build a business empire—and succeeded even beyond his own expectations.

He lived a life of contradictions. He traveled widely, but feared flying. He was a confidant of the rich, and a lifelong miser. Early in his career, he typically operated out of hotel suites, carrying business documents along with him in string-tied boxes. When he decided to make Sutton Place his “liaison center” in 1959, he decorated it with old masters from his huge collection, which includes a museum in Malibu, Calif, containing works worth $200 million; but he also cut back the Sutton Place gardening staff and had a pay telephone installed for his visitors’ use. Said Getty: “My friends will understand, and, as for the spongers, well, I just don’t care.” Three years ago, when Italian gangsters kidnaped his grandson, Getty refused to pay ransom; the kidnapers cut off the boy’s ear.

Heavy shouldered and seemingly taller than his 5 ft. 10 in., he drank little, exercised religiously and was partial to health food and pretty women. He was contemptuous of ordinary businessmen, including those who worked for him. Once, when a Getty executive ventured a suggestion, Getty dismissed it abruptly, saying that he was not about to listen to “a goddamned office boy.” Modern corporate managers, he scoffed, were no more than “promoted clerks, engineers, salesmen.”

Getty got a good start toward his fortune, but it was his own drive and peculiar genius that elevated him to the ranks of the world’s wealthiest. The son of a prosperous Minneapolis lawyer who decided to wildcat for oil in Oklahoma (then Indian Territory) in 1903, Jean Paul spent two years at the University of California and another two years at Oxford before he reported to work in his father’s firm. By that time, buoyed by a lucky early strike, George F. Getty had made several million and formed a thriving company. With his father’s backing, Jean Paul at 21 began buying and selling oil leases. He made $40,000 the first year, and cleared his first million by the time he was 23. The steady accumulation of wealth was not to falter for the rest of his life.

He also accumulated—and discarded—wives. By the time his father died in 1930, he had married his third wife (he was eventually to have five, by whom he sired five sons). His Christian Scientist father, who had earlier sold his son a one-third interest in George F. Getty Inc. for $1,000,000, showed his disapproval by willing Paul only $500,000 of his $10 million estate, leaving the rest to his wife. Undeterred, Paul used his own growing millions to invest in oil company stocks during the Depression, when they were bargains. Though he and his mother first quarrelled over his father’s fortune and she kept a close hold on the money, she later relented and gave Paul control of the company.

Paul then set his eye on one of the giants of U.S. oil: Tidewater Oil Co., with assets of $192 million. After a long battle with Tidewater management and Standard Oil (New Jersey), which dominated Tidewater, Getty by 1937 had won control of Mission Corp., a holding company with substantial shares in Tidewater and Skelly Oil (Getty did not win numerical control of Tidewater until 1951). During World War II, he ran Tulsa’s Spartan Aircraft Co., a Skelly subsidiary, forcing supervisors to sit behind a huge eight-ball if they did not meet production schedules.

The real foundation for Getty’s wealth was laid in 1949, when he outbid rivals and won (for $9,500,000 and royalties of $1,000,000 a year for three years) the oil rights to Saudi Arabia’s 50% interest in the Neutral Zone, a barren 2,500 sq. mile tract that the Saudis owned jointly with Kuwait. For three years the Getty leases produced no oil, but in the fourth Getty struck it rich. By 1955, his wells were producing more than 4,000,000 bbls. of oil a year. Today, they are the chief source of oil for Getty’s petrochemical complex, which includes the original Getty Oil Company (of which Getty owned 64.8%), the Mission Corp. (88%) and Skelly Oil (owned 72.5% by Mission).

Over the years, through mergers and acquisitions, Getty picked up other companies, and some critics say that what he built was a hodgepodge that never became fully integrated like the major oil companies. Such criticism did not bother Getty. He was unique among oilmen —and other company heads, for that matter—in keeping almost total personal control of his empire; indeed he put in long working days at Sutton Place almost up to his death.

Getty’s three living sons have been involved in the business and could be in the running for important roles; some Getty watchers speculate that J.P.’s successor as Getty Oil president might be Norris Bramlett, 59, Getty’s administrative assistant since 1968. Most of Getty’s fortune, which he kept mainly in Getty Oil stock, will apparently be given to charities, under a will said to have been prepared years ago. Unlike Howard Hughes, Jean Paul Getty was surely too careful to leave the future of his creation to chance and the courts.

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