Robert Gordon’s story of outsmarting his competition is made of the stuff legends are made of: a deck stacked against the hero, who is nevertheless clever enough to prevail. Robert was born into slavery and managed to purchase his freedom nearly twenty years before the end of slavery, a noteworthy feat requiring financial finagling in and of itself. But that’s just where Robert’s story begins.
As a slave, Robert managed a coal yard. He showed such promise and was such a good manager that his owner gave him all of the slack as a token of his appreciation. Robert saved the slack and sold it where he could profit off of it, such as to blacksmiths. He was able to save up enough money to buy his freedom and take $15,000 to Ohio.
Robert had enough money to invest in his own coal yard in Cincinnati in 1847. It was a profitable industry and the white competition was not pleased to give Robert a market share. Ohio may have been a more welcoming place for a former slave compared to other states, but the wealthy coal distributors were outraged that Robert was able to draw their business away.
The white distributors decided to run Robert out of business. Together, they slashed the price of coal and offered it for much less than it was worth. The established coal yards believed that Robert would be forced to lower the price of his coal as well. Robert was young and new to the industry, so the competition did not believe he would be able to sustain his business without making a profit.
Robert lowered his prices as well and the white community waited for him to shudder his doors. The winter of 1847 came and it was particularly bitter. It was so cold that the Ohio River froze and coal was scarce. Every coal yard in town was struggling without the money needed to get more coal because they had been selling their coal at a loss for so long. Every coal yard except one: Robert’s.
Robert outsmarted his competition. He knew what they were doing when they lowered their prices, and he hired people to go purchase cheap coal from the competitors. Then, he began selling this coal at the cheaper rate while keeping his entire coal reserve in tact. That winter, Robert’s coal yard was so successful that the white coal distributors knew that they had been beat and never tried to run Robert out of business again. At his death, Robert was worth over $200,000 or the equivalent of about $5 million today.
Being successful in business means watching and understanding what’s happening in your industry, being flexible in your approach, and being willing to keep at it until you see the results you’re reaching for. Robert Gordon didn’t let the wealthy white businessmen intimidate him. He just set out to be the better businessman, and beat them at their own game.