Country of origin: Northern Ireland
Year came to U.S.: 1818
Education: Western University of Pennsylvania
(now University of Pittsburgh)
Business: BNY Mellon (1870)
Headquarters: New York, NY
2019 revenue: $20.8 billion
Worldwide employment: 48,400
Ranked 159 in the 2020 Fortune 500
Mellon rejected a life on the farm in favor of law and business.
His sons, Richard and Andrew, became two of the richest Americans in history.
Thomas Alexander Mellon made a life-change decision when he was 17 years old. He ran 10 miles to stop his father from buying a neighboring farm.
Why? Mellon didn’t want to work a plow for the rest of his life.
Instead, Mellon would go on to be ranked among the wealthiest and most prominent industrialists in the United States by the time he died on his 95th birthday.
Born to farmers in Northern Ireland, things were little different for Mellon after his family settled on a farm in the aptly named Poverty Point, Pennsylvania. Mellon’s fate appeared to be sealed. As his autobiography states, he was distracted by the “wealth and magnificence” of the mansions of Pittsburgh.
At age 14 he read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and was inspired by his rags-to-riches story. At 17, he quit the farm for the classroom, then for his own law firm and finally a decade-long judicial career. It was shrewd investments, however, that led to an early retirement from the judge’s chambers. He bought up coal fields and Pittsburgh real estate so he could open T. Mellon and Sons’ Bank in 1870. Mellon erected a near life-size statue of Benjamin Franklin over the door of the bank building.
Mellon passed on his business acumen to his sons. By age 21, his son Tom had earned $100,000 operating a nursery, lumber yard and construction supply business. Andrew and his brother Richard went on to rank among the wealthiest people in U.S. history, together amassing $96 billion in 2008 dollars. They began the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research in 1913 in honor of their father. It would later merge with the Carnegie Institute of Technology, founded by fellow immigrant entrepreneur Alexander Carnegie, to form Carnegie Mellon University.
Today, the renamed BNY Mellon is a global financial services company with $1.7 trillion in assets under management.