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BUSINESS It’s A Jungle Out There

Steve Christenson pursues his prey with a relentless zeal-whether it’s a majestic lion in the Kalahari or a trading blitz on Wall Street.
By Craig Hanley |

on his 15th safari, steve chris-tenson waded into the Tanzanian bush with some impressive companions. Michael Coleman, whose wildlife oil paintings can fetch $50,000, brought sketch pads and cameras in hopes of catching a lion pride lounging in the equatorial sun. Natalie Eckel, the world’s top female hunter, had a Weatherby Magnum big bore rifle and an itch to bag a long-necked gerenuk gazelle. The petite socialite could level the heavy barrel and hit a small target at a distance of 400 yards.

Christenson had cameras and rifles as well, but his focus on this particular expedition was the two children wedged into the Land Rover beside his wife, Susan. Michael Christenson would celebrate his 10th birthday in East Africa. His sister Becky, all of 7, would find herself coping that afternoon with a charging bull elephant that loomed larger than life before the stunned driver could get the vehicle in gear to make a getaway.

“The idea of my taking the kids on safari worried my guide at first,” admits the man who heads up Dallas Research & Trading, (DRT). the hottest boutique brokerage firm in the Southwest. “I saw it as a classic case of rewards outweighing risk.”

Risks abound in any trek from Piano’s trim suburban yards to Tanzania’s explosion of cobra-ftlled greenery, but Christenson felt Mike and Becky were finally of an age to appreciate a trip into the wild.

“Here you have two little kids who suddenly find themselves members of a minority for the first time in their lives,” Christenson says. “More than the landscapes or the wildlife, the thing that made the biggest impression on my son was the time he spent with a machete in his hands working with local tribesmen to help clear the roads. He picked up a whole lot of respect for dirt-poor people on the other side of the planet from the Galleria. Tan-zanians love children no matter what color they are, and my kids will remember that the rest of their lives.”

Midway into the six-week safari, at a camp on the banks of the raging Rungwa River, Christenson got on a shortwave radio. The beam patched through to Bern, Switzerland, for ultimate connection to DRT’s North Dallas offices.

“At one point, there were six brokers on the line trying to brief me on the firm’s positions and the economy,” he says. “All the music industry news breaking that week, all the amazing new Internet technology that had been invented that morning. I sat there watching the river flow and felt a strange kind of a relief to know that everything back in the United States was just as chaotic as when I left.”


His vacation over, he is back in his office, staring at one of nine computer screens arrayed before him in a semicircle. Each pulses with a dozen colors of digits and graphs. It’s yet another milestone day for the market, the Dow Jones up over 6,000 and holding for the first time in history. On TV screens overhead, a grave CNN anchor jabbers about Chrysler’s record quarterly earnings and the wave of new-car excitement generated by the unveiling of next year’s vehicles.

Amid all the numbers, Christenson sees only a single digit: a purple 7 that pulses steadily beside the letters NAVR.

Based in New Hope, Minn., Navarre Corporation is a distributor of alternative music. From a trading perspective, music is currently a vicious, multibillion-dollar commodity in a state of near-perfect chaos. In the worst retail environment imaginable, the Kmarts and Wal-Marts of the world are practically giving CDs to customers in order to lure them through aisles of other profitable merchandise. Traditional music stores, particularly the independents, are either desperately morphing into software and video emporiums or bleeding white into bankruptcy.

And then there’s this Internet thing, a wildly flexible new distribution platform for music that could trash CDs forever. Not an hour ago, the CNN anchor had been reading a Netscape news release about the company’s grandiose crusade for a music transmission standard on the Net.

All this fast-breaking news-some of it real, some of it devious public relations puffery-is whipping prices up and down in the entertainment technology sector that DRT follows closely. Only four months ago, Navarre shot up to $18 when CEO Eric Paulson announced his own musical beachhead on the Internet, a hip tune site called Net.Radio. After that trading frenzy. Navarre was yesterday’s news and the price dived head-long to the stubborn purple 7.

Christenson is pensive because Paulson has just faxed another proclamation to the world. Navarre has apparently forged an ambitious strategic alliance with Walter Yetnikoff, the man who turned Michael Jackson, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen into platinum geese for CBS Records. In bankrolling Yetnikoff’s new company, VelVel Records, Paulson is unleashing an uncanny talent-hound with a mandate to tree up some future chartbusters.

Effectively, cheeky little Navarre is hoisting the Jolly Roger and politely declaring war on an important longtime customer base, the seven major record labels. In a gamble to ensure itself some kind of future, Navarre is signaling the labels that the last independent distributor of music in the United States will henceforth scout out its own Shania Twains and pocket a heftier cut of the take.

“The young lions,” Christenson says, “are tired of giving the old lions their share.”

Nobody really knows what Yetnikoff is worth to Navarre long-term. At present, he exists only in clichés: showbiz rainmaker, a player with an attitude and a killer track record, astute prognosticator of what the average human likes to hear.

On the flip side, even intellectually oriented brokers like Christenson are essentially gamblers at heart who know that luck can be a cruel scientific reality.

Maybe Yetnikoff’s luck has run out. Maybe the rainmaker will do his dance and the blue sky will remain stubbornly blue. In the decade since DRT began dabbling in entertainment issues, Christenson has seen a lot of creative geniuses crash and burn.

“When it comes down to talent picks, the biggest cliché of all time is the rule,” Christenson says, “When these guys are hot, they’re red hot. When they aren’t, which is most of the time, they are colder than mausoleum floors and hemorrhaging stockholder equity.” Besides, it’s been 20 years since Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson took off.

What magic intuition is going to help an aging Waller Yetnikoff delve into the late-night soul of Deep Ellum’s tattooed tribesfolk? All these fusing entertainment technologies-music, Internet, computer games-tend to bias their demographics optimistically toward a youth culture that is hard to quantify and harder than ever to bamboozle.

Christenson must quantify, nonetheless, because skyscrapers full of MBAs in Boston, Chicago and New York are digesting the news about Navarre. The analysts will be calling soon, demanding predictions and prophecies, clamoring for Christenson to do what he does best: deconstruct the deal and explain where it’s heading.

The calls come all the way from London and Tokyo because, after a quarter-century of analyzing trends, Christenson has been right often enough to qualify for fullblown guru status. In the eyes of “The Street,” he is a bankable judge of what flies with investors and what does not.

Media calls filter in daily now, too: CNN’s Dan Dorfman wanting to know what Orion Pictures is worth that afternoon, then a Forbes writer looking for insights into the mind of John Kluge, the multibil-lionaire media pioneer whose mentoring has been a formative influence on Chris-tenson’s own investment strategies.

The media calls began in earnest on Oct. 17, 1995, the day DRT helped facilitate Kluge’s $758 million merger of Orion into an ambitious global entertainment and communications network called Metromedia International. On that memorable day, Christenson’s boutique vaulted into the closed ranks of power brokerages that actually break financial news.

He stares at the computers that surround him, their data flashing as the day’s trading picks up momentum. The information rages like a river.

THERE IS A TYPE OF MAN, THE NOUVEAU riche, chest-banging type, who discovers Africa in his restless 40s and decides that a little Hemingway action might be a bracing tonic for the soul. He goes on safari and clutters the house with stuffed heads, hoping guests might want to know the details.

Christenson’s infatuation with the continent has much deeper roots. Six of his eight world hunting trophy records are from Africa, and he has taken eight of the nine most coveted spiral-horned African antelope ever killed. Asked to elaborate on his triumphs in the field, he winces.

“I don’t pay attention to record books any more,” he says. “None. Zero, And I threw all my medals away and boxed up most of my trophies a long time ago. All that stuff is pure egomania.”

Christenson co-founded the Dallas Ecological Foundation in 1982 and is proud of adecade of significant fund raising for charities that benefit the Dallas Museum of Natural History, the Dallas Zoo and the Texas Outdoor Teacher’s Association.

“1 really believe that I’ve given back more than I’ve ever taken as a hunter,” Christenson says. “We’ve done a lot to improve education and conservation around the world, but particularly in Texas.”

He considers his willingness to undergo the rigors of true expeditionary hunting the best proof of his dedication to the sport. Some of the mishaps are vintage Indiana Jones.

The marshbuck, for example, is a shaggy “Big Nine” antelope who tries to hide his gorgeous spiral horns in the papyrus beds of Botswana. While pursuing a marsh-buck bull through the Okavango swamp, buck bull through the Okavango swamp. Christenson and his native guide found themselves flailing in crocodile-infested water when one of the giant reptiles flopped off a papyrus bed and flipped their mkoro dugout canoe.

“In retrospect, that was pretty comical because nothing really bad happened.” Christenson says.

Episodes that qualify as “really bad” in the broker’s stoic world include the midnight ambush of one of his camps in the Danakil desert by the Ethiopian Regular Army, the shattering of a knee joint during a descent from Mount Bada in the Arusi Mountains, two plane crashes, a drunken Tanzanian soldier poking an AK-47 up Christenson’s nose and a mystery disease picked up on a bongo hunt in the rain forest of the Central African Republic, just north of the infamous Ebola River.

“Three people went on that hunt,” he says. “One came down with malaria, one got hepatitis, and to this day. nobody knows what I had. I was at a Game Conservation International convention in San Antonio; the maid found me unconscious in my hotel room. In the hospital, they slit my leg open to drain off the infection and told me to get my personal affairs in order.”

This was all breezy good fun compared to the black water fever engendered by a tick bite in Zululand. For six weeks, Christenson rode waves of hallucinogenic pain from one side of his hospital bed to the other, blood boiling, joints grinding like rusted gears.

“I actually called my mother and said goodbye on that one,” Christenson says. “And my doctor is positive the episode triggered the rheumatoid arthritis that adds so much joy to my life.”

To offset all this physical agony, the man doubtlessly thrives on the deep subconscious rush and is quick to describe his favorite quarry: “Anything that’s hard to track.”

Infinitely more than the casual sportsman out to ground a dove or two, experienced trackers relish the primal vibe of stalking intelligent, evasive creatures. Probing deeply the dimensions of the animal mind, trackers learn to super-focus their own instincts.

“Finding a track to follow is hard enough, and it commits you to the arduous process of catching that particular animal, no matter how long it might take,” Christenson says. “And it might very well take several weeks. The intensity that develops inside you when you’ve been following something for a prolonged period of time is impossible to describe. You become obsessive and myopic.”

During the most recent safari, the family spent two days following a leopard over the Tanzanian plains.

“I turned it into a science project, and the kids kept records of our positions using global satellite coordinates.” he says. “They helped with the detective work to determine his ultimate destination and would get all excited when we’d come across the remains of the birds and porcupines the cat had fed on. Pure trucking is not a macho thing at all. Patience and intuition are so important that women like Natalie Eckel have a decisive edge over most men.”

No matter how diligent the detective work, even world-ranked hunters expect surprises when they finally confront their quarry.

“You never know if what you’ve been pursuing for weeks is soins to he worth all the trouble you’re taking, or if it’s just a so-so animal,” Christenson says. “You never know what’s making the tracks until you’re right on top of him. It might be a monster, or it might just be a so-so animal,”

To this day. his spiral-horned antelope collection does not include a bongo, the super-elusive creature he chased near the funky Ebola River. Despite the cost and physical risks of two long safaris, he has yet to see a bongo with his own eyes.

“And I’m all right with that because I am no longer obsessed with any particular animal the way I used to be,” Christenson says. “I can go to my grave happy if 1 never see a bongo.”

Out from a desk drawer comes a guide to African fauna. He flips it open to a photo of a stunning bongo bull and taps his finger up and down on the page.

“Let me tell you something,” he says shaking his head, a predator’s admiration flustering through the laugh. “These guys are terrible. These guys are almost imposDALLAS RESEARCH & TRADING IS BETTER known in New York and London than it is in the city whose name Christenson regularly refuses to remove from his letterhead.

“Whenever we redo our corporate brochure, my image authorities always suggest that we lose the word Dallas.” he says. “Their logic is that finance is an elite global clique and that Dallas is still perceived as somewhat of a province by the money-center snobs. I always explain that DRT’s reputation-good, bad or indifferent–is pretty well set in stone at this stage in the game. By now, most people on Wall Street know that when the little Dallas shop goes into a stock, it tends to move.”

Christenson regularly drags his brokers and senior management from their Hashing screens to impromptu business retreats under Palo Duro Canyon’s blue sky. Having assembled at 3 o’clock this morning, the groggy staff members now sit at picnic tables on a hunting lease in the middle of a Panhandle wilderness. They are hashing out strategies over bacon and egg sandwiches and a steady stream of coffee.

An entertainment market analyst parades his latest intelligence on Yetnikoff’s talent search. VelVel Records has just cut a deal with Razor and Tie Records, the hot New York archival label founded by two recent law school graduates who know what marketing is all about. Razor and Tie is making a pretty penny mining the vaults of old Nashville studios and cobbling together CDs of vintage hits by legends like Bobby Bare and Merle Haggard. In the bloody aisles of the music stores, these re-issues are moving faster than any other format.

As for music from the living. Razor and Tie’s stable includes hot country parody act Cledus T. Judd and a few authentic talents Navarre could sell globally some day, particularly the gifted Massachusetts folk singer Dar Williams.

Yetnikoff is also negotiating some kind of arrangement with the Bottom Line nightclub in Greenwich Village. Bottom Line owners Allen Pepper and Stanley Snadowsky are players in their own right, well respected talent purveyors who are not afraid to introduce the public to new names.

“[Yetnikoff]’s jusT marketing the comers and banking on strong pent-up demand for classic country,” Christenson concludes.

Besides, as of yesterday there is a more pressing issue for Navarre than Yetnikoff’s I new lineup of coffee shop poets and vintage country music artists. The company’s No. I mall-based retailer, MusicLand, is whispered to be a prime candidate for bankruptcy immediately following the Christmas season. The strange virus that has drained all vitality from music vendors is about to claim its biggest victim.

“Navarre can take the hit,” Christenson assures his brokers, whose clients believe the company they are bankrolling will leverage technologies like the Internet to become a powerful moneyspinner someday.

With the sun rising and coaxing fragrance out of the cedars that carpet the canyon floor, the brokers plow into a detailed briefing on Internet audio streaming technologies. For the better part of an hour, the relative merits of the software protocols being kicked around by Netscape and Microsoft are debated. This is techno-babble at its mind-numbing best, and the brokers writhe in polite agony as Christenson explains the possible long-term effects these technology fusions could have on Navarre and the other entertainment stocks DRT follows.

Promptly at 8:30 a.m., the collective attention span of the group disintegrates. The market has just opened on the East Coast and with Navarre expected to release its best-ever third-quarter earnings, the stock may be in play. Christenson gives his troops the nod and they race to the top of a nearby hilt, the closest point from which flip phones will connect them to colleagues manning the trading room.

“It’s our responsibility to do our homework, and by that I mean really putting something into the discovery process,” Christenson says. “As apure research boutique, DRT typically follows an industry or a company for at least a year before we release a report. The last major study ate up two and a half years of my life. What a monster that was.” The focus of the study: Metromedia International, an intricate web of media technologies exploding over Asia and the former Soviet Republics, the brainchild of mystery multibillionaire John Kluge.

As a boy, christenson always wanted to go to Africa. The first day he got there, he waded into a bank of tall grass in the Kalahari Desert and found himself within spitting distance of the most imposing companion imaginable. Together in the grass, he shared a special moment of fear with the king of beasts.

“Big as a house, just standing there waiting,” Christenson says. “People never think of lions as camouflaged animals, but they are the ultimate hiding machines. I was trying to figure out the best shot through the grass and he took a step backward and disappeared.”

He snaps his fingers.

“Like that. I tracked that individual lion up and down the Kalahari until my guide threatened to abandon me, but I never saw it again.”

Thus began the period in his life that Christenson himself bluntly characterizes as a “sicko quest.” For three successive years, he returned to Africa in search of a lion as majestic as the first bogey. One with the huge black mane only super-predators live long enough to float in the wind, a lion the size of a Budweiser Clydesdale. He settled his scope crosshairs on nearly 20 spectacular cats but. to the bewilderment of his guides, refused to pull the trigger.

“The experience changed me forever,” Christenson says. “Sheep hunters say that if you can’t pass up an animal with 38-inch horns, you’ll never get one with 40-inch horns. When I made that selectivity a big part of my hunting style, it influenced the way I played the market. Most companies just fumble around from quarter to quarter; I always end up following gutsy conceptu-alists like John Kluge.”

Christenson invokes the name of the fourth richest man in America reverently. Stalking Kluge through the money jungle daily, he is awed by the octogenarian’s range, energy and appetite. “The man is in a class all by himself, putting deals together with these incredible futuristic perspectives,” Christenson says. “Because money is secondary to him, his deals are pure business concept. He’s bringing modern communications infrastructures to parts of the world where you still can’t get a glass of safe drinking water. And, to me, there’s something profoundly noble in the figure of an 80-year-old man staking markets that may only catch fire 10 years out, sometimes 20 years out.”

Christenson came to Kluge’s attention the memorable day DRT crossed a troublesome block of stock to clear the way for Metromedia’s first merger. Shortly thereafter, the firm brought Metromedia a juicy acquisition candidate in Alliance Entertainment, at the time the largest music distributor in the country and a Navarre competitor. To repay the favors, Christenson says, Kluge hosted an unusual private audience that included DRT’s key institutional customers in his imposing penthouse lair atop the CBS/Fox building in Manhattan.

“The day before the meeting in Kluge’s home, Dan Dorfman found out about the proposed merger and blasted it all over CNBC,” Christenson says. “The Exchange immediately suspended trading in both Alliance and Metromedia, and Kluge went ahead and announced his $750 million merger to the press that night. The next morning, we were in a suite at the Carlyle Hotel when the stocks exploded. At noon, Dorfman got back on the tube and told the world that Kluge was also going to buy Image Entertainment, a laser disk company we’d been buying for the past two years. All hell broke loose.”

Burning the batteries out of every flip phone they could get their hands on and fielding more than 400 calls through the hotel switchboard, Christenson and DRT President Mark Still traded 4 million shares of stock that day. The next morning, Christenson quietly began accumulating shares of Navarre. “The great benefit of following a real business mind like John Kluge’s every day is an ability you pick up for visualizing markets and technologies and companies in their true macro context,” Christenson says. “My gut-feel on Navarre was immediately super-positive, and I was pleased but not surprised when all the homework we did afterward supported the instinctual click.”

SHORTLY AFTER THE STOCK MARKET crashed in 1987, DRT began to distinguish itself as an effective liaison between the bitter camps of enemy brokers and institutional investors in New York and Chicago.

“These people hated each other so wholeheartedly it was impossible for them to get any dialogue going at all,” remembers Sheryl Cox, DRT’s chief operating officer. “So the little firm from Dallas sort of became the Henry Kissinger that could sit the two behemoths down and get them to work together again.”

What really opened the door into the big league was Christenson’s growing aura as a pugnacious brainiac who backed up his reads on the market with savage trading strategies. Immediately after the ’87 crash, the second largest specialist firm on the New York Stock Exchange hired DRT to assume responsibility for hedging each of its 126 stocks.

“Keeping a dynamic hedge on that many issues simultaneously is like having a single air traffic controller land all the planes at D/FW in a blizzard,” says Cox. “But it was such a flattering nod to Steve’s talents as a trader, we couldn’t turn it down.”

For seven months, telephone in hand, computers raging, Christenson kept the stocks from crashing. The trading became so furious the firm finally hired a TI physicist to help develop supportive software.

“A mathematical genius who helped develop nuclear weapons for Taiwarr and Israel,” Cox recalls. “He asked how we’d been tracking the transactions up to that point. We told him Steve just did it all in his head, and the nuclear physicist laughed and said no single human being could do that.” After a nine-month collaboration, Christenson and his code expert pioneered a sophisticated trading program that now anchors DRT’s huge proprietary databases. But, to this day, the gravest danger to the tower of hardware in the trading room has been the animal that lurks inside Steve Christenson.

“He used to be able to break a telephone just by slamming it down on his desk,” Cox deadpans, “but now the new plastics are so strong, he has to rip the cord out of the jack and throw the phones against the wall before they’ll break.” In trading rooms across the country, phones shatter like wineglasses at a Russian wedding when Christenson rolls his sleeves up and moves aggressively into a stock.

DRT’s Still, an urbane professional, has seen his partner’s brilliance kindle the firm’s image as a bona fide market maker.

“We owned 22 percent of Orion Pictures when the stock went ballistic one day last May.” Still recalls. “We had 10 brokers writing tickets, but with 5 million shares trading hands in three hours there was no way for us to know our position precisely.”

With DRT’s risk management programs straining to keep up with the scalding stock, Christenson’s colleagues begged him to desist for a quick assessment of the firm’s position. But the trader was on a roll, going by feel, making deals in the dark and blasting away fearlessly at bids the second they flashed on his screen.

When the smoke cleared and the computers finally spat out the body count, Christenson found that his basic instincts had kept him remarkably on target throughout the trading frenzy.

“Steve can look at a bid on a screen and tell you if it’s for real or not,” Cox attests. “It’s just a number on a screen, possibly coming in from people we’ve never dealt with before, but he can almost always tell if they’re for real or not.”

The first thing that hits your eye when you walk into the foyer of Christenson’s office is the expensive Coleman wildlife study of lions lunching on a zebra. While vultures circle above, a big black-maned male stands protectively over two females greedily muzzling into the kill. When he first saw the work in progress. Christenson told his friend Coleman that the chromatics of the painting were incomplete, the comfortable combination of tan hides and soft green mountains was an unrealistic depiction of life in the wild.

The artist agreed, obligingly mixed up some crimson and daubed it on the open carcass, the grass and the chins and chests of the feeding cats. “It’s not ghoulish to show things the way they really are,” Christenson shrugs. “I’ve watched lions feed numerous times, and when they do, they get blood everywhere.”

THIS MORNING’S CALL IS FROM NAVARRE Chief Financial Officer Chuck Cheney. Since DRT took its sizable position in Navarre, Cheney and Christenson have seen eye to eye on most issues. Today, they are lamenting the market’s indifference to the company’s third-quarter report and their mutual dissatisfaction with the standstill slock price.

“You think I’m being rudely upfront?” Christenson laughs. “I’m surprised to hear you say that. Chuck. All I’m looking for is some notion of Walter Yetnikoff’s game plan. And, believe me, I’m not the only person wondering.”

Of course, there’s talk about the Internet, the new product carnival that keeps mutating and demanding requantification.

Navarre’s cyberstation Net.Radio has just signed up Anheuser Busch as a major sponsor. The contract is sizable, real money from a heavy hitter that could legitimize the venture if other blue-chip advertisers follow the brewing giant’s lead.

Net.Radio’s browser software, averaging 50,000 hits a day, gives Navarre a means of compiling an extremely valuable database on music consumers. Through polls and contest applications, the targeted PC users keep revealing more and more about their musical preferences and their spending habits.

Once all the mall record stores fold and CDs are extinct-maybe 10 years or 20 years from now-will Navarre be a monster company leveraging this database to license and download “song-codes” directly to consumers at home? The cross-marketing possibilities are staggering; it’s impossible to tell how much they’re worth long-term. But that’s a number some reporter will eventually expect Christenson to take a stab at.

“DRT got started in technology markets 10 years ago with the semiconductor industry,” Christenson says. “The day the Berlin Wall fell, we shifted to entertainment technologies and distribution systems. People everywhere felt freer to use their money for personal recreation, and anything related to entertainment content had a greater value than it ever had before. John Kluge and Metromedia will make money showing Amadeus and Platoon on cable television in places like Latvia and Uzbekistan.”

Barring some kind of protracted war, Christenson sees the global media networks being built by Kluge and Rupert Murdoch as perpetual motion machines. No matter what new Internet technology was invented this morning, people are essentially the same creatures they were the day before. The global audience gets up in the morning, goes to work and comes home anxious to regenerate its spirit through diversion. Maybe Yetnikoff will discover the most inspiring musician of all time, a global Orpheus whose success will dwarf Michael Jackson’s and turn Navarre into a music giant.

“Music is the most interesting case study in the world, because people relate to music more personally than to any other so-called commodity,” Christenson says. “The supply is infinite, the demand impossible to predict. And the distribution channels are changing faster than we can keep up with. in this country and in foreign markets.”

EVEN WHEN FRIGHTENED AND RUNNING for their lives, most animals want to know what is chasing after them. Not the shy, exotic bongo.

The antelope’s floppy ears are the size of catchers’ mitts and they scoop up every little sound off the jungle floor. When a bongo bull hears or smells something he doesn’t like, he bolts and runs for miles, no glancing over the shoulder.

During the safari that gave him black water fever and crippling arthritis, Christenson stalked six different bongo bulls. He crawled on hands and knees over the jungle floor to positions from which he could sense his prey through the trees. Six different times, gun in hand, he poised silently and pondered a strategy of approach, Six different times, he heard the spooked bull break into flight, spiral horns slapping low-hanging branches as the animal drove deeper into no man’s land.

“It’s kind of like being the coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon,” he says, philosophically. “You learn perseverance.”

On the final night of the company retreat in Palo Duro Canyon, Christenson has a 12-gauge shotgun in his hands and a little money on the line. Earlier in the day, the brokers paired off for some recreational trapshooting. Their boss, who went to college on a baseball scholarship, considers trapshooting his only pure natural athletic ability. As quickly as the machine flings the orange disks into the air, Christenson blasts them into oblivion.

But now it is pitch black in the canyon except for the stars overhead and the bonfire the brokers are using to grill their hamburgers and hot dogs. A boom box plays music by a Canadian country group called The Prairie Oyster Band, a promising VelVel Records discovery.

For the moment, however, music is the last thing on Steve Christenson’s mind.

One of his brokers has bet the boss $10 that it would be impossible for him to trap-shoot in the dark. As soon as the challenge was framed, Christenson’s face assumed an analytical cast. His computations concluded, he sportingly picked up a favorite over-and-under and stood in a graceful shooting stance at the edge of the bonfire’s light.

The trap machine flings a saucer into the black night, the blur of orange perceptible for a fraction of a second. Christenson fires and misses. He gets a tiny piece of the second target and every bit of the third. From that point on, going by feel, he is in a righteous groove and misses nary a one.

“That’s a dead bird,” the broker winks, popping the gun open to eject the empty shells. “Now, who wants to bet some real money?”