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Charles Koch is the CEO of Koch Industries, a company that was founded 75 years ago, making its name in oil and gas. Koch has grown to be the second-largest privately held company in America with 100,000 employees in more than 60 countries.
But it all started small with Charles’ father, Fred Koch.
Fred still looms large over his son’s office, with a bronzed bust and a framed painting above his desk.
A painting of Charles Koch’s father, Fred, hangs over his desk in his office. (Tommy Andres/Marketplace)
Charles and his brother David took the company over when their dad died in 1967. It was worth just north of $20 million then. Today, Forbes values it at $115 billion.
In his new book “Good Profit,” Charles talks about the strategies he used to guide the company’s growth and the business landscape today.
But he also turns to what has made him and his brother household names in the past 15 years or so: politics, and specifically, the role of government in business and society.
Kai Ryssdal spoke to Koch in his Wichita, Kansas, office, offering a rare inside look at the man who has been described as a “reclusive billionaire.”
Charles Koch (left) and David Koch at home in 1955. Charles would begin working at Rock Island Oil & Refining Company (what is now Koch Industries) in 1961 after graduating from M.I.T. with masters’ degrees in mechanical and chemical engineering. (Courtesy Koch Industries)
Charles and David begin to lead
When Charles and David took over the company, they changed the name of the business from Rock Island Oil & Refining to Koch Industries in honor of their late dad. Over the next several decades, they began to diversify, getting into everything from broadband to pizza dough. Koch said they made a lot of mistakes, but ultimately found what worked for them and what didn’t. Today the company largely trades in fossil fuels, minerals, metals, agriculture and forest products. Koch Industries still refines 600,000 barrels of oil per day.
Charles finds a Mrs. Koch
A decade after taking the reigns as CEO, Charles married his wife, Liz, in 1972. The couple has been together 43 years, but it didn’t start easy. When the couple was pouring the foundation of their first home in 1973, the house they still live in today, Koch Industries future was unclear. It was the height of the Arab oil embargo.
Charles Koch stands next to the home he and his wife, Liz, built in 1974, a year after getting married. They still live there. (Courtesy Koch Industries)
“All the markets turned upside down. We had price controls. I mean, it was, I thought we were going to go broke. And I remember sitting there with my legs hanging over into the hole in the ground, saying, “Honey, we got the money to fill this thing back up, but I don’t think we’ve got the money to finish it.”
Then, he quoted Lenin:
The Kochs raise a family
Charles and Liz raised two kids in Wichita. Elizabeth Koch is a writer and publisher, and Chase Koch works for Koch Industries. But when it comes to succession, Charles said nepotism isn’t the plan.
Charles Koch (center) with his wife Liz (left), his mother Mary (right), his daughter Elizabeth (front left) and his son Chase (front right) in 1983. Elizabeth is a writer and publisher who just launched an independent book publishing company called Catapult, and Chase works at Koch Industries. (Courtesy Koch Industries)
“I want in this company is to have a meritocracy, and division of labor by comparative advantage. That is, as I raised the kids, that is, everybody focus on where they have an aptitude and what they have a passion for. It will give them fulfillment. And so, if my son ends up being the best person to run the company, that’s great. If he’s not, he shouldn’t be….”
Brothers in political arms
David Koch, left, and Charles in 2008. (Courtesy Koch Industries)
Charles and David, known widely as “The Koch Brothers,” got into politics in the early 2000s. Even though much of their financial support has gone to the Republican Party, it was the presidency of George W. Bush that lit a fire under them to get involved.
I’ve been working in this arena for over 50 years, and for the first 40 we didn’t get into politics. Then in 2003, because of what the Bush administration was doing, we said, “Gosh, we’ve got to get involved in politics.” Increasing destructive regulations which led to the Great Recession, getting us in wars that were counter productive, and so on. In his campaign, he said a lot of things we could agree with, but then the actual practice was so different, and that’s what we find with politician after politician.
Charles said his political network will spend an estimated $750 million on the upcoming presidential campaign, backing candidates he believe will push for deregulation. His network of foundations, advocacy groups, corporations and think tanks has been called the “Kochtopus” by critics. There were reportedly more than 53,000 attack ads mentioning the Kochs in the 2014 election cycle, and Charles said he has personally received more than 150 death threats last year and that he’s on al-Qaida‘s hit list.
Charles Koch admitted he may be like Darth Vader to the left, but he said he doesn’t like politics.
What I believe is that both parties are taking us down the road to serfdom, creating this two-tiered system and heading us toward a financial crisis, but the Democrats are doing it at 100 miles an hour, and the Republicans are only doing it 70 miles an hour.