Financial Literacy

T. Boone Pickens’ Real Legacy Has Nothing to Do With Oil

Success is not a straight line. Innovation has no end. No matter where you are in life, you can be successful if you have a plan for action.T. Boone Pickens

America has lost an icon. The news headlines will tell you that oil legend or oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens passed away at age 91 this week. But what the news headlines don’t tell you is that Pickens’ impact on business and investing went far beyond oil.

At Early Investing, we frequently talk about disruption. We talk about technologies – like software, artificial intelligence and robotics – that are going to disrupt entire industries. We talk about businesses – like Robinhood, Airbnb and Peloton – that are disrupting their sectors. We talk about medical marijuana, which will disrupt Big Pharma. And we talk about cryptocurrency, which is disrupting money.

Pickens embraced disruption. His first job was delivering newspapers. But he wasn’t satisfied with his route. So he bought the routes on either side of his. Not bad for a 12-year-old.

He lasted just three years working for his dad’s oil company. Then he went and borrowed some money, found some investors, and launched his own oil exploration business.

In the ’80s, oil was so cheap that it was less expensive to acquire new oil fields through corporate takeovers than to discover new oil reserves. So Pickens became a corporate raider.

“He’s only after the almighty buck,” said G.C. Richardson in 1985, according to The Associated Press. “He’s nothing but a pirate,” the retired executive of Cities Service added.

Pickens went on to try and disrupt the energy industry with natural gas in the ’90s and wind energy in the 2000s. He was a little early on both counts. But in turning to natural gas and then wind, Pickens proved he was even willing to disrupt himself.

“In business, I’m perhaps best known for my attempted corporate takeovers throughout the 1980s,” Pickens wrote in Forbes two years ago. “I have always believed that maintaining the status quo inevitably leads to failure.”

It’s a lesson we could all learn from.

One of the biggest “misses” in my career was the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). I was working for (the now defunct) USA Weekend magazine at the time. And my colleagues and I were attempting to convince our parent company, Gannett (also the parent company of USA Today), to buy IMDb. We could have gotten it fairly cheap (and for much less than the $55 million Amazon paid for it several months later). But the then-head of new media told us we “weren’t in the business of buying websites.”

Gannett, much like the rest of the newspaper world, wasn’t willing to disrupt its own business to succeed in the long term. If it had a little more Pickens in it, things might have turned out differently.

Netflix, on the other hand, is more than willing to disrupt itself. It turned from delivering movies on DVD via mail to streaming movies to streaming original content. Netflix gets the Pickens philosophy. That’s why it’s still relevant today.

The world has much to learn from Pickens. And lesson No. 1 is that Pickens’ biggest legacy has nothing to do with oil – and everything to do with disruption.


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