By Alex Kimani
Nothing has defined the American Dream more succinctly than oil wealth.
This isn’t Saudi Arabia, where princes inherit the wealth of their kingdom based on bloodline rather than merit.
This is the true grit of America.
Some will inherit the oil wealth of their parents without putting in the time and getting their shirt sleeves dirty. But there’s a long list of passionate, hard-working visionaries who built this industry, and continue to build it, all on their own.
It’s the American Dream that dictates that even a lowly bookkeeper can become the richest man in the world with enough effort.
Or that a gas station attendant could go on to create a multi-billion-dollar oil giant.
Anything is possible in this country, from the presidency, as we have seen, to control of the billions upon billions in oil money. It’s all up for grabs and ambition trumps bloodline every time.
If you want it, go out and get it: These 5 oil and gas billionaires certainly did:
#1 John D. Rockefeller: The Father of American Oil Ambition
John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil fame might very well be the richest man to ever walk the planet, with a fortune worth nearly 3x Jeff Bezos’ in today’s dollars.
Rockefeller’s legacy began as a 16-year-old bookkeeper in Cleveland whose greatest financial ambition was to earn $100,000. To say he did well for himself is an understatement considering that his only formal business training was all of 10 weeks in an accounting class. He was also pushed along by his con-artist father who once declared, “I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make ’em sharp.”
Way back in 1913, his oil wealth sat at $900 million. That accounted for more than 2 percent of US GDP at the time. Adjusted for inflation in 2016, that would have translated into $21 billion. By 1937, that fortune was worth $1.4 billion. Not bad at all for a bookkeeper.
#2 T. Boone Pickens: Hero, Villain, Oil Giant
A wildcatter, corporate raider, oil pioneer and hedge funder, Pickens was born in Oklahoma’s oil patch in 1928, so grew up during the Great Depression and started out as a paperboy, which he says was his first experience with expansion by acquisition.
He wasn’t poor, but he certainly wasn’t rich, either. His parents were middle-class people working in regular jobs for the oil and gas industry.
- Boone won a basketball scholarship to Texas A&M before transferring to Oklahoma A&M to major in geology. He tried to work a regular job as a geologist with Phillips Petroleum in Oklahoma. He was bored and frustrated, so the story goes, and called it quits. With the idea that he could do much better at tapping America’s vast oil potential on his own. And he was right. In 1956, with only $2,500, he started Petroleum Exploration, Inc (PEI).
When he passed away in September 2019 at the age of 91, he was worth $500 million, but at the height of his career, he was worth $3 billion.
He got there by being incredibly shrewd, as described in Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power.”
“Pickens was one of thousands driving around the oil states, using public phone booths as their offices, hustling, looking at deals. Selling them, getting a crew together and a well drilled and, if lucky, hitting oil or gas, dreaming all the while of making it big, really big,” Yergin wrote.
“Pickens got farther than most. He was smart and shrewd, with an ability to analyze and think through a problem, step by step.”
#3 Harold G. Hamm: Father of the Shale Boom
At the age of 73 and with a net worth of over $8 billion, Harold G. Hamm – the chairman, CEO and founder of Continental Resources Inc. – has one very significant claim to fame: His company pioneered the development of the large shale oil resources of the Bakken formation.
Hamm’s net worth peaked at $18.7 billion in 2014 but has fallen more than 50 percent since the shale bust.
Hamm began his career pumping gas and repairing cars, and worked his way up to become the CEO of his multi-billion dollar company.
As a young enterprising man, Hamm went to work in the oil patch before founding Continental Resources (formerly named Shelly Dean Oil Company after his two daughters) at just 21.
Hamm and Continental Resources pioneered horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the famous Bakken Oil Field – and that’s where he made his billions.
#4 Autry Stephens: From Military to Reality TV’s Black Gold Superstar
With a net worth of around $1 billion, Autry Stephens went from serving as a pipeline engineer for the Army Corp of Engineers to running one of the biggest oil and gas companies around: Endeavor Energy Resources, a giant of the West Texas oil industry.
But before Endeavor became a true giant; that is, before the shale boom, Stephens became a bit of a reality TV star in 2008 for the Black Gold series.
Back in 1996, so the story goes, Stephens knew what he wanted to do: get rich off of oil. He started out in the most modest fashion, with a tiny oil rig entity called “Big Dog Drilling Company”. It had only one rig, but that one rig eventually led to $1 billion.
It took time and a lot of patience. Over two decades he built up Big Dog, and then changed its name to Endeavor, which is now a major acquisition target of supergiant oil companies with an estimated worth of up to $15 billion.
#5 George Kaiser: From Prospector to Producer
George Kaiser is a leading American businessman and philanthropist presently worth ~$7 billion at the age of 77.
The Harvard Business School alumni dipped his toes in the oil and gas business when he took over the reins of Kaiser-Francis Oil Company, a family-owned O&G business, from his father in 1969 after the latter suffered a heart attack. But this wasn’t a silver spoon story, even if it’s not going from gas pumper to oil magnate.
Back then, Kaiser-Francis was a little-known company whose main business was prospecting and drilling for oil. Under George’s management, however, the business flourished and grew to become one of the largest non-public energy exploration companies in the United States.
Kaiser has non-oil interests as well. In 1990, he bought beleaguered Bank of Oklahoma, which was under receivership at the time and developed it from a 20-branch local bank to a $23.9-billion bank with operations in nine states.
The bottom line:
Oil wealth is open to anyone in this country with a mind set on achieving it. It doesn’t require silver spoons or princely robes and royal bloodlines. It requires true American grit, and these guys have got it.