“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning. ”
T. Boone Pickens
"I try to live by one simple rule," said T. Boone Pickens. "Work eight hours and sleep eight hours, and make sure they are not the same eight hours." He chuckled and then added, "But I have to tell you, I'm not doing so well these days following that rule. I need a hell of a lot more than eight hours to get in all the work I need to do."
At age 80-a time when most billionaire tycoons are happily retired-the famous Texas oil wildcatter is indeed working, in the words of one of his associates, "like an ambitious kid just making his way up the ladder." Besides running BP Capital in Dallas, an energy hedge fund that manages several billion dollars in assets, Pickens has recently published an autobiography titled The First Billion Is the Hardest: Reflections on a Life of Comebacks and America's Energy Future. Now he is crisscrossing the country, promoting an energy policy he calls the Pickens Plan. He believes it will help end America's $700 billion a year dependence on foreign oil.
His solution? Use wind energy for power generation and shift part of the country's natural-gas production into transportation for fleet vehicles such as buses and taxis. Such a move, he said, would cut our use of imported oil by more than 30 percent by the end of the next decade.
So far, Americans are enthusiastically responding to what Pickens has to say. His Web site (pickens plan.com) has received nearly nine million hits. Some 750,000 citizens have signed up to join what Pickens calls the "New Energy Army." Meanwhile, reporters constantly seek his opinions on everything from the price of oil to politics to the stock market's turbulence.
We interviewed him on his Gulfstream G550, while he was flying to California to meet with a group of corporate executives to discuss the Pickens Plan.
Time magazine once said you use your jet the way people in New York City use taxis. Is that right?
It's pretty close. I'm on this jet at least three days a week.
You've obviously had your Gulfstream designed to fit your needs exactly.
I like to call it "The T. Boone Express." I've put two large television screens up by my seat in the front so I can always watch the CNBC and Fox Business cable channels. I've got five phones scattered throughout the jet so I can always be in contact with whoever needs to get a hold of me. I've put a good-size table in the middle of the cabin so we can have meetings. And I've redesigned the back of the jet so that it contains two couches that fold out into a king-size bed, in case I need my eight hours sleep. I've even had the stripes on the jet's exterior painted orange, my favorite color [and the color of his alma mater, Oklahoma State University].
How big is your crew?
Well, there's no flight attendant. Before a flight, we stock the cabin with snacks and sandwiches and drinks, and that's it. Usually, I end up bussing the tables. As for the pilots, I've got two who work for me full-time and we pick up a contract pilot whenever we need to. We did have three full-time pilots, but one just quit. He
was in his twenties and had a young family, and he finally came to me and said, 'Mr. Pickens, as much as I love flying for you, I can't handle the schedule. I never get a chance to see my kids.' I told him he was doing the right thing.
Would it be possible to do what you do if you flew commercial?
Let me tell you what I did just the other day. Early in the morning, we flew out of Dallas to New York for a speech. Then we headed back to the jet to do a town meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., and then we raced back to the jet so I could get to Los Angeles to do Jay Leno that night. The next day, we were off to Salt Lake City to do a town hall meeting for the Pickens Plan. Someone said, "This is crazy. You'll never get in all these appearances." But we did. We always get there. And there wouldn't be a chance in hell for me to get there if I went commercial.
When did you buy your first airplane?
In 1969. It was a 421 Cessna that we flew mostly from Amarillo, where I then had my oil company, to Houston for meetings. We'd always have to stop and refuel on the way back. In 1972, after my company, Mesa Petroleum, went public, we stepped up to a jet, a 25B Lear. I mostly used a Lear for the next several years, especially when I was going to New York during the takeover days. [In the 1980s, Pickens launched several attempts to gain controlling interest in publicly held oil companies such as Gulf and Phillips Petroleum.] And then, well, I had to spend a little while using commercial flights again.
You're obviously talking about 1996 [when Mesa Petroleum itself became the target of a corporate raider, leading to Pickens' removal as CEO].
Yeah, I wasn't exactly rolling in money [Pickens was also going through a nasty divorce] and so I was back on Southwest Airlines. I wasn't complaining. I got to know a lot of interesting people and I had some good conversations. But when business started heating up again, I knew there was no way I could do what I wanted to do without my own plane. And let's be honest. Without the plane, I wouldn't be able to spend weekends at my ranch up in the Panhandle.
Is it true you went so far as to install a 6,000-foot concrete runway with adjacent hangar on your ranch?
Well, the ranch is 68,000 acres. We do have a little room for a runway.
Speaking of the Panhandle, that's also where you are starting work on what you have called "the biggest deal" of your career.
We're going to build the world's largest wind energy farm out there, as many as 2,000 wind turbines spread over four counties. When it's completed, it will generate enough electricity to power more than 1.3 million homes. We estimate the cost of the project to be at around $10 billion, but we're doing it. I'm putting my money where my mouth is. It doesn't make much sense that I would go around the country promoting wind energy if I'm not doing something about it myself.
In your now-famous television commercials, you say that we can't drill our way out of the energy crisis that is now facing us-a pretty remarkable comment coming from an oilman.
Look, I'm not suggesting we cut back on our oil exploration in the United States. But there's just not enough oil here for us to keep up with the demand, even if we drill in Alaska and everywhere offshore. If we don't come up with another plan, and if oil prices continue to rise, we could very well be spending $10 trillion for foreign oil within a decade. That would wreck us. We have to face facts: we need wind farms built from Texas all the way up through the Midwest. We need solar and other alternative energy. We have to get into these businesses. And that means getting our politicians to show some leadership. That means getting them to step forward and say, "We're going to do what it takes to end our fatal addiction to oil."
This fall, you attempted to make energy the top issue in the presidential campaign. What are your post-election plans?
Oh, I promise you, we've just begun. I want to bring one million people to Washington to demand that Congress and the White House come up with an energy plan within the first hundred days of the new administration. I am going to do everything I can to get Congress to approve tax credits for companies that invest in wind energy and other renewable energy sources, and I also am going to fight for tax credits for automakers that begin to build cars that run on compressed natural gas. There are seven million natural-gas-powered vehicles on the road worldwide, but only 150,000 in the United States, which is just ridiculous. Natural gas comes from fields right here in our own backyard. And if you have a car outfitted to burn compressed natural gas, then you would be paying one third the price to fill up that car that you would if you were using gasoline.
Your critics claim that what you're really doing is lobbying for tax breaks so you can get even richer with your wind farm.
Well, sure, I want to make a profit on my wind farm-I am a businessman, you know-but do you really think I'm doing this because I need more money? In the next 10 years, this country is going to need a 15-percent increase in the amount of energy we use, and do we really want it to come from more foreign oil? Do we really want to just sit here and keep doing nothing? I want people to look at me and say, "That old fart, he's 80 years old, he's out there still plugging, putting those wind turbines up at his age, and if he can do it, I can do it, too."
But are you really certain wind can become a major source of electricity for the U.S.? So far, wind supplies about 1 percent of the country's power. Some experts say it would cost $1 trillion to build enough turbines to get the kind of wind power that could provide 20 percent of our electricity.
You're not looking at the big picture. Compared to the $700 billion a year we pay for foreign oil, that trillion-dollar cost is not high at all. Now, does my plan solve all the energy problems we've got? No, but at least it's a plan. As I like to say, a fool with a plan is better than a genius with no plan, and right now, we look like fools without a plan.
In his New York Times column, Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman described you as "the green billionaire" because of your commitment to renewable energy. Do you ever have any qualms about your own carbon imprint, especially when you consider the amount of energy you use for your own jet?
Oh, come on. I'm working my ass off trying to make a significant change in this country, and I've got to get around this country to get out my message. Let me tell you what this country will look like if the Pickens Plan is enacted. We'll have wind and solar energy that leaves no carbon imprint whatsoever, and we'll have natural-gas-powered cars that will emit far less carbon dioxide and almost no carbon monoxide compared to standard gasoline-powered cars.
So obviously, we're going to be seeing the T. Boone Express in the air for many days to come.
Not only that, I'm on the waiting list to buy a Gulfstream G650. I'm told it will be about 10 years before mine is ready.
Your wife Madeleine couldn't get you bumped up higher on the waiting list? [Madeleine Pickens is the widow of Allen Paulson, who formed Gulfstream American after buying the Grumman American from Grumman Aerospace in 1978. She and Pickens married in 2006.]
Nope, we're waiting our turn. But that's all right. I'm not going anywhere. I've still got a hell of a lot to do before I say good-bye. A hell of a lot.
Name: T. Boone Pickens
Occupation: oil and gas producer, hedge-fund operator and chief advocate of the Pickens Plan.
Transportation: Gulfstream G550, which he flies about 600 hours a year.
Personal: Lives in Dallas with his fourth wife Madeleine, whom he married in 2006.