T. Boone Pickens has made nice with Democrats and spent millions promoting alternative energy. But during the 48 hours we spent with him, financial markets were burning along with his fortune. He barely lost a beat.
T. Boone Pickens loves a winner, so he’s made nice with Democrats and spent millions promoting alternative energy. But during the 48 hours we spent with the former corporate raider, financial markets were burning along with part of his fortune. He barely lost a beat.
by Tom Barbash
It’s 8 pm on October 9, a day on which T. Boone Pickens has lost nearly a half-billion dollars. But even with the stock market cratering, the 80-year-old oil and natural gas tycoon turned campus rock star continues campaigning for his alternative energy plan, drawing more than 700 at the University of Texas and then nearly 300 at the McCombs School of Business. The staggering financial hit he and other Americans are taking, he says, only reinforces the urgency of his mission. Pickens believes that our dependence on high-priced foreign oil is one of the main reasons we’re lurching toward the first global recession since the 1970s, and he’s mad as hell about it.
“We’ve never been pressed to do a goddamned thing!” he says, nestled into a leather seat on his private jet, clearly agitated. He’s watching news of Wall Street’s meltdown on an overhead TV as the G550 Gulfstream passes 30,000 feet above the Texas plains. An attendant serves him a cold turkey sandwich and a bottle of water. Seated in the lounge area behind him are about half a dozen members of his staff, dutifully tapping away on laptop computers. The cabin has the muted opulence of a luxury hotel suite, disturbed only by the drama unfolding on CNBC.
The analysts onscreen are saying that General Motors is on life support and “trying to buy some time” before deciding its future. Pickens watches the news with the concerned expression of someone witnessing his neighbor’s house go up in flames. Across the aisle, and equally mesmerized, is Bobby Stillwell, Pickens’s legal counsel and friend of 45 years. “That’s a helluva statement,” says Stillwell, shaking his head. “ ‘We’re trying to buy some time.’ That’s the passing of an American giant. If GM goes under….what does that mean?”
For Pickens it means he’s right: that the whole system by which we power our cars, our homes, and our lives is broken, and that if we’re to save GM or, for that matter, our country, we must stop borrowing money to pay for oil imports and instead harness the untapped wind power and natural gas resources available on American soil. This is why he has commandeered the national energy conversation with the same all-in method that, as a cocky, ruthless corporate raider in the 1980s, brought oil company titans to their knees. It’s also why the man who made most of his fortune drilling for crude and betting that energy prices would go up — and up and up — now sounds like a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club. But make no mistake: Although Pickens has been called many things — including a rattlesnake in the woodpile — fuzzy-headed tree-hugger is not one of them.
“This is a killer. We have operated for 40 years as if we have a lot of oil. But we don’t. What we do have is resources.”
Renewable energy is not a crusade he ever envisioned himself taking on. When he brought his ideas to Washington a couple of years ago, members of Congress and the White House listened politely but made it clear that they were not prepared to drop what they were doing to champion his proposals. So last year he launched his own barnstorming campaign, employing a young but experienced advance team that has allowed Pickens, a self-professed internet novice who neither e-mails nor surfs the Web, to become one of the savviest recruiters in cyberspace. He clearly hopes his investments in wind and natural gas will increase his fortune, but the Pickens Plan, as it is known, is also a legacy play. More than any political ideology or philosophical belief, Pickens loves a winner, and he’s betting big that green energy is his path to going out on top.
So while the Dow will drop nearly 700 points by the closing bell, and Pickens’s own company, BP Capital, sustains an iceberg-size hit on its assets, he has his eye on another number: 997,000, the number of people who’ve signed on to the Pickens Plan Army. Before morning it’ll hit a million, most of them under the age of 35. The dizzying mix of good and bad news, he deadpans, is like “watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your new Cadillac.”
On the overhead TV the news keeps getting worse. From their high point a year ago, one of the anchors says, American investors have lost $8.4 trillion. Stillwell leans over to his friend, “Well, Boone, think of it this way. Worse comes to worse, you can always scrape by on a billion.”
Thomas Boone Pickens has been compared to J.R. Ewing and John Wayne, but he’s far richer and maybe a little tougher than either. He stared down the rich and powerful and became a scourge of corporate America in the process. He has lost fortunes and made them back with legendary cunning.
His expressions can be read in his eyebrows, which at their midpoint dart upward devilishly, and in the cocksure jut of his lower lip, which suggests he’s 30 yards ahead of you and a little tired of waiting. Charming in person, particularly around women, he has been married four times. His current wife is a glamorous Southern California socialite named Madeleine, who recently had Pickens’s childhood home stripped from its foundation and rebuilt on their 68,000-acre ranch in the Texas Panhandle alongside the property’s man-made lakes and waterfalls.
Pickens has been running hard for nearly seven decades. On the morning I arrive, he started his day as he usually does, with a 45-minute workout with his personal trainer Eric Oberg, an uberfit 44-year-old who works full-time with the BP Capital staff in Dallas. Pickens’s training regimen is legend in his office: 20 hard minutes on a treadmill at an 8-to-12-inch incline, then weights (including curls with 35-pound dumbbells), followed by abdominal crunches. I ask Oberg about his fitness level. Was he, as everyone says, as healthy as a 55-year-old?
“No,” he says. “I’d say 50.”
Pickens even brags that he’s beaten Oberg on treadmill sprints.
Pickens grew up as an only child in the dusty Oklahoma cow town of Holdenville, where cattle circled working oil rigs and where, in his first job as an acquisitive 12-year-old, he expanded his newspaper route from 28 houses to 156 by acquiring the routes of his competitors. His father, whom he describes as “a natural born risk-taker,” leased mineral rights from landowners and sold them to oil companies. His mother, Pickens says, taught him to always keep his word.