The greatest oil trader of all time, Marc Rich, lived a unique and insanely controversial life… and in Daniel Ammann’s book ‘The King of Oil,’ based on interviews with Marc Rich, his family, law enforcement and his colleagues, I got a glimpse into the entrepreneur who created the spot market’s mind; and learned how he enabled easier access to oil across the globe from a bootstrapped business. However, in the process of building his empire, Marc became America’s most wanted fugitive during a stunning turn of events. The book exposes the reader to a story of great success, heartache, strategy and incredible tribulations…
“In 1990, seven years after he was indicted in New York, he was active in 128 countries, had forty-eight offices around the globe, and employed twelve hundred people. He bought and sold 1.5 million barrels of oil each day – more than the daily average output of Kuwait. He ruled over a trading empire with an annual turnover of $30 billion…”
– Daniel Ammann – author of ‘The Secret Lives of Marc Rich – The King of Oil’
There were five valuable lessons/reminders gleaned from reading ‘The Secret Lives of Marc Rich – The King of Oil.’ Thanks to Trump’s current lawyer in the Russia probe, Rudy Giuliani, and his ferocious media campaign as Attorney for the Southern District of New York at the time, Marc Rich, albeit very controversially, became the most hated capitalist in America. This label Marc Rich was so fortunate to have been lambasted with, led to a historic $200 million tax fraud settlement nearly two decades after becoming a fugitive. So, what were the lessons learned?
Keep politics out of business: Rich’s ability to broker massive oil deals in politically unstable countries was unmatched. On their own, these deals were no problem for him to close, and that’s why he made so much money as a trader. He learned how to spot opportunities, build international relationships, and get deals done when others could not. But when he made a deal with Iran in the 1970s, and shortly after they were deemed an ‘enemy of the state’ by the United States, he justified continuing business with them to himself, likely because it was such a lucrative deal; and Rich ignored/overlooked how it would be perceived by his home country.
Whether you agree with the States’ classification or not regarding Iran, Rich was an American who was well aware of the fragility of the situation (and the controversy). He should have known that his opinion of the politics surrounding Iran was irrelevant. Knowingly, he stepped into a political hotbed of his own country’s making, and the perception was he did a deal with the enemy to rake in profits. Not surprisingly, he was instantly labeled a greedy capitalist. A label, to this day, he has never shaken.
For the everyday entrepreneur, the lesson is simple: Understand your local politics, navigate through the processes put in place by your elected officials, and realize that you are best to stay politically agnostic, at least when it comes to commerce. If you run a local grocer, for example, keep politics out of conversations with customers…
Had Marc Rich avoided pissing off his home country’s elected officials by dealing with Iran, I have no doubt he’d still be the greatest oil trader on earth.
Great entrepreneurs take on more risk than others can handle: The reason Marc Rich was able to create the spot market for oil is that he was willing to make deals with companies and governments that virtually everyone else was not – due to perceived risk.
There were instances when Rich was the only bidder to finance a country’s resource project or lend it money. Not the UN, or other governments or some huge multinational – just Rich. He saved nations from virtual insolvency by making off-take agreements for some of their commodities. As his career progressed, those countries and companies he bailed out, while making a mint in the process, came to Rich with commodity opportunities no one else was ever exposed to.
For countries such as Israel, Jamaica and South Africa, to name a few, Rich became their first call when they needed a resource deal financed (he also did humanitarian deeds for countries which they never forgot). In the end, one of those relationships helped give Rich freedom by lobbying President Clinton for his pardon. Read the book for all the juicy details.
Patience, not speed, makes people rich: We live in a world where quarterly profits trump long-term visionary goals. I’ve written about this dangerous mindset of Wall Street many times, and inevitably I believe the ‘quarterly hustle’ will trigger the next financial crisis (learn about share buybacks with debt from some of the world’s largest corporations here).
Marc Rich was exceptionally patient. You can see it in how he dealt with being a fugitive, but more importantly, how he built his multibillion-dollar trading firm from the ground up. Rich was willing to sign long-term purchase agreements with countries for their oil and other commodities when the market was awash, and there was no other bid. Rightly, he believed that commodities were cyclical and if he could weather the bear markets and find just enough buyers to stay afloat, he’d crush it in the bull market because he would have supply when everyone else didn’t. And that’s precisely what happened for him. Some of his deals took 5-6 years to pan out and make him money, but that was totally fine with him. His competition never had that kind of patience.
Morality is geographic: Marc Rich was exceptional at making deals all over the globe because he was pragmatic and non-judgemental about different cultures. He’s Jewish with a sincere appreciation for his cultural history and Israel’s existence, yet he made some of his biggest deals within Muslim nations. He went into entirely upside down countries, with bizarre (compared to North America) ways of doing business – some which would literally be classified as corrupt and possibly indictable in North America – and closed. Rich’s motto was to follow the laws and social norms of whatever nation he was in to get a deal done. He did not take his morality into foreign countries, only bringing his ability to find the opportunity and make a deal happen. No judging, just dealing.
Workaholics better prepare for family problems: Marc Rich took things to another level. He would start work at 7am and not be home until 10pm, virtually seven days a week. That’s not being much of a husband or dad, and Rich knew it. But for context, he escaped Nazi Germany as a kid and his family lost everything while fleeing. So there were some paranoias of losing it all that drove him to work obsessively.
There is a part in the book that shocked me. It read:
“She told me that Denise once complained to her that Rich made too little time for his family. “‘I don’t have any time for you during the week,’ he told her. “I can give you a half hour on Saturdays and forty-five minutes on Sundays.’”
Marc was twice divorced.
My point is, if you choose to be a workaholic, you can’t maintain a happy family life. Simple as that. Work your ass off, 12-15 hours during the day if needed, but for the love of all that is holy take at least one day off a week, dedicated to your family.
During his nearly two decades of being a fugitive from the United States government, Marc Rich was basically forced to sell the empire he had built. It inevitably became known as a company you’re probably familiar with: Glencore – one of the largest global diversified natural resource companies in the world. Visit this link to see the history of Glencore, and you’ll notice a brief mention of the entrepreneur who created the spot market, was the planet’s greatest oil trader and crafted the preeminent name in the global commodities business… while also being a fugitive from the United States government for nearly twenty years.
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