A visionary with the radical idea of pursuing wealth for its own sake, John Fugger is credited as the man who invented modern capitalism.
Bill Gates. Carlos Slim Helu, Warren Buffett, Amancio Ortega, and Larry Ellison. These are the top five names on Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires. Historically, the names Rothschild, Carnegie and Rockefeller are the gold standards signifying wealth. But there is one name that towers above them all: Jacob Fugger (rhymes with “cougar”). His name may not be as popularly known as modern history’s masters of wealth, but without him, but he certainly paved the way for their epic success stories.
His own is told in a new book, “The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger” by Greg Steinmetz (Simon and Schuster). Steinmetz, a former Wall Street Journal writer and currently a securities analyst in New York, has written what may be the ultimate untold story of the Renaissance-era banker who did nothing less but revolutionize the art of making money and established the radical idea of pursuing wealth for its own sake. In other words, as the book blurbs, he is credited as the man who invented modern capitalism.
“People become rich by sporting opportunities, pioneering new technologies or besting opponents in negotiations,” Steinmetz writes. “Fugger did al that but had an extra quality that lifted him to a higher orbit…he had nerve,”
A 16th-century banker from Augsburg, Germany, Fugger was a man, Steinmetz chronicles, who wrote a collection notice on a customer who was behind a loan payment; that customer was no less than emperor Charles V, then the most powerful man on earth.
One of his less up-and-up financial schemes unintentionally provoked Luther to write the epochal document, the Ninety-five Theses, that triggered the Reformation. Steinmetz writes that Fugger most likely funded Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. He was the first to send auditors to check up on branch offices. He created the first news service, whose newsletters gave him the information advantage over his rivals. “For all these reasons,” Steinmetz states, “ it is fair to call Fugger the most influential businessman of all time.”
As for the audacious boast of the title, Steinmetz writes that at the time he died, Fugger’s fortune amounted to nine percent of German GDP and two percent of European GDP. In today’s dollars, that two percent translates to $400 billion. Bill Gates, No. 1 on the most recent Forbes’ billionaire list, has $79.2 billion.
The grandson of a peasant, “The Richest Man Who Ever Lived” underscores the fundamental principles that drive individuals to the pinnacle of financial success: Hard work, intelligence and risk.
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.