Home Insights & Advice N’Gunu Tiny on US banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller’s legacy

N’Gunu Tiny on US banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller’s legacy

18th Nov 21 3:26 pm

Among the people throughout history who inspire N’Gunu Tiny for various reasons is David Rockefeller.

US banker, philanthropist and art collector David Rockefeller was the longest-lived member of the third generation of this iconic family.

When he died in March 2017, David Rockefeller was 102 years old and left behind an estimated $3.3 billion. Here’s a closer look at his fascinating life and legacy.

David Rockefeller’s influence on banking, art and politics

David Rockefeller was the family’s leading figure from 2004 until his death, as the fifth (and youngest) son of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and his father John D Rockefeller Jr.

Born in 1915, David Rockefeller grew up in what was the tallest skyscraper in New York City, at 10 West 54th Street. His five siblings, all older than him, were Winthrop, Nelson, Laurance, John III and Abby.

By 1936, David Rockefeller had graduated with the highest honours from Harvard. During his time at the prestigious university, he took on the role of editor of its magazine, The Harvard Crimson.

Unsurprisingly, he majored in economics and spent a year at LSE (the London School of Economics). It was at this establishment that he first became friends with JFK.

In 1940, a PhD followed from the University of Chicago and David was ready to join the world of work. His first role was as secretary to the Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, in an internship role.

Post-war years spent on expanding Chase Bank and the Rockefeller interests

In 1943, David Rockefeller enlisted as an Officer and two years later had made Captain after serving in France and North Africa. After the war, he joined Chase National Bank, an institution that had long been associated with the Rockefeller dynasty. At the time of his appointment, the Chairman was Uncle Winthrop W Aldrich.

Chase Bank dealt with massive corporate clients like General Electric and was heavily entrenched with financing the oil sector. In 1955, the bank became the Chase Manhattan Bank and changed its focus to consumer banking. Today, of course, it’s called JPMorgan Chase.

From his starting position as assistant manager in the foreign department, David Rockefeller made his way through many positions while maintaining a massive network of contacts from other banks worldwide. By 1960, he was President, and between 1969 and 1980 served as both CEO and Chairman.

Rockefeller helped to craft the global economic system

Rockefeller’s achievements over these years were huge. Chase became a central part of the global financial system because of its vast network of correspondent institutions.

It was the first American bank to open a branch in the USSR when Chase Manhattan started an office in Moscow in 1973. He also expanded out into China that year.

David Rockefeller also led the way to expand the bank’s considerable influence over many major corporations from different sectors. There were tricky years during the mid 1970s when Rockefeller was accused of being overseas too often, and the bank endured more problem loans than any other.

While its earnings fell between 1974 and 1976, Rockefeller turned it around and restored the bank’s finances to robust health by the time he stepped down as Chairman in 1981.

The political influence of David Rockefeller was wide ranging

Rockefeller was no stranger to controversy, particularly with regards to his political involvement. He was a huge traveller and befriended an enormous number of world leaders. Often, he was used as an unofficial emissary on state business.

Foreign leaders he could count as more than passing acquaintances include Dwight D Eisenhower, Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev and Saddam Hussein. He was even offered Bobby Kennedy’s seat in the Senate following his assassination in 1968.

He declined this and went on to also reject the job of US Secretary of the Treasury, which President Carter offered him. Rockefeller sustains criticism for his willingness to work with pretty much any leader if it meant advancing the cause of Chase Bank.

In the mid-60s, David Rockefeller linked up with other major US business leaders to launch the not-for-profit International Executive Service Group. It aimed to help developing countries promote corporate enterprise.

He also launched the Partnership for New York City in 1979, which was another non-profit for businessmen. He advised Boris Yeltsin on Russia’s banking system and worked on the Council of the Americas to support economic growth in the Americas.

He worked with President Clinton to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 1994 and continued to play a major role in the world’s economic growth for many years.

Philanthropy and family trusts

Internally, he also totally restructured the business and philanthropic dealings of the Rockefeller family. He worked with his brothers at the Rockefeller Centre to make the right decisions – his notes from all of these meetings are now in the family archive and will one day be released.

All of his brothers had died by 2004, leaving David Rockefeller as the patriarch of the family. He ensured that later generations of the dynasty would be part of the family’s business dealings. Back in 1940, all of the third-generation siblings (including the one sister!) had formed the Rockefeller Brothers Trust. In 1967, the Rockefeller Family Fund was also set up.

In 2005, David Rockefeller underscored his family’s lifelong love of an investment in fine arts with a donation of $100 million to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Other philanthropic endeavours included $100 million to Rockefeller University, $10 million to Harvard University.

A year later, he pledged the enormous amount of $225 million to go to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund on his death. By far the biggest bequest to the Fund, the money has gone to the David Rockefeller Global Development Fund to fight against poverty and support international trade and finance.

Still very much alive and kicking in 2008, David Rockefeller donated a further $100 million to Harvard. According to the New York Times, David’s lifetime charitable donations added up to about $900 million.

Legacy and inspiration for the next generation of Rockefellers

The Rockefeller banking dynasty undoubtedly shaped the market for Modern art, with the second-generation spending millions on Ming and Kangxi porcelain collections from JP Morgan’s collection. David’s wife Abby began astutely collecting contemporary art from the 1920s.

They were also co-founders of MoMA, and they set out to create the Modern art market by legitimising all kinds of art that were initially considered unsavoury. This includes almost every major artist you can think of, from Picasso to Monet, Kirchner, Cezanne and Klee.

David and Abby passed these tastes on to their children, who bought an early Rothko for $9000 in 1960. When it went to auction in 2007, this painting sold for an astonishing $72.8 million. While making money is always a priority for a banker, it’s interesting that the art that the early Rockefellers collected was not thought to be of great value at the time. David and his wife Abby had a huge impact on today’s art market.

N’Gunu Tiny is CEO and Chairman of Emerald Group, an international investment company with a focus on financial inclusion in the developing world.

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