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The 10 Greatest Entrepreneurs

Investopedia logoInvestopedia 26-09-2016

There is a tough truth that any small business owner has to face. Even in the best of times the vast majority of small businesses fail. In this slideshow, we'll look at ten entrepreneurs who not only succeeded, but built vast business empires.

1. John D. Rockefeller

© AP Images

Industry: Oil refining

Company: Standard Oil (broken up by antitrust, now Exxon, Conoco, etc.)

Bio: Rockefeller's big idea was to enter the oil business mid-production, giving up the thrill and huge returns of well exploration for the steady returns and economies of scale in refining. His use of R&D to make the most of "waste" by-products created useful compounds that gave him an edge. Later, the sheer size of Standard Oil was all the edge he needed as he squeezed out competitors by selling fuel to the consumer at the lowest possible price. 

2. Andrew Carnegie

© AP Images

Industry: Steel

Company: Carnegie Steel (bought up and folded into U.S. Steel)

Bio: Andrew Carnegie loved efficiency. Carnegie's mills were always on the leading edge of technology. In every economic downturn, Carnegie snapped up competing mills as well as companies on other levels of production. He renovated the older mills up to modern standards and was back to out-producing and out-profiting his remaining competitors whenever the economy recovered. 

3. Thomas Edison

© AP Images

Industry: Research and development

Company: Edison General Electric, Edison Illuminating Company, etc. (now GE or still companies with Edison in the title)

Bio: Most inventors are remembered for one innovation. Edison, by making invention a business and using mass production to distribute the results, has put his name to thousands of innovations that we use every day and inspired millions more by his systematic approach to R&D. His name can still be seen all over the world – GE, after all, is merely Edison writ small.

4. Henry Ford

Industry: Automotives

Company: Ford

Bio: When we look at the few big players dominating the automotive industry now, it is easy to forget that in 1905 there were more than 50 start-ups in America alone. What separated Henry Ford's company was that it was the only company trying to build a car for the everyman rather than the wealthy classes. Henry Ford put America - not just the rich - on wheels, and unleashed the power of mass production in the bargain. 

5. Charles Merrill

Industry: Investment Banking

Company: Merrill, E.A. Pierce and Co. (part of Bank of America now)

Bio: A proponent of "people's capitalism" – offering the financial services usually reserved for the rich to regular investors – Merrill set out to gain back Main Street's trust after the Crash of 1929. Merrill demystified the workings of his firm, publishing the "ten commandments" in a 1949 annual report. It was a public guarantee that the firm would conduct itself in a way that met the demands and dispelled the fears of its clients. Merrill is credited with both realizing and coining the phrase, "Bringing Wall Street to Main Street." 

6. Sam Walton

© Reuters

Industry: Retail

Company: Wal-Mart

Bio: Sam Walton's rural focus posed challenges in both warehousing and shipping, so he built huge warehouses in areas between several stores. Walton's shipments to the warehouse were much larger than they would have been to any single store, allowing him to save on shipping costs through volume discounts from suppliers. The stores then passed these cost savings on to customers, making a very small profit on each sale but making up for it by a huge volume of sales. Cost consciousness, a commitment to increasing efficiency, and the ability to negotiate volume discounts with suppliers gave Wal-Mart a pricing edge that few retailers have yet to match.

7. Charles Schwab

© AP Images

Industry: Discount Broker

Company: Charles Schwab

Bio: When the SEC moved away from fixed-rate commissions, Charles Schwab & Co. began offering discount brokerage services to any investor who wanted to buy or sell a stock. Schwab changed the structure of his company to streamline costs to justify the discounted rate. Gone were the research, advice and bonuses. In their place was a salaried staff executing orders via an automated computer system. Schwab democratized investing, making it as easy and affordable for individual investors to make and lose money in the market as it is for the large institutions. 

8. Walt Disney

Industry: Entertainment

Company: Disney

Bio: Disney created a character inspired by the mice that roamed his office, Mickey Mouse, and made him the hero of "Steamboat Willie" in 1928. The commercial success of Mickey Mouse allowed Disney to create a cartoon factory with teams of animators, musicians and artists. Over the following decades his company became an entertainment empire with one of the strongest brand names in business. 

9. Bill Gates

© AP Images

Industry: Software

Company: Microsoft

Bio: Bill Gates is best known for being one of the richest men on the planet and founder of Microsoft. However, it wasn't a superior level of technology helped him and his company establish a near-perfect dominance over the OS market, but Gates' business acumen and cutthroat competitiveness. Rather paying out his company's profits to shareholders, Gates built a huge war chest that helped Microsoft survive anti-trust lawsuits and carve out new markets. The decision proved the right one, as Microsoft's emergency fund saw it survive through bubbles and markets that saw its rivals flounder.

10. Steve Jobs

© AP Images

Industry: Computers, music, phones and so on

Company: Apple

Bio: Unlike most of the others on this list, it's possible that Steve Jobs' greatest achievements are yet unwritten. Jobs co-founded Apple, the only tech company to offer a significant challenge to Microsoft's dominance. In contrast to Gates' methodical expansion, Jobs' influence on Apple has been one of creative bursts. Apple was a computer company when Jobs returned to it. Now, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad are the engines of growth. When Apple surpassed Microsoft's market cap in 2010, it became clear that investors that, with Jobs, the best is yet to come. 


Entrepreneurs play an extremely important role in the economy. They identify places where their capital, both cash and sweat, can create or improve upon a market or product. In return for the uncommon risks they take on, however, these entrepreneurs have a shot at uncommonly high rewards. These ten succeeded by giving the customer something better, faster and cheaper than their nearest competitor. No doubt, some like Rockefeller will always be on these lists, but there is plenty of room for the right person to find their place among the entrepreneur's pantheon.

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