10 Lessons Africa’s Entrepreneurs Can Learn From J.P. Morgan
J.P. Morgan’s name is synonymous with wealth and success in America. Throughout his life, the financier and banker drew comparisons to his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, and it would be difficult to overstate the importance of his influence on American history.
In 1871, Morgan founded J.P Morgan & Co., a private banking company that is still one of the leading financial firms in America today. In addition to rescuing the country from multiple financial crises, he was a leader in both the burgeoning railroad industry and in steel manufacturing.
His efficiency, acumen, and investments transformed American business and fueled the Progressive Era. Africa, like America during the turn of the century, is on the cusp of its own Progressive Era, one in which corrupt government officials are rooted out, business policies are reformed, and social and scientific progress are at the forefront.
Entrepreneurs in Africa are interested in more than seeking a fortune. They want to create substantial change in these countries and leave legacies that will stand the test of time. The life lessons of J.P. Morgan, the ultimate legacy builder, can guide these entrepreneurs as Africa enters a new, more enlightened era.
1) Take risk and seize opportunities. When a young Morgan was visiting New Orleans, a boat of Brazilian coffee sailed into port without a buyer. The coffee would go bad quickly, so Morgan made the unauthorized choice to spend his boss’ money on the coffee. His superiors were outraged by his risky gambling, but J.P. Morgan immediately sold it to the local diners and cafés for a tidy sum.
2) Trust your intuition. After the coffee incident, J.P. Morgan left the firm to make his own way. He was guided by the advice of his father, who mentored him for much of his life, but J.P. Morgan was also a visionary. After meeting Thomas Edison, Morgan invested everything he had to form the Edison Electricity Company, although his father believed electricity was “just a fad.” Together, Edison and J.P. Morgan created the world’s first power station and what eventually became General Electric.
3) Look beyond monetary rewards. In 1879, the Vanderbilts wished to sell $25 million of holdings in the New York Central Railroad without causing a panic among investors. Morgan formed a syndicate to secretly sell the holdings through his father in England. In exchange for his work on this deal, Morgan received a seat on the New York Central board and established his role as a financial intermediary between the railroad companies and English investors.
4) Network. The wealthy friends Morgan made during his youth in America and schooling in Europe were instrumental in his success. While few entrepreneurs have the luck to be born into wealthy, prominent families, anyone is capable of tapping into the network of individuals who are working hard to bring about change in Africa. Entrepreneurs should take every opportunity to meet new people and make connections.
5) Be creative. In 1895, gold reserves had dwindled to almost nothing. J.P. Morgan created a plan for bankers to invest gold directly into the government, but President Grover Cleveland chose to authorize the sale of gold bonds instead. Unfortunately, the government did not have the time to sell gold bonds, and the situation was deteriorating. Morgan found a loophole in an 1862 law that allowed the Secretary of the Treasury to issue bonds to buy gold coins without congressional approval. This loophole led to the end of the panic as J.P. Morgan & Co. led a syndicate of bankers to sell bonds and buy back gold from foreign investors.
6) Keep moving forward. J.P. Morgan once said that the first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are. Morgan was incredibly successful in business, but he wasn’t infallible. In 1900, he invested over $100,000 in Nikola Tesla’s failed wireless communication system. Two years later, he tried to enter the London Subways market but was unable to convince Parliament to permit his project. In that same year, J.P. Morgan & Co. funded the International Mercantile Marine Company (IMMC), whose subsidiary owned the RMS Titanic, a British passenger ship that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912 after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, United Kingdom, to New York City, US.
Despite these failures, J.P. Morgan followed his own advice and kept moving forward.
7) You don’t get what you deserve — you get what you negotiate. Stories about J.P. Morgan’s unusual negotiation tactics abound. His strategy to bring people together was to isolate the relevant parties and set a deadline for agreement. In 1907, there was another panic on Wall Street. J.P. Morgan believed that rescuing the failing bank trusts might reverse the downturn and restore the people’s faith in the banks. His solution was to get the large trusts to invest in their weaker competitors — something they were obviously reluctant to do. He gathered the trust company presidents in his library, locked the door, and refused to let them out until they came to an agreement. The bankers argued all night, sometimes sending comments or suggestions to Morgan, who refused to budge. When dawn came without an agreement, Morgan stormed in with a contract and a pen, instructing the presidents to sign. They all did.
8) Capital is global. Americans like J.P. Morgan couldn’t have achieved such success without the help of European investors, who financed many of the most important infrastructure developments in the budding country. Just as Morgan connected with savvy Europeans who sought to help this fledgling country gain a foothold, African entrepreneurs can and should seek out funding from investors and other sources across the globe.
9) Have integrity. When Morgan bet his firms’ capital on the Brazilian coffee boat early on in his career, he said that he wasn’t worried about the risk from the investment. His only risk, he maintained, was in misjudging the captain’s character. Entrepreneurs must gather all available knowledge to make wise financial decisions, but it will come to nothing if the people they surround themselves with do not have integrity.
10) Leave a legacy. How will you be remembered? While J.P Morgan has been portrayed as one of the worst of the so-called ‘robber barons,’ he was also a great philanthropist and charitable giver. Morgan was passionate about art of all kinds and collected thousands of artifacts, the vast majority of which he donated to museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. His legacy extends beyond financial gifts — he also spent decades serving as trustee, board member, and committee member for a wide variety of causes and charities.
Although J.P. Morgan’s reputation was far from unsullied — much of America believed he wielded too much power and had too great an influence on the economy — he is a remarkable example of what an entrepreneur can attain with hard work, discipline, and a laser focus on his or her goals. Today’s Africa is much like the America of J.P. Morgan’s time. With courage and fortitude, aspiring entrepreneurs will make a lasting impact on our great African continent.
Zimbabwe-born Martin Ganda is a Africa focused financier. He is co-author of National Bestseller I Will Always Write Back
Biography.com Editors. J.P Morgan biography. The Biography.com website. Retrieved from http://www.biography.com/people/jp-morgan-9414735.
Chernow, R. (1990). The house of Morgan: An American banking dynasty and the rise of modern finance. New York, New York: Grove Press.
Ingham, J. (1983). Biographical dictionary of American business leaders. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.