Like the Rockefellers and the Kennedys, the Kochs are one of the most influential dynasties of the modern age, but they have never been the subject of a major biography... until now.
Not long after the death of his father, Charles Koch, then in his early 30s, discovered a letter the family patriarch had written to his sons. "You will receive what now seems to be a large sum of money," Fred Koch cautioned. "It may either be a blessing or a curse."
Fred's legacy would become a blessing and a curse to his four sons - Frederick, Charles, and fraternal twins David and Bill - who in the ensuing decades fought bitterly over their birthright, the oil and cattle-ranching empire their father left behind in 1967. Against a backdrop of scorched-earth legal skirmishes, Charles and David built Koch Industries into one of the largest private corporations in the world - bigger than Boeing and Disney - and they rose to become two of the wealthiest men on the planet.
Influenced by the sentiments of their father, who was present at the birth of the John Birch Society, Charles and David have spent decades trying to remake the American political landscape and mainline their libertarian views into the national bloodstream. They now control a machine that is a center of gravity within the Republican Party. To their supporters, they are liberating America from the scourge of Big Government. To their detractors, they are political "contract killers", as David Axelrod, President Barack Obama's chief strategist, put it during the 2012 campaign.
Bill, meanwhile, built a multi-billion dollar energy empire all his own, and earned notoriety as an America's Cup-winning yachtsman, a flamboyant playboy, and as a litigious collector of fine wine and Western memorabilia. Frederick lived an intensely private life as an arts patron, refurbishing a series of historic homes and estates.
Sons of Wichita traces the complicated lives and legacies of these four tycoons, as well as their business, social, and political ambitions. No matter where you fall on the ideological spectrum, the Kochs are one of the most influential dynasties of our era, but so little is publicly known about this family, their origins, how they make their money, and how they live their lives. Based on hundreds of interviews with friends, relatives, business associates, and many others, Sons of Wichita is the first major biography about this wealthy and powerful family - warts and all.
©2014 Daniel Schulman (P)2014 Hachette Audio
I am an avid eclectic reader.
I could hardly stop listening; the author grabbed my attention and held it all the way to the end of the book. It is amazing how much information Daniel Schulman has been able to gather about the Koch family, from public records, newspaper reports and court documents. The family refused to be interviewed for the book. Schulman starts with Fred Koch who was born in 1900 and grew up in Quanah, Texas, son of a Dutch immigrant. His father was a printer who brought a printing press to Quanah and established a newspaper. Fred worked at various jobs and worked his way through school. He graduated for M.I.T. in engineering. He invested three hundred dollars and started a company providing the needs of oil refineries. He built this into a multi-million dollar company. He married a Kansas City debutant Mary Robinson. They had four sons Frederick, Charles, twins David and William. Fred worked the boys hard and had the boys compete against each other. They attended boarding schools and M.I.T. except Frederick who attended Harvard with a degree in the arts. Fred was a founding member of the John Birch Society. He taught Charles his political view point but Charles eventually became a member of Libertarian party. Frederick never worked in the company business and had very little to do with the family. He lived in New York City or London restoring old historical buildings, and is a collector and patron of the arts. Charles, David and Bill worked in the company until Bill broke away and brought many lawsuits against the family. Bill built his own engineering company which is now a multi-billion dollar business. Charles and David took the business over from the father and built it into a multi-billion dollar business. Schulman had done a good job assembling everything known about the Koch’s into a single straight forward, understandable account. The author leaves out no confirmable damming detail particularly about the Koch Industries indifference to environmental and safety matters. The Koch’s Libertarian belief about small or no government appeared to have made them think they did not have to adhere to laws that interfered with their business. After they lost the lawsuits from the EPA they did change the way they ran the company and started to adhere to all laws. Schulman interviewed employees to gather information about Charles’s “Market Based Management” system. The author points out that the Koch’s donate not only to the Republican Party but also to selected Democrats as well. The brothers individually and with the Family Foundation donate heavily to the arts and medical research. I felt the author presented a well balanced, well researched report about the Koch family. Allen O’Reilly did a good job narrating the book.
The most interesting part of this book was hearing about the Koch Brothers' father and their upbringing. Unfortunately, so much of the focus is on the scandalous in-fighting that there is very little time spent on the business and the intelligence and drive of Charles and David. While I learned a few interesting factoids about the brothers, it got tiresome listening to fight after fight, lawsuit after lawsuit, family vs. family.
I'll admit it, I cringe whenever I see or think of the Koch Brothers, however I listened to an interview with the author and thought what the heck. It's a great story - humanizes these guys along with the rest of the clan - and let's you see where their belief system comes from. I even agree with them in a couple of areas, which kind of shocked me. I still don't like what they do politically, but I'm glad I listened to the book. I think both people that admire and dislike them will find it interesting.
Very well done storytelling. You get a real feel for the way these folks are motivated and their interactions with each other. Easy to listen to and follow with great interest. Illuminating and provocative, a must read no matter your preconceptions.
The family dynamics were the most interesting.
Very difficult to say there were so many.
I wish I had the time but yes.
Interesting but not gripping. Gives some insight into a powerful family. In the end it drags. Valuable source for contemporary history.
This is a fascinating study on the human experiences that contribute to an individuals/families world view. Contrary to other reviews, posted on this site, I feel the author went out of his way to avoid leaning toward any political bias.
The least appreciated member of the family is the role Mary R. Koch, Fred’s wife and the boys’ mother, played in keeping the family from tarring itself apart following the death of Fred. It was her unifying influence saved this family from self-destruction. No matter how the boys scrapped it stopped when in their mother’s home
Yes! It made me both admire the Koch's and feel apprehensive about them.
Whether the listener will like this book or not will depend on two major factors. One can the listener suspend any adverse reaction he or she may have to the Koch’s current political activity. Two whether the listener can view the material in the same way they watch J.R. Ewing in Dallas, Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, or Bick Benedict & Jett Rink in the film Giant. All of these archetypal film/TV series deal with sometimes ruthless men who have had to struggle and compete to build their economic / political / publishing empires. When these men reach their zenith of power they inevitably sow the seeds of their own destruction by wheedling their power without compassion convinced that the truth they learned in life is the only truth that counts. While listening to this book about the Koch family I found myself thinking of all three of these “fictional families” and characters.
HISTORY: In 1967, Fred Chase Koch, died at age 67, leaving his 4 sons with a lot of money to start their lives. Was it a blessing or a curse? Fred, an immigrant’s son, was a self-made man as he came from rags to become one of the wealthiest men in Kansas. He originally settled in Wichita Kansas in 1925 forming his first business Winkler-Koch Engineering Company. They developed a more efficient way of “cracking” oil and making gasoline. Heavy litigation by bigger oil companies nearly drove him out of business. He won the law suits but it was a hollow victory financially. He took the company international and built refineries in the Soviet Union, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. It is there he made his family fortune. In 1932 he made the most important decision of his life. He married Mary Clementine Robinson. Her father founded University of Kansas School of Medicine in Wichita. From this union sprang Fred Koch’s four sons. In 1940, the year his twin sons were born, Fred joined new partners creating Wood River Oil and Refining Company, which today is known as Koch Industries. Fred died November 17, 1967 and the company passes to his four sons who were ages 34 (Fredrick), 32 (Charles) and the twins (David and William) were 27.
Fred, as father and mentor, shaped his sons in the early years to be fiercely competitive. Two of the boys, Charles, the second son, and David, the third son, took the imprint of competitor to heart and merged it with their souls. Together, with single minded focus and constant frugal reinvestment, they built a business that dwarfed their father’s holdings. William, David’s twin brother, appreciates how to compete and initially worked well with Charles and David but also appreciates the finer things in life. After a litigious buyout of his interest by Charles and David, William took his money and built a separate energy company worth millions and enjoyed a life style of a playboy and sportsman. Charles, David, and William all attended MIT, Fred’s Alma mater, and got engineering degrees like their Dad. Charles, David, and William all took positions within the founder Fred’s company and learned the company from the bottom up. Fred fast tracked the boys through the various levels of the company so they would understand the guts of the company he had built. And then there was Fredrick; as the eldest son he set his own rebellious path by attending Harvard and he got a degree in the arts. After that he enlisted in the U.S. Navy serving on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. Upon return to civilian life, he enrolled at the Yale School of Drama. He received an M.F.A. degree from the school in 1961. As a result of this Fredrick never underwent the ground up apprenticeship his brothers did. He became a patron of the arts and refurbished notable homes that had fallen into disrepair and neglect. In essence, at heart, Fredrick became a consumer and displayer of wealth rather than the conservator and accumulator of wealth and power as his three other brothers did. Fredrick seems to have a sense of entitlement, which may come from being the eldest sibling, and a deep ceded suspicion that his brothers were out to cheat him when valuing the price of his stock when they bought him out. Whereas the brothers seem to resent Fredrick’s desire to share equally in the mega company Charles, David and William built without putting in the hard work it took to grow the company larger than the one they inherited from their father. This all played out in a decade’s long legal struggle over the distribution of the family fortune Fred left his wife and 4 sons. During this struggle for control of the company sometimes William was an ally of Fredrick and sometimes be his opponent. This friction contributed to William deciding to cash out and go his own way and form his own company.
The least appreciated member of the family is the role Mary R. Koch, Fred’s wife and the boys’ mother, played in keeping the family from tarring itself apart following the death of Fred. It was her unifying influence saved this family from self-destruction. No matter how the boys scrapped it stopped when in their mother’s home.
POLITICS: Politically, the family founder, Fred, was very conservative. In 1928 he did business in Joseph Stalin Soviet Union and developed strong anti-communist sentiments from that experience. He was a founding member of the John Birch Society. This and other factors resulted in some very nasty press along the way which engendered Fred’s abhorrence to publicity which he passed on to his children. That is why the Koch brothers are all adverse to publicity to this day; unless it is for some philanthropic activity through their Family Foundation. The family refused to be interviewed by the author for this biographical portrait of the founder and sons of the Koch dynasty.
Fred’s political views were transferred to his son Charles in his involvement in the Libertarian Party. In 1980 David Koch ran as vice-president on the Libertarian Party ticket. He lost! . . . Since then Charles has been the puppet master by sponsoring think tanks, endowing educational chairs with strings, and provided financial support to mostly Republicans and some Democrats who embrace liberation precepts of small government keeping out of the way of business. Some of the organizations they underwrite are Koch family foundations, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Americans for Prosperity, David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Bill of Rights Institute.
PHILOSOPHY: Libertarian philosophy, to my mind, have this idealized view of a level playing field; where stout hearted individual workers can, fairly and without government or union interference, contract with individual employers. The result is a fair market value wage for the skill set offered. In an ideal world that is fair and inhabited by angles, this might work in theory, but it is naïve to think this functions well where parties are motivated on either or both sides by greed, dishonesty, or lack of conscience. The Koch’s bring this naïve view to the area of government regulation in the area of commonly held resources, like the environment. If farmer x sells the Koch’s a right-of-way through his land to put a leaky oil pipeline on it what skin is it off farmer x neighbors nose if the land is then spoiled. To this naïve view I agree with James Madison when he wrote, “If men were angles, no government would be necessary.” The Koch brothers are many things but I don't think anyone would accuse them of being angles. Charles and David are like beautiful tigers. Just because the tigers are beautifully magnificent and good to look at, it does not mean I want to be embraced by them and prefer the bars of government to restrain the tiger’s nature. Libertarians argue that the bars are not needed. It impairs market forces. What is naïve about their view that the ground is level is the assumption that all competitors are of equal strength, and that market forces are sufficient to restrain larger or stronger groups from dominating and despoiling weaker groups. Finally they assume everyone will act in accord with their better angles or be free to simply take their economic ball and go find someone else to play with. This is not always possible.
HISTORY: The above philosophical view caused Koch Industries to run into a battle with the EPS which they lost. Following that battle Charles used what he calls Market Based Management (MBM) to determine that Koch Industries were too heavily invested in pipelines. He did not adequately assess or allocate the cost of maintenance of the asset pipeline rightly. By squeezing out every dime of profit from it by cutting maintenance to the bare minimum a disaster followed that prompted the EPA action. As a result of MBM they disinvested the pipelines portion of the business to avoid the liability from future catastrophic failure. Market Based Management works well to maximize profits only if your world view does not prevents you from appreciating the risk one assumes in certain dangerous industrial activities.
SUMMARY: The author successfully presents a well-balanced portrait of the family members. It highlights those qualities that the brothers share as well as those that divide them; those qualities which are altruistic and beneficial to the public good like their philanthropy to the arts and medical science; and those qualities that are more self-interested and are less concerned with public good over privet profit. I find this creates an interesting Yin/Yang dynamic. The Yang of privet ruthless profit makes the Yin of benefactor philanthropy possible. It reminds me of the Carnegie Foundation established by Andrew Carnegie to burnish his image of ruthless steel industrialist after he had worn all the marbles in the monopolistic early industrial age when he cashed out and set up his foundation that built half the public libraries in this country as well as Carnegie Hall. Bill and Melinda Gates as well as Warren Buffett appear to be following this model. There is much to admire in rich people that turn their talents to public benefit. There is also much to be apprehensive about when the rich try through purchased influence and campaigns designed to hood wink citizens into removing the bars that separate our collective necks from their furry muzzle and teeth. My only question is when will the Koch family feel enough money is enough money and switch over to full time philanthropy? Will they do it in time before they utter “Rosebud”?
The book is a great listen, the material is well researched, the narrator’s voice is present on the ear, and not taxing to hear over time. I recommend that you take a tour of this Koch family zoo and decide which one, if any, of the Koch family tiger cubs you would want to climb into the cage with.
Faced with mindless duty, when an audio book player slips into a rear pocket and mini buds pop into ears, old is made new again.
Three of the four Koch brothers are business men, driven by the arithmetic of life. The Koch brothers are tough-minded, intelligent, well-educated engineers (the eldest son, Frederick, is an art collector with a BA in Humanities from Harvard).Daniel Schulman recounts details of the Koch brothers’ lives that make one admire the Koch brother’s strengths and fear their weaknesses.
As a listener is titillated by Schulman’s stories of each of the brothers, one is reminded of Joseph Kennedy Senior’s biography (“The Patriarch”) and Kennedy’s determination that no circumstance justifies America’s entry into WWII. Kennedy’s underlying belief was that German atrocity is a matter of arithmetic not politics.
Kennedy believed Hitler’s Germany could be contained like any unfair business conglomerate that fails to follow the rules of corporate competition. Schulman’s characterization suggests Charles Koch would have agreed with Kennedy’s assessment of Hitler and that America made a mistake in entering the war. To both Kennedy and Koch, American entry to the war makes no economic sense when calculating profit and loss; i.e. the only arithmetic intelligent and driven businessmen depend upon. Charles Koch, like Joseph Kennedy, is the patriarch of the Koch family. Charles is the family business’s leader, the CEO of Koch Industries.
Schulman infers Charles Koch believes a plutocracy of industrialists, managed by the principles of market driven self-interest, will cure the maladies of American society. The arithmetic of business fails to address the nature of human beings. Creating jobs and wealth does not raise all boats; i.e. jobs and wealth are quantifiable variables in a sea of unquantifiable human’ needs. Human nature may change over time but only when, or if, humans reach a level of belief, and action “to do for others as you would have them do to you”. Until human nature is rid of lying, greed, lust etc., etc. , something more than market driven self-interest is required to advance society.
In the end, one concludes from Schulman’s fascinating book, the Koch brothers are neither devils nor angels; just humans with extraordinary abilities, tenacity, and luck. One’s fear comes from their delusion in believing the arithmetic of free enterprise is a panacea for society.
Family, money, power
William, one of the twins--he had 5 children with 4 women, and 3 wives. He had serious issues with his brothers and it seemed to taint his entire life. I wanted to know more about what was going on inside his head.
No extreme reaction except that I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.
Flows well. Great story, would definitely recommend it. A story about a little known dynasty and it is composed well.
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