Sunday evening, Mr. T. Boone Pickens, Chair of the hedge fund BP Capital Management, spoke to the AMS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. Born in 1928, Mr. Pickens can boast of an extraordinary set of accomplishments over his 80+ years. He has founded not one but several successful companies. He has written three books. Through his mergers and acquisitions he has not just changed the energy industry but transformed all of corporate America, and our understanding of what it means for companies and markets to develop shareholder value. He has developed, and vigorously promoted, the Pickens Plan for making the United States energy-independent. Along the way, he has amassed, and lost, billions of dollars. He is one of the 91 billionaires to have signed the signed The Giving Pledge, an agreement to give away half their wealth before they die. He has already donated more than $700M…most of it to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University.
These achievements by themselves make what the man has to say worth a listen. But Sunday night’s conversation with the AMS suggests they were dwarfed by three other attributes:
Passion. The man has approached everything he’s done in life with passion and enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter whether it’s work or football or quail hunting, Mr. Pickens embraces every day for what it brings. He reminds us that there’s a lot about our lives to like, to savor, to be thankful for.
Integrity. This in some ways is the most fascinating. Consider those in today’s news, from whatever field…political leaders, business executives, entertainers, athletes, writers and artists, scientists, doctors, lawyers and more. Many do little more than see the ills in society and loudly call these to our attention, building their reputation and fortunes along the way.
Mr. Pickens has chosen another path. To consider the biggest example, he’s noted that every president since Richard Nixon, whether Democrat or Republican, has promised to make America energy independent. But no president has put forth a plan and made it work. It would have been tempting to simply recognize this reality, and build his companies’ profitability on that premise. Instead he’s chosen to articulate what in his view the steps that would make us energy-independent, position his companies to be indispensible to such an outcome, and then market the idea to the nation. This approach has caused him a great deal of extra work. Occasionally, it’s cost him time and money. As he’s said, he’s confident of his vision for America, but he’s learned that he can be off when it comes to the timing. For example, he saw the potential of wind energy, but lost a quarter-billion dollars in the effort to make it viable for north Texas, as natural gas prices plunged. He has seen the importance of switching from oil to natural gas for transportation, especially fleets of trucks and buses, but has had to struggle for years to move toward that vision. In these and other instances, he’s bet on what should happen, rather than merely on what’s likely to happen…and then tried to make that come about. That just might be an approach to admire.
Staying power. It would have been easy, or natural, at several points in his life over the past 20 years, for Mr. Pickens to retire to his ranch(es), his quail hunting, and his footballs and sports enthusiasms. Instead, he’s been unflagging in his efforts to promote values and ideas he believes in, and shows every intention of continuing.
Mahatma Gandhi, the preeminent Indian leader, famously said, “be the change you want to see in the world.” In these three respects… passion, living congruent with his beliefs, and persistence… whether deliberately or instinctively, from the gut…Mr. Pickens has followed such a path. We do well when we do the same. The outcome will look quite different, but the effect on ourselves and on the world will be salutary.
A footnote on the evening. Judging from feedback and hallway conversation in the 24 hours since, the remark that made the greatest impression on the AMS community was Mr. Picken’s response to a question from the audience… he began by saying “I know more about your business than you know about mine.” We talk a great deal at these meetings about meeting user needs. Perhaps it’s time to step up our game. This is arguably the biggest challenge and opportunity we face as a community.