Remembering Aubrey McClendon

Photo credit: Forbes

About 90 days into my tenure at Chesapeake Energy Corporation, I had the opportunity to join 30 or so of my colleagues for an intimate, no-holds-barred Q&A with our CEO, Aubrey K. McClendon. Aubrey Orientation, as it was called, had been a tradition at Chesapeake for many years. The company had grown rapidly during the shale boom of the mid-aughts, boasting an eleven-digit market cap and a workforce of more than 10,000 people by the time I joined. Aubrey wanted to meet every one of them.

The format for Aubrey Orientation was simple. 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.

I had prepared three questions for Aubrey that day, in hopes that I wouldn’t be caught flat-footed if another participant had a question similar to mine. Fortunately for me, my best one was still on the board when it came my turn to ask.

As I heard the tragic news of Aubrey’s death Wednesday, this moment rushed back and hit me, like a bucket of cold water being poured down my spine.

“Has there ever been a point in your life or career when you just wanted to give up?”

I don’t know all the circumstances surrounding Aubrey’s death. But here’s what I do know: the story of Aubrey McClendon deserved a better ending.

Aubrey Orientation wasn’t the last time I had a chance to talk with the man who signed his emails simply, “AKM.” Over the course of my three years with the company, I met with Aubrey about once a quarter to talk through digital communications strategy. He was wildly curious about social media. He saw “The Social Network” in theaters and asked me what I thought. I told him to read The Accidental Billionaires and he did. He believed in the power of social media at a time when many industry “leaders” were burying their heads in the sand. When anti-industry activists began using social media to rally grassroots opposition to oil and gas production in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York, most operators dug in their heels. Aubrey, on the other hand, approved a plan to create platforms for better transparency and direct interaction with the people who lived in Chesapeake’s areas of operation. He wanted to know what people were saying. And, as far as I could tell, he genuinely cared. Just like he did for the new CHKers he’d meet each month during orientation.

Aubrey genuinely cared about a lot of things. He incentivized employees to quit smoking. He offered paid time off for volunteer work in the community. He donated millions of dollars to his church and other charities, with a special emphasis on food insecurity, disaster recovery and education. He offered seed money to small businesses and local startups. He funded renovations to theaters and art galleries in parts of the city that had been forgotten. He literally brought the Thunder. There are a thousand people with a thousand stories of Aubrey buying them a drink at a local bar or picking up their check at a local restaurant, whether he knew them or not. In these acts, great and small, he helped turn a flyover city into a Destination. Yes, Aubrey lived well. But he didn’t do so in isolation. He shared his wealth with his community in an uncommonly generous way.

He clearly wasn’t perfect. He was called vain, arrogant, addicted to risk, self-seeking, maniacal, a loose cannon, a mad scientist and a villain. Maybe sometimes, deservedly so. He was a dealmaker, a wildcatter, an oil baron. But he was also a committed husband and father. A friend and a boss. A passionate leader of people.

Passionate as he was, Aubrey was repulsed by cynicism. On more than one occasion, I heard him plead with young CHKers, “Don’t be cynical. Be creative.” Of his most vocal critics, I recall him saying, “Anyone can go around destroying things. It takes no effort to tear things down. But to build something, to create something, that’s the hardest thing in the world to do.” Aubrey built an empire that ultimately crumbled under its own weight. But it was a spectacular thing to behold and to be a part of. And its story isn’t over yet. The shale revolution has fundamentally changed the global energy landscape. My children and my children’s children will live in a world with cheaper, cleaner, more accessible energy because Aubrey chose to be a creator instead of a destroyer.

In the marketing communications department at Chesapeake, we often affectionately referred to him as “Breezy.” I’m not exactly sure how he earned this nickname, but I like to think it was because “breezy” might have been the most fitting word to describe the way Aubrey carried himself. He always walked with purpose — he took fast, deliberate, long strides. But once he arrived at wherever he was going, he seemed almost unnaturally laid back. His height forced him to slouch. He spoke softly, requiring you to lean into the conversation. His sleeves were almost always rolled up and his tie was almost always pulled loose — an uncommon look in the buttoned-up world of Oil & Gas. But the slouch and the speech and the sleeves put you at ease when you were sitting across the table from him. It felt like you were on his level, even though you clearly were not.

So there was “Breezy” on that day in October 2009, roughly three months after I started at Chesapeake, slouching in the middle of the room, sleeves rolled up and tie untied, waiting for me to ask my question.

“Has there ever been a point in your life or career when you just wanted to give up?”

He smiled. “Good question,” he started. Then he told a story about Oklahoma City’s financial collapse in the 1980s. He had graduated from Duke and was looking to get into the family business — his great uncle Robert S. Kerr cofounded Kerr-McGee Oil. But times were tough. The oil boom of the late 1970s went bust not long after the turn of the decade. Penn Square Bank, which had made hundreds of millions of dollars on risky energy loans during the boom, fell apart under the glut. Some energy bankers went to jail. Others jumped from office tower windows. With the industry in turmoil and with no foreseeable way out, Aubrey considered giving up. “It was hard,” I remember him saying. “My family and I were living above the office space I was leasing. I went to New York for six months because I thought it’d be easier to walk away, to be something else somewhere else.” Ultimately, he decided to return to Oklahoma to give it another shot. He said he didn’t want to turn his back on the city like so many others had during the crash. “Not long after that, we founded Chesapeake,” he finished. “And the rest is history.” He smiled again. Everyone beamed back.

For a moment, we were all there with him. On top of the world.

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