The colorful Midland oilman, profiled by journalistMike Cochran in Claytie: The Roller-Coaster Life of a Texas Wildcatter, has made and lost fortunes, but he is best known for his unsuccessful 1990 gubernatorial campaign against Ann Richards.
The oil business has always been boom and bust. Which is more satisfying, the excitement or the money?
Excitement and achievement. It’s like exploration is to explorers. There is an excitement about going into the unknown, and that’s the parallel to our ancestors. Christopher Columbus, to whom I have likened my quest, serves as my illustration when I am asked the question, How do you run your business? I answer like this: “When Christopher Columbus left Spain he didn’t know where he was going. When he got to the new world he didn’t know where he was, and when he returned, he didn’t know where he’d been … and, he did it all on borrowed money.” That’s the excitement, and unlike our ancestors who had Indians shooting at them, we have dry holes as our obstacles.
What is the most heart-wrenching business decision you’ve made?
Laying-off people. Nothing else is even close. When you have to lay off a man or a woman when it is not their fault, then you’ve hurt people. And that’s the hardest thing I have ever had to do. And, I had to do it several times because of the precipitous slumps in the price of oil. It forced many employers to fail—many Texas Banks to fail—and it hurts them and you. But we had to get smaller to survive. Those of us who did survive, we had to get smaller before we could begin rebuilding. And we are rebuilding. I’ve said that in the eighties, when we had twenty rigs drilling, building pipelines, I was six foot four and owed $500 million. Today, I’ve paid off the money, but there is not a lot of me left. I’m not six foot four anymore.
Do you consider renewable-energy sources as an opportunity or a threat?
Alternative energy is absolutely needed for our long-term future. But, the threat is that it will come at a higher cost to the consumer than is being reported by its supporters.
What gets you going in the morning?
I still get to wake up to a good-looking woman, my wife, Modesta. Businesswise, we’re drilling two deep wildcats right now that may become a big discovery. Of course, I’m 75 years old—so waking up every morning excites me.
Do you have regrets about your try for the Governor’s Mansion?
My main regret was the inability to fight drugs harder. My oldest son had become addicted, and that was the reason I ran. Secondly, a lot of good Texans invested their time, energy, and finances to get me elected. I felt that I let them down. You’ve got to go forward, but, sure, those are regrets.
Your gubernatorial campaign was dogged by gaffes. Was that inexperience or bad advice?
It wasn’t bad advice. All of the mistakes were mine. I can’t blame them on anybody else. I have a sense of humor. I like to laugh and tell jokes. I like to make fun of things to make a serious point, but in the political arena, that can be turned on you quickly and easily.
How was your relationship with Ann Richards?
My battles were more with some of the media than with her. She was a dynamic person, had a great wit—and she kicked me good.
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