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BUSINESS The Friendly Tycoon

T. Boone’s rich, powerful, and, somehow, just not what you’d expect.
By D Magazine |

STANDING AT THE RECEPTIONIST’S

desk outside his twenty-sixth-floor office, T. Boone Pickens Jr. seems shorter than his five feet, nine inches. As he introduces himself in a soft voice and inspects his visitor with a solemn glance, he appears about as threatening as a small-town bureaucrat.

This is the stock-market stalker who’s terrorized the presidents of multibillion-dollar corporations?

His office in Trammell Crow Center has a tycoon’s view of downtown, for sure, and the computer terminal on his burnished credenza appropriately blinks out a stream of price quotes on investments in everything from oil to stocks. But something about the frayed rug on his floor, the way he puts his feet up on the desk-even, after a few minutes, slips off one tasseled loafer-is disarming.

This is the man who is single-handedly taking on Toyota’s entrenched business cartel?

Pickens sips a soda and observes that truckloads of articles have been written on him and the activities of Mesa Petroleum, the company he founded in Amarillo in 1964. About one particularly critical recent writeup by an editor for a national financial magazine, he ingenuously asks, “Why do you think he didn’t like me?”

This is the guy for whom Wall Street journalists reserve their most stinging sneers?

The office is too quiet. The energy level is too low. The intensity-well, there is no intensity here. Pickens rises like a well-fed house dog to chew distractedly on blunt probes about the problems confronting Mesa and the implications of his past association with notably unsavory characters like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken.

He casually dismisses criticism of his management of Mesa and points out that his dealings with the two baddest boys of Eighties business were fleeting and minor. The only time he displays any real alarm is when he’s asked why he removed his shoe.

“Does it bother you?” he asks after regarding his sock during a long silence. Then, “You aren’t going to put that kind of stuff in the article?”

Where is the dynamic hunter we saw pictured in camouflage, shotgun at his shoulder, on magazine covers?

Sorry, but in person Dallas’s newest business luminary-he moved himself and his companies here from Amarillo last year-just doesn’t have the energy of H. Ross Perot, the sharp edge of Robert Crandall, certainly not the zaniness of Herbert Kelleher. He’s probably not as wealthy or powerful as any of them either.

Still, to people around the country and the world, Boone Pickens is the most recognizable business figure in Dallas these days. His numerous heavily publicized takeover battles with the likes of Gulf, Unocal, and Phillips made him synonymous with the takeover tactics of the Eighties. His successful-if self-serving-1986 autobiography cemented that reputation.

In recent months, Pickens’s struggles with Koito Manufacturing Co. of Tokyo have made him a lightning rod for complaints about Japanese business practices. He’s testified before Congress about the injustice of Koito’s refusing him a seat on the board and been the target of a fairly clumsy smear campaign orchestrated by a New York public relations firm in Koito’s employ.

He was a prominent nearly-ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination last year, only stopping short because of Mesa’s financial troubles, and he’ll likely be back.

“That’s something I’m not going to close the door on,” Pickens says. “I may be a candidate in ’94.”

All that would be a pretty full plate for just about anybody. For a sixty-two-year-old geologist from Holdenville, Oklahoma, it sounds superhuman.

Yet, according to Pickens: “I consider myself to be a regular person.”

Well, sure, a regular person with a 3,000-acre West Texas ranch devoted to raising quail for his personal hunting pleasure. A regular person who chaired what was at the time the single largest political fundraising event of all time, the President’s Dinner for Senatorial candidates in 1987.

Don’t jump to conclusions and assume that Pickens’s mere touch will transform regular unleaded to super premium. Virtually all those takeover battles he led back in the Eighties resulted in defeat. Disgusted, he got out of the takeover business, and hasn’t been involved in one in three years.

As consolation, he’s had plenty of troubles with Mesa. Pickens has bet for years that natural gas prices would rise steeply and that Mesa would benefit from its huge reserves of gas.

Instead, gas prices keep falling. In accordance with his fervently held belief that corporations should distribute as much money as possible to shareholders, he’s paid out billions in dividends, and borrowed heavily to do it. In 1989, Mesa paid nearly half its revenues out in interest and, not surprisingly, posted a hefty loss.

This year, Pickens finally suspended Mesa’s rich dividend payments, hitting himself in the pocketbook harder than anybody. The value of his Mesa holdings has swiftly declined by many millions. He’ll no doubt miss the $10 million cash or so in lost dividend payments this year. The company’s doing so badly he won’t even get his $1.6 million management fee for 1989.

In the next few months, Mesa must start repaying some $1.5 billion borrowed to buy more gas and keep dividend payouts high. Meanwhile, gas prices show no sign of going up. And the screws only twisted tighter last spring when Pickens offered Mesa’s prime gas field for sale, only to yank it off the block when it became obvious it wouldn’t sell for what he wanted.



PICKENS IS, AS MUCH AS ANYONE IN DALLAS with the possible exception of J.R. Ewing, an image. He is the small-town boy from middle America who took on the bicoastal wheeler-dealers at their own funny-money games, and won. He is the savvy gambler, winning and losing big in the commodities markets. Finally, he just may be the American entrepreneur who is going to rub the Japanese cartels’ faces in the invigorating dirt of free enterprise.

That’s the image. The fact that it’s his own creation, thanks to his willingness to grant thousands of interviews and write his own articles and book, doesn’t mean that he’ll admit to agreeing with it.

“This stuff about being laid back and all that,” Pickens says, irritation in his voice. “That doesn’t mean a damn thing to me.”

One thing Pickens does give a damn about is political fundraising-he co-chaired a multimillion-dollar dinner for Republicans in Dallas this summer and only last year dismantled Mesa’s sizable political action committee. When and if he runs for statewide office, that fundraising clout will make him a formidable candidate.

Don’t look for Pickens to make a splash in Dallas politics, though. Pickens says he can’t get involved in Dallas because he’s out of town too much, and he works too much. Besides, Pickens doesn’t need City Halt to find a forum. He mounts dozens of lecterns a year, at college commencements and association dinners. His message is usually the same, and the reaction predictable.

“When I make a speech I’ll always have somebody say, you’re not like 1 thought you were going to be,” he says.

If you meet Boone Pickens around Dallas at the racquet ball court, a political fundraiser or, most likely, the airport, you’ll probably feel the same.