Despite Wildcatting Ways, McClendon Remembered For Generosity, Philanthropy

Mar 4, 2016

Two days after his surprising death, civic and industry leaders remembered Aubrey McClendon as a pioneer and a visionary in oil and natural gas drilling. But if you talk to current and former employees, they keep using one word: genuine.

“They really thought he cared about his employees, and I would say I agreed with that,” said Journal Record managing editor and KGOU contributor Adam Brooks, who worked for Chesapeake from 2011 to 2013. “Even when the company was more than 10,000 people, on your birthday you got a special message on your voicemail from Aubrey. He did take time to meet with every new employee.”

Brooks described McClendon as down-to-earth, with a ton of energy and a sharp sense of humor. He would eat with employees in restaurants on the energy giant’s campus at NW 63rd Street and Western Ave. Above all, McClendon wanted the best people working for him, and thought he could make that happen by treating them well. In a blog post, former employee E. Blake Jackson described what he called “Aubrey Orientation,” a small, informal group meeting with the CEO when they started working for Chesapeake:

New employees were set at tables situated in a semi-circle around the room with Aubrey front and center, slouching casually in his chair, sleeves rolled up and tie loosened like a philosophy professor preparing to give a lecture on Kant. First, he would go around the room, asking each person their name and responsibility within the company, what they liked to do in their spare time and where they’d grown up — he prided himself on being able to guess the mascot of any high school mentioned during these introductions. After he’d finished his inquiries, it was each employee’s turn to ask him a question.

Getting ready for Aubrey Orientation was nerve-racking. Because he’d personally met all 10,000-plus of his employees and because every one of them had been required to ask him a question — and because he very likely remembered them all! — the odds of asking something he’d already answered were pretty high. You didn’t want to bore him. At the same time, there were whispered legends about new CHKers who, in an effort to stand out, had asked questions so absurd their Chesapeake careers pretty much ended in that room.

McClendon and his business partner Tom Ward founded Chesapeake Energy in 1989 – with less than $50,000, as the story goes – before his 30th birthday. He built the company into an empire, not just in the energy sector, but throughout Oklahoma City. The company’s name is everywhere, most visibly on the downtown arena home to the Oklahoma City Thunder (which McClendon owned a sizeable stake in, often sitting courtside with his friend and fellow executive, team chairman Clayton Bennett). In 2012, state Sen. David Holt half-seriously quipped that a lost driver might look around and think they were in Maryland. But eventually, McClendon’s relationship with the company soured, climaxing in an acrimonious split in 2013.

“The debt that the company was built on caused a lot of problems with shareholders, especially as other companies were able to grow without the same debt,” Brooks said. “New leadership took over because of some activist shareholders, and eventually it was just untenable for him to work with the new board.”

A day after he left Chesapeake for good, McClendon started American Energy Partners, a private affiliates manager that builds smaller units with the goal of spinning them off independently. AEP’s future isn’t clear, and there’s no obvious succession plan.

Read The Journal Record's 2007 extended interview with McClendon

Throughout a three-decade career, McClendon left a global mark. Brooks says U.S. energy independence was an explicit goal.

“He saw it as a patriotic duty to make sure that we could produce more energy domestically and be less dependent on the Middle East and other unstable areas of the world. And in Oklahoma City he used what he earned to help benefit the city. The expression I heard him use a lot was giving people a hand up, not a hand out.”

McClendon’s generosity was legendary. He would go out of his way to help friends, colleagues, and even strangers.

Credit Facebook

McClendon truly loved his city. Mayor Mick Cornett praised him not only for bringing the Thunder, but also for his involvement with the Boys and Girls Club of OKC and the Boathouse District along the Oklahoma River. Some of the interests were personal, some professional, but McClendon approached them all with the same drive that built Chesapeake into one of the country’s largest producers of natural gas.

“Besides whatever specific projects he backed, the idea that a big employer should also be a big leader in terms of giving, I don't think that happens everywhere,” Brooks said “That's certainly an ethic that we have in Oklahoma City. He was a big part of that.”

Tributes and praise will continue to pour in, but McClendon’s peers within the industry point out it’s important to remember him as a complex figure who still had flaws.

McClendon’s death came just one day after the U.S. Department of Justice indicted him on conspiracy accusations he colluded with another, unnamed company to keep the prices of oil leases in northwest Oklahoma down. Federal prosecutors say it’s just the first action in an ongoing investigation. In a statement Tuesday night, McClendon denied the charges, and said they were completely unprecedented.

“As far as we know, at least the case against Aubrey McClendon is over. It was a criminal charge against an individual, and you can't charge someone posthumously for a crime,” Brooks said. “We're not sure who else would be involved. We don't know who that other company is. There's a lot of speculation. It's possible that other individuals will be charged. It's possible that other companies could be involved.”

What exactly happened on March 2 – shortly after 9 a.m. on a desolate, rural stretch of Midwest Blvd. near the Turner Turnpike in far northeast Oklahoma City – will probably always be opaque. But the warm remembrances and reflection prove how significant a void McClendon’s death leaves not just in the oil and gas industry, but in Oklahoma and the thousands of lives he touched.

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