T. Boone Pickens Jr., the swashbuckling Texas oil-and-gas entrepreneur whose storied life cast him in the disparate roles of corporate raider, defender of shareholder rights, unlikely environmentalist, no-holds-barred polemicist for political conservatism, and controversial philanthropist, died on Wednesday at his home in Dallas. He was 91.
Jay Rosser, his spokesman and longtime chief of staff, confirmed the death.
Mr. Pickens made big oil companies quake in the 1980s by threatening to take them over until they bought back his shares at elevated prices. Business foes denounced him as a “greenmailer” whose only interest was to make a quick profit on his stock purchases.
But Mr. Pickens insisted that his real motives were to shake up staid boardrooms and enrich ordinary shareholders — “the neglected minority,” as he called them.
“If you are a stockholder, the chances are that one way or another, most corporations are misappropriating your money,’’ he wrote in his 1987 autobiography, “Boone.” “It is legal under the system; everyday this respectable crime is perpetrated in corporate corridors across the country.”
In corporate circles, Mr. Pickens became one of the most hated men in the United States. But he was a darling of the media. Athletically trim and boyish-looking, he explained his business strategies with self-deprecating humor and homespun anecdotes in a Southwestern twang.
“My I.Q. is the gas price,” he told Texas Monthly in 1982. “At $3 I’m a genius. At $1.50 I’m a moron. Don’t talk to me too fast; it’s at $1.53 today.”
Using his own Mesa Petroleum Company as his financial vehicle, Mr. Pickens launched takeover bids for much larger oil firms, including Gulf Oil, Phillips Petroleum and Unocal. None of these attempts succeeded, and Mr. Pickens railed against his corporate targets for adopting tactics, like “poison pills,” that made hostile takeovers prohibitively expensive. (Years later, when Mesa was under threat, he didn’t hesitate to use the same poison pill tactic). But he still managed to extract hundreds of millions of dollars in profits by getting these companies to buy back their shares from him at a premium in exchange for promises that he would just go away.
The efforts of raiders like Mr. Pickens helped profoundly change American corporations by forcing management to acknowledge the supremacy of the shareholder. But the transformation created new pitfalls as well. Top executives linked their salaries to the performance of their companies’ shares and then enriched themselves further with stock options.
By the early 2000s, the obsession with ever-higher share prices led to numerous financial scandals involving multibillion-dollar firms whose management fraudulently manipulated company accounts to show profits instead of losses. And the short-term obsession with higher share prices often reduced longer-term investments.
In classic wildcatter style, Mr. Pickens’ fortunes rose to prodigious heights and then collapsed, only to resume their roller coaster course in later years. At the apex of his fame and fortune, in the mid-1980s, he appeared on the covers of national magazines, owned vast ranches and crisscrossed the country on corporate jets belonging to Mesa. He founded and headed the United Shareholders Association to lobby for more rights for ordinary shareholders and against legislation aimed at thwarting corporate raiders like him.
Then, in the 1990s, the Pickens cult collapsed. He borrowed excessively to expand Mesa’s natural gas production. But gas prices failed to rise, and as Mesa’s share price plummeted, the company became a target for corporate raiders. When he sought to save Mesa from a hostile takeover by poison pill tactics, he was denounced as a hypocrite in the press and even by members of his United Shareholders. He ended up being forced out of Mesa.
But a decade later, Mr. Pickens was again riding high. By 2002, thanks to a commodities fund he headed, his personal fortune climbed past $200 million, more than he was worth during his corporate-raiding heyday. He had also shed his old populist image and embraced the conservative Republican cause. During the 2004 presidential campaign that led to George W. Bush’s re-election, Mr. Pickens helped finance attacks on the Vietnam War record of Senator John Kerry, his Mr. Bush’s opponent.
By 2010, when he was past 80, Mr. Pickens had become a billionaire by running a natural gas-oriented hedge fund, BP Capital. He closed it down in January 2018 because of ill health and the fund’s poor performance.
Mr. Pickens also headed a nationwide campaign to push for energy self-sufficiency through the exploitation of natural gas, wind power and solar energy with the aim of reducing the United States’s dependence on oil imports from the Middle East.
“We’re infidels with most of these people, and they have no use for us,” he told The New York Times in 2010. He gained the backing of some environmentalists and liberal Democrats.
“It’s been valuable to have Boone as part of the team,” said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, in response to the oilman’s backing of alternative energy sources. Former Vice President Al Gore also backed Mr. Pickens’s alternative energy campaign.
Mr. Pickens even claimed to be willing to work with Senator Kerry despite his attacks against him only six years before. “That’s a long time ago,” Mr. Pickens told The Times in 2010. “When you’re old, you can’t remember that far back.”
But as was often the case, his claims outpaced reality. In June 2007, he announced he would build the world’s largest wind farm, installing huge wind turbines across the Texas Panhandle. By 2011 he had scrapped the project and decided to focus exclusively on natural gas — the energy source that most defined him.
T. Boone Pickens Jr. developed his nose for the oil-and-gas business as a boy. He was born on May 22, 1928, in Holdenville, Okla., a cattle town surrounded by oil wells. His father, Thomas Boone Pickens — a distant relative of the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone — was a lawyer for the Phillips Petroleum Company who speculated on oil leases. His mother, Grace (Molonson) Pickens, ran Holdenville’s gasoline-rationing program during World War II and, according to her son, provided a pragmatic, analytical outlook that balanced her husband’s risk-taking nature. “I was very fortunate in my gene mix,” Mr. Pickens said in a 1985 Time magazine cover story.
After graduating from Oklahoma State University in 1951, Mr. Pickens got a job as a geologist at Phillips, helped by a recommendation from his father. But bored by the large corporate structure, he quit a few years later. In 1956, he invested $2,500 to create his own drilling company. He took it public in 1964 and renamed it Mesa Petroleum.
Some 20 years later he launched a hostile, unsuccessful bid for Phillips. He had made similar failing takeover attempts in 1982 for Cities Services and in 1983 for Gulf Oil. Though portrayed as a reckless greenmailer, Mr. Pickens earned almost $900 million for himself and his allies by selling their shares in the three companies in the aftermath of the takeover bids.
Mr. Pickens’s five marriages — to Lynn O’Brien, Beatrice Carr Stuart, Madeleine Paulson, Nelda Cain and Toni Chapman Brinker — ended in divorce.
He is survived by four children from his first marriage, Deborah Pickens Stovall, Pam Pickens Grace and Michael and Tom Pickens; a daughter of his second wife’s, Liz Pickens Cordia, whom he adopted; 11 grandchildren, and a number of great-grandchildren.
Late in life, Mr. Pickens gained renown as a philanthropist, giving away almost $1 billion to charity, with half going to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University.
But even his philanthropy stirred controversy. According to The Times, a $165 million gift to Oklahoma State University on Dec. 30, 2005, “spent less than an hour on December 30 in the account of the university’s charity, O.S. Cowboy Golf Inc., before it was invested in a hedge fund controlled by Mr. Pickens, BP Capital Management.”
The university had previously placed $277 million in the fund, though Mr. Pickens asserted that he had waived any management fees for the university’s investments.
Mr. Pickens maintained that embarrassment had never deterred his multiple attempts to recast his image. “I have always believed that it’s important to show a new look periodically,” he told Forbes in 1994. “Predictability can lead to failure.”
Despite his boundless energy well into later years, toward the end of his life, after a series of strokes, he became more accepting of his mortality, writing on the job-networking website LinkedIn in July 2017:
“Just a year ago I felt immortal, wearing my age with pride, even joking about it. Last year I opened a speech with this: ‘The other day I turned 88 and realized my life was half over.’ I refused to call my 2008 autobiography ‘Life in the Fourth Quarter’ because, well, hell, I wasn’t in the fourth quarter. But things have changed for me since the strokes. I clearly am in the fourth quarter, and the clock is ticking.”