Maverick oil man T. Boone Pickens Jr. apparently is on the prowl again--and the biggest question may be who's going to wind up with his prey.
Last winter, Pickens, the chairman of Mesa Petroleum Co., made an abortive bid for General American Oil Co. that eventually propelled the company into the arms of Phillips Petroleum Co. A few months earlier, Pickens made a run at Cities Service Co., which finally found shelter as a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corp.
Pickens' target this time is Superior Oil Co. Mesa has been amassing shares in the company for some time now, and his purchases are believed to be the reasons for stepped-up activity in Superior stock in the past few days.
But analysts aren't sure that Pickens has the wherewithal for a multibillion-dollar takeover of Superior, and there's speculation on Wall Street that, once again, Pickens may be aced out by another company--perhaps Exxon, according to one recurrent rumor.
Which may be Pickens' intention. "I think it's pretty clear that Mesa is hoping to serve as some sort of a catalyst," says Paul Leibman, an analyst at Paine Webber.
That could be very profitable for Mesa, which made a lot of money on its holdings in General American and Cities Service when those companies eluded its grasp. There are some analysts who believe that Pickens set himself up as the trigger in those deals, and now in Superior, simply to turn a profit on the ultimate outcome.
Another analyst, considering that Mesa could be left high and dry with its expensive stock holding if no other offer for Superior is forthcoming, says, "Maybe this time, Boone Pickens will get his comeuppence . . . He's playing an interesting game."
Pickens is mum on his plans--he couldn't be reached for comment yesterday--except to insist that Mesa's shares of Superior simply represent an investment.
But analysts agree that Superior is ripe for a merger. The owner of huge reserves of natural gas and oil, assets that have attracted big prices in takeovers in recent years, Superior has been racked this year by a family feud straight out of the TV show "Dallas"--and one that has apparently made the company vulnerable to takeover.
The apparent victor in the battle is Willametta Keck Day, a major shareholder, who rebelled against a stockholder group led by her brother, former chairman Howard B. Keck. Willametta Keck Day's faction won stockholder approval of a plan to create a committee of three outside directors who would be required to evaluate takeover bids and recommend acceptance of any "reasonable offer" for more than 45 percent of the company's stock. That action had the support of Mesa, which holds about 3.9 million shares--a bit more than 3 percent--of Superior's stock.
Analysts estimate that it will take $6 billion or so to come up with an offer that would be deemed "reasonable." That's probably more than Mesa can afford, but is within reach of most of the big oil companies.