By Bob Barr
Boone Pickens, Jr. was well-known to contemporary political and corporate leaders, but likely not so much to today’s millennial generation. This should hardly be considered a surprise, insofar as Pickens pretty much exemplified many characteristic millennials are widely known not to share; especially that he was a consummate risk taker.
Although born in Oklahoma, Pickens came to personify the bigness that for generations has defined his adopted state of Texas, where he died last week at the age of 91. Pickens’ ancestry can be traced back to American pioneer hero Daniel Boone; with whom he shared much of the daring that made his forebearer one of our country’s first folk heroes.
Pickens’ long and colorful career in business was anything but a straight-line trajectory; in large measure because of deliberate decisions he made throughout his nearly seven decades in the rough and tumble world of energy production.
Eschewing a career as a geologist with Phillips Petroleum in the early 1950s, and in a classic entrepreneurial risk-taking move, Pickens started his own drilling company from scratch; a company which became the publicly traded Mesa Petroleum that made him a multi-millionaire.
What largely defined this Texan for future generations of business leaders, however, were his decisions in the 1970s and 1980s to engage in a series of so-called “hostile” corporate takeovers of oil companies; not designed to enrich corporate managers but to place more power in the hands of shareholders. To be sure, Pickens’ moves in this regard catapulted him into the rarified atmosphere of those whose net worth was measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars; but the lasting importance of his moves in those years lay in truly revitalizing the importance and relevance of corporation shareholders.
The ups and downs of the energy sector over the past few decades impacted Pickens’ bottom line as well; and the declines and upturns in his fortunes are well known. That uneven landscape, however, fit perfectly with the man’s persona, which revolved around careful planning, hard work, and risk-taking — all characteristics of most successful entrepreneurs, but not of today’s decidedly risk-averse younger generations.
Also, and in another way that set him apart from today’s tech-focused millennials, Pickens made a point of emphasizing personal contact and communication, as vital steps by which to size up and read those with whom you are dealing. In fact, he is said to have found emails “a little bit frustrating,” as incapable of providing important clues gleaned from actually talking with a person as opposed to texting messages electronically.
I was exposed first-hand to this trait of Pickens’ about five years ago. After an article of mine had been published, I received a call out of the blue from Pickens. The purpose of his call was to voice his disagreement with something I had written in that article.
His tone was direct but not at all confrontational, and shortly thereafter when I next traveled to Dallas, Texas, I met with Pickens in his spacious but not pretentious office. He was extremely generous with his time, and we spoke for over an hour, touching on a number of mostly political topics, including the tendency of government whether under Republican or Democrat control, to tax too much and regulate too heavily.
My most memorable take-away from that session with Boone Pickens, however, was the way in which he leavened his passionate love for free market capitalism and his corresponding dislike for the heavy hand of government control, with a genuine and lively sense of humor. I thought then as I reflect now on his passing, that T. Boone Pickens is a man to be emulated and held high as a hero not just of the Greatest Generation in which he held membership, but for all generations.
Bob Barr (@BobBarr) represented Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He currently serves as president and CEO of the Law Enforcement Education Foundation.