DEFINITION of 'Tycoon'

A tycoon is a prominent figure in a particular industry who has amassed substantial wealth and power while building a business empire. Tycoons are often associated with key industries, such as steel, railroads, oil and mining. The word tycoon is based on "taikun," a Japanese term used to describe shoguns.


Using the word tycoon as it relates to business owners became popular during the Industrial Revolution when small-scale manufacturing gave way to mechanized manufacturing on an industrial scale. Tycoons were both popularized and demonized during the Gilded Age, and public opinion on the business practices of tycoons led to regulation of child labor and monopolies.

During the Gilded Age, some of the richest men in the world gained wealth through adept business deals that created huge companies that dominated the American economy. John D. Rockefeller was the world's first billionaire thanks to the fledgling oil industry of the 1860s and shrewd acquisitions. Rockefeller diversified his oil holdings by refining one product into several, including kerosene for lamps, paraffin for candles and petroleum jelly to medical supply companies.

Andrew Carnegie built his wealth as a steel magnate through a series of good investments. When Carnegie needed a way to transport iron ore from mines, he purchased a railroad company. The steel was sold to companies that manufactured railroads, train cars, ships and automobiles. In 1901, Carnegie sold U.S. Steel to banking tycoon J.P. Morgan for $500 million.

Contemporary Tycoons

Plenty of men and women rose to tycoon status in the late 20th century. Bill Gates founded Microsoft in the 1970s, and his technology company took off in the 1990s as personal computers became more affordable. Gates's personal wealth topped $54 billion in the early 2000s.

Oprah Winfrey amassed her fortune through her popular television talk show that inspired millions of people thanks to her daily conversations on topics such as spirituality, literature and health. Winfrey also interviewed several celebrities over the course of her show. She had earned more than $900 million in net worth by the start of the 21st century.

George Lucas, much like Winfrey, built his empire around entertainment. The creator of "Star Wars" earned billions of dollars through his series of movies and the special effects company he owned. In 2012, Lucas sold his "Star Wars" franchise, under the name Lucasfilm Ltd., to the Walt Disney Company.

Warren Buffett, nicknamed the Oracle of Omaha, frequently comes up as one of the world's wealthiest men. He is the head of investment firm Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett's billions and decades of wealth are due to savvy investments in other companies. In 2013, Buffett bought H. J. Heinz for $28 billion, and he made investments in Duracell and Kraft in 2015.