When Clayton Williams ran for governor in 1990, he made an offhand remark so famous it should appear on his tombstone—though, of course, he’d never allow it. It was a rainy day in March, and the press had gathered at his ranch outside Midland to watch some cattle roping. When one of his hands mentioned to him that the reporters were getting restless, good ol’ boy Williams tried to make light of the situation by comparing bad weather to rape: “If it’s inevitable,” he said, “just relax and enjoy it.” After that comment appeared in print and went on to make national news, Williams’ twenty-point lead over Ann Richards plummeted, and she went on to beat him by a hair.
Even in defeat, however, Williams remained the eternal optimist, choosing to return to the business world rather than retire to his front-porch swing. Today, ten years to the month after he kicked off his quest for office, the 67-year-old presides over a multimillion-dollar empire that includes an oil company, Clayton Williams Energy; a real estate development company, ClayDesta; and 180,000 acres of ranchland, where he runs seven thousand head of cattle and grows cotton.
While he may have been a political neophyte, Williams knew business. A Texas A&M graduate who started out selling life insurance, he parlayed $2,000 in savings into an energy, real estate, banking, and telecommunications conglomerate with $1 billion in revenues, landing him on Forbes magazine’s list of the wealthiest Americans in 1984. After successfully lobbying against a deregulation bill sought by AT&T, he decided to run for governor. He ended up spending $8 million of his own money on his unsuccessful campaign.
The day after the election, he went right back to work, focusing on a hot new technology called horizontal drilling. By 1991, Clayton Williams Energy had become one of the most active horizontal drillers in the country, with 91 producing wells. Williams capitalized on that success by taking the company public in 1993, which allowed him to pay down debt, acquire new properties, and build up sales, which rose from $59.5 million in 1993 to $75 million in 1997.
But last fall, when oil prices tumbled to $10 a barrel, even Williams faced hard times. In mid-March his company reported a net loss for 1998 of just over $29 million. With bankers at his door, he was forced to sell off assets, including eight non-operating oil-and-gas wells in Matagorda County for $5.2 million and his interest in the Jalmat Field in New Mexico for $12.5 million. Williams says he’s sold about 20 percent of his assets and cut 33 percent of his overhead through layoffs and other measures over the past year. “We’ve been hammered like everybody,” he says. “We’re surviving, but, by golly, it’s been tough.”
Williams sees a brighter future in natural gas and is trying to redirect his company accordingly. His reasoning? “We don’t have a Saudi Arabia producing gas in this country,” he says. “It’s more difficult to liquefy and import, and demand is up. With production and drilling declining, natural gas looks very, very positive.” How positive? Last November he completed the acquisition of three East Texas gas fields from Sontal Exploration Company for $46.5 million with the help of financier GTE Capital Structured Finance Group. Although his company’s share price has dropped from $13 to $5, some analysts expect Williams to end up just fine. “He’s a survivor,” says Tom Covington of the Denver investment firm Hanifen Imhoff, who has been following Williams’ exploits for years. “He’s been through a lot of these ups and downs and will continue to do well.”
But not so well that he’ll ever seek office again. In fact, the whole subject really doesn’t interest him anymore, though he allows that he approves of the job George W. Bush is doing and supports him for president. Is there anything he learned from his one run? “That a sense of humor has no place in politics,” he says. Would he have done anything differently? “Oh, yeah,” he says. “But that’s life, isn’t it?”