26 Aug Jakob Fugger
Not a familiar household name, the Fuggers were an influential family that made a significant impact about 500 years ago. When reviewing the list of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, it’s tempting to focus only on the last 100 years or so and discount the value of studying business leaders of the distant past.
Jakob Fugger was a leading German entrepreneur of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and his influence persists to this day. Born in 1459 as the tenth of eleven children, Jakob Fugger had the advantage of wealth and privilege. His family had made their fortune over generations in the textile business when 14-year-old Jakob was called to help manage the family business in Venice.
Jakob had an aptitude for bookkeeping and was soon put in charge of the company’s accounts. He implemented the then-new practice of double-entry bookkeeping and kept a strict eye on company profits and other details.
There was a considerable amount of money to manage at this point. One of the wealthiest families in the region, the Fuggers loaned money to Frederick III, the King of Germany and the Holy Roman Emperor. Money was also loaned to a number of royals and aristocrats, and the family acted as a bank, assisting the Vatican with transferring cash.
In addition to textiles and finance, the Fuggers also opened a silver mine and financed other mining companies. Metal processing and distribution centers were established and the company’s financial dealings became more complex, contributing to a steadily increasing amount of profit. Jakob Fugger’s influence over the family business grew along with a strengthening relationship with the Vatican.
The Fuggers provided the Church with the loans it needed to build several key structures, including St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. A few years later, the Fuggers funded the formation of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard and then were also placed in charge of the Vatican mint where they supervised the striking of coins for nearly two decades. The family also started a new line of business, importing exotic spices from India.
In addition to his dedication to business and finance, Jakob Fugger was a philanthropist who donated significant amounts to a variety of churches and charities. He began funding the construction of one of Europe’s first low-income housing estates, known as the Fuggerei. This collection of small but sturdy cottages opened in 1521 and was intended as temporary housing for working families who had fallen on hard times. Amazingly, the Fuggerei still houses families today, charging less than one dollar for a year’s rent.
Though Jakob Fugger passed away in 1525, he left behind a thriving business whose momentum would continue to grow for years to come. Under the direction of other family members, the company expanded into the New World, establishing Fugger trade outposts in Mexico, Argentina, and the Caribbean.
Back in Europe, the Fugger organization remained an economic force, lending money to heads of state like King Henry VIII of England, King Frederick of Denmark, and King Henry of Portugal. Banking and finance were now the company’s top moneymakers.
Eventually, the firm went into a long downward spiral, remaining in business only because of its massive financial reserves. In 1658, the Fugger firm was officially closed through the Fugger family remained wealthy for many generations.
More than 650 years after Jakob Fugger’s family set up a weaving business in Augsburg, Germany, its influence can still be felt through the good work of the Fugger Foundation, which operates the Fuggerei and several other programs for those in need.
Jakob Fugger’s vision and financial acumen propelled his family’s business into one of the most valuable and influential enterprises in Europe. Jakob Fugger was a kingmaker and the financier behind many of Europe’s most beloved architectural and artistic treasures. In an era before telephones or electricity, when a business could only be conducted in person or on paper and information could travel no faster than a swift horse, Jakob Fugger proved that one capable entrepreneur could have an outsized impact on the world.
Jakob Fugger’s knack for numbers, bookkeeping, and finance was leveraged into a dynasty, and the family business became one of the most powerful in Europe. As his power grew, Jakob influenced the levers of power and became a literal kingmaker. Knowing your strengths and leveraging them is vital to defining and creating your success as an entrepreneur. Though we tend to think of philanthropy as a relatively new development, Jakob Fuggar’s story shows how an entrepreneurial legacy can last for centuries.