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T. Boone Pickens, Legendary Texas Oilman, Dies At 91


The Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens died today at his home in Dallas. He was 91. During the 1980s, Pickens was one of the most famous businessmen in America. He was known as a corporate raider who launched takeovers of big companies like Gulf Oil.

NPR's Jim Zarroli joins me now. Hey, Jim.


KELLY: So I am told that Pickens was known as a greenmailer. And I confess my total ignorance. I have no idea what that is.

ZARROLI: Well, a greenmailer is somebody who tries to take over companies that don't want to be taken over. Then he became - becomes such a thorn in their side that the company ends up paying him to go away.


ZARROLI: Pickens was really famous for this. He was one of the original big takeover artists. He was really good at, you know, finding undervalued companies and targeting them. One of the most famous examples was in the early '80s when he tried to acquire Gulf Oil, which was a major oil company at the time.

Now, he did not succeed. Gulf Oil ended up merging with another company. But Pickens ended up buying a lot of shares of Gulf Oil. And when the battle was over, he sold them for a neat $760 million in profit. And this happened a lot. He ended up a billionaire many times over.

KELLY: How'd he get his start?

ZARROLI: What - he had a pretty ordinary background. He was born in a very small town in eastern Oklahoma. His father was in the oil business. After college, Pickens also went into the oil and gas business. He had a company called Mesa Petroleum, but he also diversified. He bought cattle. He had a mining company.

And then eventually, he decided he liked the business of what was called corporate raiding. He would launch, you know, takeovers of companies that were many times the size of his own, and he would leverage the money he made to launch even more takeovers. He really loved the kind of rough and tumble world of business. He called it the feeding trough.

Here he was in a talk he gave at Oklahoma State in 2012.


T BOONE PICKENS: The feeding trough in America is infinite. It's unlimited. It's as long as you want to make it, as big as you want to make it. You just have - if you want to get to the feeding trough, you just have to get up there and get after it.

KELLY: Go back, Jim, to Pickens the oilman because it sounds like that is where he really left his mark. What was his reputation like in the oil sector?

ZARROLI: Well, he had a long history in oil and gas. He'd been through a lot of booms and busts. And by the end, he was kind of seen as an - you know, one of the wise old men of the industry. He was a big advocate of energy independence. He said America needed to become independent of foreign oil in general, and he lived to see that - also supported energy - alternative energy sources like wind. He just was a businessman who had unlimited faith in American ingenuity, in the energy business.

Here he was talking with Bloomberg News in 2014.


PICKENS: The industry in the United States has done an unbelievable job for who? Not America. They've done it for themselves, but America is also one of the winners.

KELLY: You can kind of picture him - one of these - this - from this whole era of big, larger-than-life businessmen.

ZARROLI: Yeah. Yeah. And he was very well-known. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1985. You know, he made good copy. He liked to talk to the press. He had a lot of, you know, pithy sayings. He said, you should work eight hours and sleep eight hours and make sure they are not the same eight hours.

KELLY: (Laughter).

ZARROLI: He had a - in 2012, he had a Twitter exchange with the rapper Drake. Drape - Drake had tweeted, the first million is the hardest. And Pickens replied, the first billion is a hell of a lot harder.

KELLY: (Laughter) A great last word and a great place to leave it. That's NPR's Jim Zarroli remembering businessman T. Boone Pickens, who died today. He was 91.

Thank you, Jim.

ZARROLI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.