CELEBRITY HANGS IN THE AIR almost forever. This is particularly true when that celebrity is connected with money. Even though it has been more than a decade since his daring raids on Wall Street landed his photograph on the covers of Time and Fortune and made his company millions of dollars, Boone Pickens on a recent Tuesday night was still a presence in a smart restaurant in Dallas. I saw necks stretched at odd angles as several other patrons strained for a look at him, and the waiters seemed positively flustered. In their confusion they referred to him as both Mr. Pickens and Mr. Boone.
At 69 Boone still looks fit and healthy, not so different from his glory days in the eighties. He was wearing a blue blazer and a white shirt with an open collar. “I never wear ties anymore,” he said at one point. At first I thought this small idiosyncrasy was an important sign of how the years had changed Boone, a personal statement similar to a priest’s refusing ever to wear his collar again. After all, the first time I met Boone he had given me a brief but intense disquisition about proper dress. It was 1982 in New York, and we were in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria. He was in the midst of his first takeover attempt, leading his small Mesa and its assets of $2 billion against the huge Cities Service and its assets of $6 billion. He said Texans shouldn’t come to New York to do business in boots. He always wore conservative suits and ties, “investment banker suits” he called them. “Look at you,” he said, pointing down at my black wing tips, “you know what I mean. You’re wearing investment banker shoes.”
But during our dinner, I changed my mind about his open collar. I decided that it was not a sign of change in Boone but of the change in the times. Boone could get away with not wearing a tie because nobody cared whether he did or didn’t. What Wall Street may or may not think of him wasn’t so important anymore. And Wall Street, for its part, didn’t seem to be thinking much at all about Boone, tieless or not. And maybe the world outside Wall Street wasn’t thinking about him either. “‘Boom’ Is a Four-letter Word” (see page 82) shows how much our economy has changed in the past decade, led neither by oil and gas men nor by corporate raiders. Boone was an oil and gas man and a corporate raider.
In the past year he had lost control of Mesa, the company he had founded in 1956 and run for the next forty years. After the announcement of his departure, Mesa’s stock rose. As if that weren’t enough, he was in the middle of a nasty divorce from his second wife, Bea, whom he had married in 1972. She was with him during his audacious deals in the eighties and is almost as vivid a character in his autobiography , Boone, as he is. His children were grown, and he lived in a townhouse in Dallas, where he had moved in 1989 after living most of his life in Amarillo. How did he feel about his life now when all he had worked for was not only past but gone, and not only gone but glad to be rid of him? But reflecting on himself is not Boone’s strong point. “I was ready to leave Mesa,” he said. “Two or three years ago I thought it would be hard to leave. But in early 1996 the chief operating officer left, and I took over everything. Eight managers reported to me, and I secretly thought that God did that because after three months of eight managers reporting to me, I was ready to go. I was reading late at night what I didn’t really want to be reading. But I had to, because they wanted to talk to me the next day and I had to be ready. The transition was easy, one hundred percent pleasant as far as I was concerned, and I think the new man felt the same way. Now I miss the people but not the job.” So much for forty years.
He has two new businesses, trading in natural gas contracts and a fueling company operating mostly around Los Angeles. Mesa had had a trading division that Boone was able to bring with him at the end. “I got to take what I wanted,” he said, “and leave what I didn’t.” He spends a lot of time studying weather patterns in the South Pacific—“That’s what affects the El Niño event”—to determine if weather in the United States will increase or decrease demand for natural gas. He watches gas production in the Gulf of Mexico and the condition of nuclear power plants. If a plant is forced to close for maintenance, demand for gas will go up. Thus, he reads constantly, although it is never anything but charts, reports, and the like. “I haven’t read a book in years,” he said. And when the market is open, he checks it constantly. “I take a cellular phone when I play golf so I can call about the market. My friends know I play better that way. Otherwise I worry too much.” When I told him that two years ago I had spent a month in a foreign country without seeing any newspapers or television in English, he looked at me in stunned disbelief and was for a moment even at a loss for words. “You must not be in the market,” he said finally and, I must admit, accurately.
His research is thorough and complicated, but his trading style is simple enough. He makes a decision and sticks to it. “I’m not a day trader,” he said. “We have our own technique, and it has been good to us. I have to get in rhythm and stick with my rhythm.