When T. Boone Pickens Told Big Oil To ‘Take This Job And Shove It’
By T. Boone Pickens
I got the best traits of both of my parents. My dad was a risk taker.
A friend of his once told me, “Your dad would stand on his head and bet his ass.” I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not. My dad was an oil-well lease broker. He made a little money in the 1930s, then went belly-up in 1939. My mother was the opposite. She was very analytical and an excellent bridge player. She didn’t believe in sticking her neck out for anything.
I had two job offers out of school, one from Humble [which became Exxon] and one from Phillips. The Humble offer was for a surface job, and I didn’t want to do that. So I went to Phillips and moved to the headquarters in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. I was 23. I made $290 a month.
I don’t want to be too critical of Phillips. They didn’t come looking for me. I went looking for them, and they gave me a job. But I was amused by some of the things they did. Things were pretty rigid. They rang a bell to dismiss us all for lunch, then rang another to get us back to work. Then they rang a bell at five p.m. to tell us to go home. It was like they thought we couldn’t tell time. I was never in a hurry to leave at five. One time, just after six, I was still working and a security guard came up and asked me what I was doing. “I’m not done with my work,” I told him. He told me that I had to leave the building and that they had their eye on me because this wasn’t the first time I’d been working late.
Then one day, I went to look at the new Oldsmobile, the 88. I couldn’t afford it, but I wanted to look anyway. My supervisor called me in the next day and said he knew I had been looking at the Oldsmobiles and that I should know that the vice president of Phillips owned a Chevrolet dealership and that if I was going to buy a new car, I’d better look pretty closely at a Chevrolet. And he said if I buy a Chevrolet, I should have them put on Lee tires because Phillips makes Lee tires. I said, “OK, I got it. If I’m going to buy a new car, I should buy a Chevrolet with Lee tires.” He said, “You got it.” I wasn’t offended because at the time I could barely afford a bicycle. But the message was clear. They were a big company, and they got in your life pretty good.
I got transferred to Amarillo when I was 25. I was in a group of three people from Phillips who were working with three people from Amoco on a joint-interest study on some acreage in the Anadarko Basin. I was to help come up with a plan. It was a long year. Everything seemed to take too long. I had some prospective wells that I liked that Phillips wouldn’t even look at. I was starting to get frustrated. I felt constrained. I had been complaining to my wife about it. She told me, “Why don’t you just quit?”
One day, I asked my district geologist how long it would take before we could start to drill on this joint-interest project. He told me it would be a couple of years. And before I knew what I was doing, I just blurted out, “I won’t be here that long.” I guess I just didn’t have any more patience. I thought I could do better on my own.
The district geologist told me to call my wife. He closed my door and went to talk to the division manager. I didn’t call my wife. I just sat there and waited. He came back 15 minutes later and took me to the manager. The manager asked me why I was leaving. I told him I was restless, and I didn’t want to start something here and only get it halfway done and that I was ready to go. He called the manager back in Bartlesville, and I told him the same thing.
Then everything got sort of cold. They told me to clean out my desk and turn in my credit card and the keys to my company car. Nobody offered me a ride home or anything. I put everything I had in a pasteboard box and walked out into a cold north wind. I didn’t even have a jacket. I took the bus home. I got out and wondered what the hell I had just done. But I wasn’t that scared. I was too young to be scared.
I decided I would try to be funny when I told my wife what had happened. She saw me walk onto the front porch and asked me what I was doing home. I told her, “I did what you told me to do.” She said, “If you did, it would be the first time. What are you talking about?” I told her I’d quit. She said, “I didn’t really mean for you to quit; I was just tired of listening to you complain that they wouldn’t look at your prospects.” We had two kids at the time and another on the way.
I had been making $550 a month from Phillips at that point. Now I had to buy a car, and I had to get insurance. We had $1,500 in my company retirement account. That would last us three months. I did a spreadsheet and figured I had to make double what I did at Phillips to break even. I thought I could do it. My plan was to do some well-side geology work, drum up some drilling deals, and do some map work at night and sell those.
I made a big deal in the first month. I extended a field that had a good well on it. The lease was set to expire, and they farmed it out to me, and I made a good well on it. I made $5,000. I did well-side work and made $75 a day. I kept looking for open leases to buy. I had counted on selling two drilling deals that first year. I ended up selling seven. By the end of the year, I had nailed my number.
I had no idea how big it would eventually get. A few years later, I started Petroleum Exploration Inc., which would become Mesa Petroleum. But leaving that job at Phillips and going off on my own was the starting point. It expanded my horizons and gave me confidence. It enabled me to do what I’ve done.