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Stephen Harkness: a Silent Partner of Standard Oil

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By Phin Upham

When John Rockefeller decided to get into the oil business earnestly, he had a partner by the name of Maurice Clark. Clark and Rockefeller had worked together since John’s early years as an assistant bookkeeper. When John struck out on his own for the first time in the produce business, it was Clark’s capital that gave him the boost he needed to get started.

Rockefeller eventually bought Clark’s shares out and decided to expand. Legislation at the time made it difficult for a single company to try and do business outside of the state where it was incorporated, so John went to visit his brother William in Cleveland.

William had already gotten a start with a young chemist named Samuel Andrews. John arrived and contacted an old acquaintance. He’d worked with a man named Henry Flagler when he was in the produce business, and recalled the man’s interest in business. So the two spoke and a loan of $100,000 was arranged. Except that money belonged to a family member of Flagler’s, a man named Stephen Harkness.

Harkness already had interests in oil, which is where most of his wealth had come from. He’d already founded his own bank, and was a resident of Millionaires Row in Cleveland. Harkness had no interest in becoming a public face for the company, but he did want to be involved. His man Flagler would be something of a mouthpiece, but Flagler’s interest was genuine as well.

The two men formed a partnership, with Flagler agreeing to the condition that he be the public partner. But Harkness’ story doesn’t end with the loan. He remained actively involved with Standard Oil until his death in 1888.


About the Author: Phin Upham is an investor at a family office/ hedgefund, where he focuses on special situation illiquid investing. Before this position, Phin Upham was working at Morgan Stanley in the Media and Telecom group. You may contact Phin on his Phin Upham website or Twitter page.

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