Mr. Pickens — a distant relative of frontiersman Daniel Boone — was one of a handful of fearsome, high-stakes corporate raiders who helped define the Reagan-era boardroom scene and who set a raucous tone at shareholder meetings. He targeted companies he considered undervalued — mostly oil firms, including Gulf Oil Corp. — and bought conspicuous chunks of stock in the expectation that management, to keep control of the business, would pay a premium to buy it back.
Critics called this stratagem “greenmail” and condemned it for ignoring the interests of employees, customers and management. Fortune magazine dubbed Mr. Pickens “the most hated man in corporate America” during that era, while he presented himself as a drawling David battling petroleum Goliaths.
Mr. Pickens’s bold forays into the stock market and his visibility on magazine covers and on TV made him one of the few businessmen in the 1980s who were instantly recognizable to the average American. He was a ubiquitous presence in the media, which could not get enough of his folksy takedowns of corporate chieftains as greedy ignoramuses. Entrenched executives, he said, “who themselves own few shares of their companies, have no more feeling for the average stockholder than they do for baboons in Africa.”
Mr. Pickens disputed his reputation as a “raider,” describing himself as an activist who “changed the value” of companies led by hapless executives.
“When we started buying stock in Gulf Oil, it was $33,” he once told Playboy. “It had been $33 for 10 years. When we sold our shares back, it was $80 a share. At $40, the market cap was $6 billion. At $80, it was $13 billion.” (Mr. Pickens’s company made a profit of $760 million.)
A prosperous wildcatter in his 20s, he spent much of his career as president and board chairman of Mesa Petroleum, which he expanded into a regional behemoth through acquisitions before tasting the potential for even bigger revenue streams by forcing companies to pay him to go away.
From 1983 through 1985, Mr. Pickens launched three of the most daring takeover bids in U.S. corporate history, for Gulf, Phillips Petroleum and Unocal Corp. In the process, he became one of the highest-paid executives in the country at the time, with $20 million in salary and deferred compensation.
Mesa’s splashiest bid was for Gulf, then the fifth-largest U.S. oil company, with 40,000 employees. Mr. Pickens, whose Mesa ranked 92nd with 700 employees, was undaunted and bid $55 a share. That move prompted a counteroffer of $70 a share by Atlantic Richfield Co., better known as Arco.
Mesa kept bidding while Gulf management sought other suitors, finally agreeing to an offer by Standard Oil of California for $80 a share; the merged company was named Chevron.
Although they deployed poison pills, resorted to the courts for help and got employees to demonstrate in favor of management, Phillips Petroleum and Unocal also ended up paying off Mesa.
The triple bid had far-reaching consequences — for the oil industry and for Mr. Pickens. His example of prospecting via merger led to the acquisition of three majors by other majors: Texaco by Chevron, Mobil Oil by Exxon and Standard Oil of Ohio by British Petroleum.
Mr. Pickens soon landed on the cover of Time and became known as a spokesman for shareholders, many of them pensioners and retirees, who showered the oilman with fan mail.
The groundswell of popular support led Mr. Pickens to found the United Shareholders Association in 1986. Although short-lived, the lobbying group persuaded the Securities and Exchange Commission to drop restrictions on communication between investors and companies making hostile bids and to allow outside directors to meet without managers present.
“Boone did a super job reversing the controls on communications,” corporate governance authority Nell Minow said. “It was extremely timely.”
Although today’s takeover struggles don’t match the intensity of those of the era of Mr. Pickens, the idea that shareholder rights are best upheld by high stock prices is now widely accepted in discussions of corporate governance.
Thomas Boone Pickens Jr. was born in Holdenville, Okla., a town of 3,000 surrounded by oil wells, on May 22, 1928. His father was a lawyer for Phillips Petroleum who bet his family’s modest wealth on oil-lease deals but whose efforts never amounted to a big payoff. He was also a gambler who often played poker until dawn. “The big cat walks just before daylight, boys,” Mr. Pickens recalled his father quipping.
Mr. Pickens’s mother was the fiscal disciplinarian, even serving as an administrator of gas rationing during World War II. “I was very fortunate in my gene mix,” Mr. Pickens told Time. “The gambling instincts I inherited from my father were matched by my mother’s gift for analysis.”
Mr. Pickens developed an early taste for deals when he started delivering newspapers, initially to 28 addresses. He expanded his operation by taking over other boys’ routes until he was delivering 155 papers.
Despite his height of 5-foot-8, Mr. Pickens was a standout high school basketball player in Amarillo, Tex., where his family had settled. He won a basketball scholarship to Texas A&M University but lost the scholarship after breaking his elbow, then transferred to what is now Oklahoma State University. After working summers as a Texaco refinery roughneck and a fireman and boiler maintainer for a railroad company, he graduated with a degree in petroleum geology in 1951.
That year, he started out as a well-site geologist for Phillips. Frustrated by the stodgy corporate culture, he quit in 1955 with $1,500 in the bank and a growing family to support to set out as a wildcatter.
With two partners, he started Amarillo-based Petroleum Exploration. In 1964, he took the company public under the name Mesa Petroleum and soon realized that as much money could be had in exploration, even more could potentially be found in acquisition.
With the Unocal takeover fight, Mr. Pickens’s reign as king of the corporate raiders was coming to an end. To repel Mesa, Unocal offered investors $72 a share but did not include Mr. Pickens’s shares in the deal. Reversing a lower court decision in favor of Mr. Pickens, the Delaware Supreme Court found that Unocal could treat a raider differently from other stockholders. Mr. Pickens made money on Unocal but far less than he had hoped to.
In 1989, he moved Mesa headquarters to Dallas after becoming involved in local political squabbles. Over the next several years, he amassed $1 billion in debt through lavish payouts to Mesa shareholders, losses that he compounded with a bad bet that natural gas prices would rise. In 1996, as he suffered from long-simmering but undiagnosed depression, he was forced by insiders to yield control.
He started a new investment company, BP Capital, which operated hedge funds devoted primarily to oil and gas futures. The funds swallowed tens of millions of dollars in their first years before rebounding by hundreds of millions in 2000, an achievement that coincided with the end of Mr. Pickens’s depression after he sought treatment. In a capstone confidence boost, Forbes magazine placed him on its list of billionaires.
Mr. Pickens was an early exponent of the peak oil theory, which held that the world would soon run out of oil to pump. The rise of fracking, which made hard-to-reach oil accessible, upended the theory.
He began to advocate for an energy policy that he said would wean America from its addiction to foreign oil — and that would also benefit companies in which Mr. Pickens had a financial stake. He called natural gas produced in North America a “patriotic” fuel source and promoted his plan by appearing on television commercials. Speaking of the Middle Eastern oil players, he told the New York Times in 2010, “We’re infidels with most of those people and they have no use for us.”
The Pickens Plan called for a massive buildup of wind turbines to provide energy to cities and factories. That would divert the natural gas used by utilities, first to trucks and later to cars, eliminating the need for gasoline.
The president of the Sierra Club declared his support of the plan, but other environmentalists pointed out that the conversion costs to natural gas for the nation’s car fleet would be prohibitively high.
Mr. Pickens was portrayed in profiles as a workaholic and an impatient, often caustic husband and father. His marriages to Lynn O’Brien, with whom he had four children, Beatrice Carr, Nelda Cain, Madeleine Paulson and Toni Brinker, widow of causal-dining entrepreneur Norman Brinker
, ended in divorce.
Mr. Pickens’s son Michael, who admitted to struggling with substance abuse, pleaded guilty to orchestrating a stock fraud scheme and was sentenced in 2007 to probation. A grandchild, Thomas IV, died of a heroin overdose in 2013.
Survivors include four children from his first marriage; a stepdaughter he adopted during his second marriage; 11 grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren.
Mr. Pickens was a major donor to the Republican Party and especially close to the Bush political dynasty. In 2004, when President George W. Bush was seeking reelection, Mr. Pickens helped bankroll Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group whose advertisements impugned Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry’s (D-Mass.) record as a decorated Navy veteran of the Vietnam War.
Mr. Pickens’s philanthropy was substantial. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that he donated $7 million to help Hurricane Katrina victims. He bequeathed $500 million to Oklahoma State, which named the football stadium after Mr. Pickens.
Mr. Pickens, who titled his 2008 memoir “The First Billion Is the Hardest,” relished a life devoted to risk, as long as it was educated risk. Forbes estimated that his personal fortune ranged over the years from a high of $4 billion to a recent low of $500 million, fluctuating based on his investments and donations.
In 2014, a year after he fell off the Forbes list of 400 wealthiest Americans, then-85-year-old Mr. Pickens told a reporter for the magazine: “I know I can make it all back — if I have enough time.”