For the past few years, T. Boone Pickens Jr. has been the scourge of the oil industry, a soft-spoken maverick who has challenged the management at several of the nation's largest oil companies by buying majority positions in the companies' stock and threatening to take them over to maximize stockholder values. Pickens, the chairman of Mesa Petroleum Co., has yet to succeed in gaining control of one of his major targets, but in each case, he has walked away from the deal with a large profit on the investment.
Last year, his pursuit of Gulf Corp. led to that company's record $13.2 billion takeover by Chevron Corp. at a per-share price double what Gulf had been selling for two years earlier. More recently, he went after Phillips Petroleum Co., eventually dropping his bid when Phillips' management agreed to a reorganization that will be worth $53 a share to himself and other Phillips stockholders -- several dollars more than the stock's market value before Pickens began buying Phillips shares last November.
Last week, in an interview with staff writer Mark Potts, Pickens discussed his pursuit of Phillips, his views on the current state of the oil industry and other matters. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation:
Q You've said that you were willing to settle with Phillips because you were worried about how the oil market had weakened in the 17 days between when you announced the offer on Dec. 4 and when you began to negotiate a settlement. Did it weaken that much in just a couple of weeks?
A Well, I think the price didn't weaken that much, but the fundamentals weakened tremendously. And so our feeling at that point was that . . . we would still do a $60 per-share deal , but we would not do it in the face of continued, protracted legal maneuvers. We could eventually get through the legal problems, we felt. But they were going to extend us out for a period of time, and then we were going to find ourselves putting the money together to do a deal in the spring of '85 with even further deterioration in the price of oil. . . . We were willing to stick with our deal. But we were not going to fight to accomplish that.
Q Were you upset by the amount of adverse publicity you got, the amount of opposition you got from the people in Phillips' headquarters town of Bartlesville, Okla.?
A . . . That was an orchestrated defense by Phillips. We realized that. And I guess the part that was disappointing to me was that I thought that I had better credibility in Oklahoma than I had. We said that we would keep the company in Bartlesville and we'd move there and run it, and that seemed to somehow be lost, or there was a feeling that we were not being honest about it.
Q Do you have any sympathy for the arbitrageurs that got caught with stock when you settled with Phillips in a deal in which all shareholders were offered $53 a share? Many arbs thought they'd be getting more.
A Well, the first thing is that I don't think the arbs were playing our offer. Our offer was only an insurance policy for them. They believed that there would be a competing offer coming in, either the management would come in with a higher leveraged buyout or that you'd have a white knight come in above the 60s. So our offer was a kind of an escape valve for them, and they stepped in on that basis. . . .
Q What kind of communications have you had from the arbitrageurs? You were their hero after the Gulf deal. Did the outcome of Phillips change their attitude at all?
A Oh, I don't know. Ivan Boesky perhaps the richest private arbitrageur called me and said he just wanted me to know that he knew that I did what I felt was best for my stockholders. . . .
Q Given what you said about your concerns about the fundamentals of the oil market, what are your plans for the future?
A Well, I have to go back to my primary responsibility to Mesa: You make the best use of cash flow available. And if we can do it cheaper in exploration, I'd rather explore. If it would be cheaper through acquisition, then I'd rather acquire.
Q Is the case now that exploration is cheaper?
A Well, it eventually may be cheaper, but there's nothing in the foreseeable future that would indicate that it will be cheaper than acquiring.
Q So can we expect you then maybe to look at another target at some point or another?
A Oh yes, I think we will continue to look at acquisitions.
Q Are you thinking about going outside the oil industry for an acquisition?
A Sure. Again, I have to go back to what my responsibility is. . . . I've got to put the money where it's going to do the most good. I don't think you'll see us rushing into any other industry, because we don't want to make some of the mistakes that other oil companies have made in the past. Mobil, Exxon, Sohio, Arco, have all made disastrous acquisitions.
Q What do you see for the oil industry in the next few years? Do you see a continuation of these weakened fundamentals, or do you see prices stabilizing?
A I think there's a case for it stabilizing. . . . I think we're going to see the price of oil cheaper a year from now than it is today. Those kind of unknowns are not going to get you aggressive exploration, obviously. With those kind of uncertainties, you've got an industry that is going to be looking for deals very, very closely.
Q Do you think that the crusade against undervalued companies that you've been on the last couple of years is having any impact on management of other oil companies? Do you think the industry is trying to do some of the things that you've advocated?
A I don't think there's any doubt about it. I think the industry, the larger companies, whether we've been an influence or not . . . [are] trying to get the stock price up. They're trying to get market price close to appraised value, which is exactly what they should have been doing for the last 20 years.
Q There's been some talk that you might turn from business to politics and run on the Republican ticket for governor of Texas in 1986. Are you considering that?
A It's a possibility, and what we've said is that that decision doesn't have to be made until well up into '85.