“Joe, what are you doing in Houston? The play is in New York.”
This was the phone call that launched one of the greatest business stories ever written. The Joe in question was Texas Monthly editor Joe Nocera. On the other end of the line: T. Boone Pickens.
The Amarillo oilman, not yet a household name in 1982, was preparing to make a takeover offer for the much larger, Tulsa-based Cities Service Company. Word had leaked, and, in a clever defensive gambit, Cities had turned around and threatened to acquire Pickens’s Mesa. The two companies were locked in mortal combat, with an uncertain outcome. The action was on Wall Street and midtown Manhattan, so what was Joe doing in Houston?
A few weeks earlier, Nocera had visited Pickens at his home in Amarillo. They dined on blackened catfish and drank a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé. Nocera pitched Pickens on a profile, and the media-hungry magnate agreed. Nocera was working on it when news broke that Cities Service had launched a hostile bid for Pickens’s Mesa. He was in the right place at the right time, except he was in the wrong city.
A flight from Houston to New York later, Nocera checked into the Waldorf-Astoria, the same hotel where Pickens and his team had encamped. Over the next two weeks, he would witness the twists and turns of a hostile corporate takeover deal from the inside. No one had ever had that kind of access, and almost no one else would in the future.
Pickens enjoyed having Nocera hang around his suite, but the interloper made the New York bankers and lawyers nervous. He was periodically escorted from the suite. But the thing to know about a suite of rooms at the Waldorf-Astoria is that there is more than one entrance.
Twice a day “we’d try to run him out and he’d sneak back in,” recalls Bobby Stillwell, a Baker Botts attorney who was in the suite during the takeover battle. Often it was Pickens himself who would let Nocera in. On one pivotal day, when the fate of Mesa was unclear and Pickens was nursing a hangover, Nocera sat in a corner and made himself as small and inconspicuous as possible. “I couldn’t afford to get thrown out that day,” he says. “And that was the day everybody forgot who I was. And they didn’t throw me out. And I got one of the greatest endings in the history of business journalism.” (This seems as good a time as there ever was trot out an old saying, often attributed to former Texas A&M coach Bear Bryant: “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.”)
The article captures a side of the captains of industry that is often hidden from public view. There is the utter lack of regard Pickens has for what he views as the incompetent Cities management. There is the way Pickens entices a New York Times reporter with a quote that is too good to pass up.
But more than anything, the story captures a decisive point in Texas business history. It was the moment when Texas’s CEOs shed their provincial, anti–New York views and began to get comfortable coming to New York and putting their stamp on the affairs of the day. Boone Pickens, a folksy executive from the High Plains, played the pin-striped M&A bankers like a country fiddle. So Joe, what are you doing in Houston? The play is in New York. Come on up and watch the show.
Nocera went on to a storied career covering business at Newsweek, Fortune, and the New York Times. Pickens’s play for Cities was his introduction to the beat. “I had never written a business story before. So I was naive beyond belief,” he says. His access was unprecedented.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a journalist. It doesn’t come along every day, but [what] I never, never thought was that it would never happen again. And it never has,” he says. “No one has ever gotten inside a takeover ever since.”