Business tycoon T. Boone Pickens dies at 91 in Dallas

  • Sep 15, 2019
  • Texas Insider

DALLAS - T. Boone Pickens, a brash and quotable oil tycoon who grew even wealthier through corporate takeover attempts, died Wednesday. He was 91.

Pickens was surrounded by friends and family when he died of natural causes under hospice care at his Dallas home, spokesman Jay Rosser said. Pickens suffered a series of strokes in 2017 and was hospitalized that July after what he called a "Texas-sized fall."

An only child who grew up in a small railroad town in Oklahoma, Pickens followed his father into the oil and gas business. After just three years, he formed his own company and built a reputation as a maverick, unafraid to compete against oil-industry giants.

“He was just a country boy from Oklahoma, but he could think his way around any Noble Prize winner,” Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis said.

In the 1980s, Pickens switched from drilling for oil to plumbing for riches on Wall Street. He led bids to take over big oil companies including Gulf, Phillips and Unocal, castigating their executives as looking out only for themselves while ignoring the shareholders.

WASHINGTON, DC - June 17, 2008: T. Boone Pickens - principal of BP Capital, testifies at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the challenges and regional solutions to developing renewable-electricity and transmission infr

Even when Pickens and other so-called corporate raiders failed to gain control of their targets, they scored huge payoffs by selling their shares back to the company and dropping their hostile takeover bids.

Former President George W. Bush said in a statement that Pickens became a household name because he was "bold, imaginative and daring."

"He was successful, and more importantly, he generously shared his success with institutions and communities across Texas and Oklahoma," Bush said. "He loved the outdoors, his country and his friends and family, and Laura and I send our condolences."

Close friend and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called Pickens a “fourth quarter guy” who achieved some of his greatest accomplishments in the latter part of his life.

“He really used his wonderful mind and wonderful resources to help a lot of people. He really is a great face of what our system is about in this country. A great face of what real imagination, real energy, unboundless look at what's around the corner, the future. He practiced it,” Jones told reporters at The Star on Wednesday afternoon.

Later in his career, Pickens championed renewable energy including wind power. He argued that the United States needed to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. He sought out politicians to support his "Pickens Plan," which envisioned an armada of wind turbines across the middle of the country that could generate enough power to free up natural gas for use in vehicles.

"I've been an oilman all my life, but this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of," he said in 2009.

Pickens' advocacy for renewable energy led to some unusual alliances. He had donated to many Republican candidates since the 1980s, and in the 2004 presidential campaign he helped bankroll television ads by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that attacked Democratic nominee John Kerry. A few years later, Pickens endorsed a Kerry proposal to limit climate change.

Pickens couldn't duplicate his oil riches in renewable energy. In 2009, he scrapped plans for a huge Texas wind farm after running into difficulty getting transmission lines approved, and eventually his renewables business failed.

"It doesn't mean that wind is dead," Pickens said at the time. "It just means we got a little bit too quick off the blocks."

Pickens flirted with marketing water from West Texas, acquiring water rights in the early 2000s in hopes of selling it to thirsty cities. But he couldn't find a buyer, and in 2011 he signed a deal with nearby regional water supplier to sell the water rights beneath 211,000 acres for $103 million.

In 2007, Forbes magazine estimated Pickens' net worth at $3 billion. He eventually slid below $1 billion and off the magazine's list of wealthiest Americans. In 2016, the magazine put his worth at $500 million.

Besides his peripatetic business and political interests, Pickens made huge donations to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University -- the football stadium bears his name, and he gave $100 million for endowed faculty positions.

"He was the ultimate Cowboy," university President Burns Hargis said in a statement. "It is impossible to calculate his full impact on Oklahoma State. His historic gifts to academics and athletics not only transformed the university, they inspired thousands of others to join in the transformation."

Pickens' foundation gave $50 million each to the University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. He was among those who signed a "giving pledge" started by billionaire investor Warren Buffet and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, promising to donate a majority of his wealth to charity.

"I firmly believe one of the reasons I was put on this Earth was to make money and be generous with it," he said on his website.

Pickens was born in 1928 in Holdenville, Oklahoma. His father was a landman, someone who secures mineral-rights leases for oil and gas drilling. His mother ran a government office that handled gasoline-rationing coupons for a three-county area during World War II.

A child of the Depression, Pickens credited his father with teaching him to take risks and praised his grandmother for lessons in being frugal. If young Boone continued to leave the lights on after leaving a room, she declared, she would hand the electric bill to the boy so he could pay it.

Pickens went to work by age 12, getting a newspaper route. He expanded it by buying the routes on either side of his -- marking his first venture into acquisitions.

Although only 5-foot-8, Pickens was a star guard on his high school basketball team in Amarillo, Texas, and earned a sports scholarship to Texas A&M University. He lost the scholarship when he broke an elbow, and he transferred to Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State.

After graduating with a degree in geology, he joined Phillips Petroleum Co., where his father, T. Boone Pickens Sr., was working. The younger Pickens was unhappy with his job from the start.

After just three years, he borrowed some money and found two investors to start his own business, called Petroleum Exploration. That was a predecessor to Mesa Petroleum, an oil and gas company in Amarillo, which Pickens took public in 1964.

By the 1980s, the stock of the major petroleum producers was so cheap that it became cheaper to get new oil reserves by taking over a company than by drilling. Pickens set his sights on acquiring other companies.

In 1984, Mesa Petroleum made a profit of more than $500 million from a hostile bid for Gulf Corp., then the fifth-largest oil company in the United States, when Gulf maneuvered to sell itself instead to Chevron. Before that, Pickens earned $31.5 million by driving Cities Service into the arms of Occidental Petroleum.

Later that year, Pickens launched a bid for his old employer, Phillips Petroleum. It was an unpopular move in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where Phillips was headquartered. Residents held 24-hour prayer vigils to support the company.

"He's only after the almighty buck," G.C. Richardson, a retired executive of Cities Services, said in 1985. "He's nothing but a pirate."

Pickens insisted that he was a friend of ordinary shareholders, who benefited when his forays caused the stock price of a company to rise.

Pickens' star faded in the 1990s. He lost control of debt-ridden Mesa, and his bullishness on natural gas prices turned out to be a costly mistake.

After leaving Mesa, Pickens in 1996 started BP Capital Management, a billion-dollar hedge fund focused on energy commodities and equities that delivered mammoth gains.

Later in life, he shifted his attention to the environment and renewable energy, trying to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.

Though his renewable business failed, the legacy was cemented.

"Boone Pickens was a visionary, and he was looking over the horizon, he was very concerned about America's longterm economic energy future, and that's why he advocated for a more diverse energy mix,” said Bernard L. Weinstein, associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute and an adjunct professor of business economics in the Cox School of Business at SMU. “The reason Texas has more installed wind power than any other state is because Boone Pickens 15 years ago became a strong advocate for wind and started investing in wind projects.”

There were difficult times in his personal life. In 2005, Pickens looked on as one of his sons, Michael, was arrested on securities-fraud charges -- he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years' probation and ordered to repay $1.2 million.

Pickens was also competitive. He was an avid hunter, and this year was the first in 76 years he missed the dove hunting opener.

“His love for competing frankly was unmatched. A lot of people didn't know that about him, but he wanted to beat you shooting quail,” Jones recalled. “He wanted to beat you flipping nickels. He was a natural born competitor.”

While he was good at making money, he was quick to give some of it away.

“It's hard to look up in North Texas and not find his fingerprints on things helping the underprivileged,” Jones added.

Pickens was a big supporter of Big Brothers Big Sisters in North Texas and the YMCA, donating millions over the years.

“It gives you some place to go to if you're mentoring a kid. You know, you're in the living room and you sit down and you talk you have to get out and go do something and what’s better than going to the Y,” Pickens said previously.

The first standalone hospice center opened in Dallas in 2017, thanks in large part to a $18.4 million gift from Pickens.

“His deep interest, he was in the moment, when he was here -- he was in the patient room, looking at how it was being put together. Looking at the view and wanting to make certain we were focused on that experience. It was inspiring,” said Tim Mallad, who is CEO of Presbyterian Communities and Services, which runs the hospice center.

The team there was with Pickens in his final days.

“We were very privileged to be with him in these last days -- and our teammates were there with him. And I can't tell you what a privilege, what a privilege it is in general to be with somebody in that time of life but somebody who was the inspiration for something like this campus and center I think takes it to a whole different level,” Mallad added.

Pickens owned a ranch in the Texas Panhandle, another in Oklahoma, and a vacation retreat in Palm Springs, California.

After his fall in July 2017, he wrote on Linkedin that he was still mentally strong, but "I clearly am in the fourth quarter."

The Pickens family plans to hold memorial services in Dallas and Oklahoma.

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