Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Thank you, Aubrey

I'm going to get something off my shoulders, that will probably ruffle some feathers among my base of civic, urbanist, and progressive activists - I grieve each time I read a news article about Aubrey K. McClendon, former CEO and Chairman of Chesapeake Energy Corp. Now he is no longer Chairman, and it's expected that his replacement in that capacity will be named this week. Breaking news: It was announced Thursday 6/21 it will be Archie Dunham, formerly CEO of ConocoPhillips. 

I understand that CHK is a publicly traded company, so the shareholders have a right to go on a mutiny against the company's leadership if they so chose to be that destructive, but that doesn't mean it's in the best interest of the company. Nobody understands natural gas like Aubrey does, and sure he had some excesses and needed to be reigned in, but I like what T. Boone said that if you're betting against Aubrey, you're betting against a winner. CHK needs Aubrey; he was their secret weapon against the competition. In this grotesquely-fascinating Reuters special on "the lavish and leveraged lifestyle," it gets one major point right - he is obsessed.

"He's also a micro-manager -- not necessarily meddlesome, employees and business associates say, but obsessed. No aspect of a project is too granular. He helped pick the kind of peanuts served at a restaurant he owns. He inserts commas into press releases and measures the distance between Redbud trees near his office."

It's pretty obvious to all of us that this level of obsession is not personally healthy, and for Aubrey's own good, he probably should have learned the power of delegation. However, here's a common sense Oklahoma guy who isn't going to sit around and notice something that's not right and say, "Well, I pay people to do this, so they need to do it," when he can just as easily make a decision himself or fix something himself. I will agree with others that it is very untrue that he has this "rags to riches" story of working his tail off while he was young - he was an heir to the enormous Kerr fortune, the K in AKM stands for Kerr, afterall. However, to say he didn't work his tail off despite everything he inherited, is blatantly wrong. And why would somebody work their tail off after they have already inherited so much? Almost every second-party source that even Reuters used in the scathing expose confirms that he is obsessed with competition, and in a capitalist society, who better to lead? Aubrey is NOT part of the downtown good ole boy club - here is a person who strove to be different from the rest, better than the rest, and more innovative than the rest. Hardly an outsider, hardly an insider. He's just different than the others.

So now, having addressed Aubrey's latest trouble in terms of his corporation that he founded, I want to move on to looking at this in a civic light. Aubrey is a Hometown Hero in my book, and this WSJ piece examining his role in OKC even says as much. Or, if you're more of a picture reader, here are some illustrations from the Journal Record. The point is that if you are looking for one individual to credit the entire turned fortune of OKC in the last decade, I would truly suggest looking no further than Aubrey K. McClendon, more than any political leader, more than any other business leader, and so on.

OntheRange readers are sharks for veracity, and want concrete specifics before they'll believe something. So, to get you to love Aubrey and defend him however your capacity may allow, here are just 5 simple, concrete things (I could come up with several others, too) that Aubrey arguably deserves all the credit for:

1. The OKC Thunder, NBA championship or not (it's looking more and more like the latter, sadly), are arguably the centerpiece of OKC's renaissance. The young guns are electrifying, and one thing that the sorry officials (heat of the moment, my apologies) can't take away is that America loves them and they have electrified a community's civic pride. However, the Thunder is often credited as a political success of Mayor Mick Cornett - proper credit does seem to have been taken away from where it belongs in this case. How much money did Mick put up for the Sonics franchise? In case you didn't know, McClendon is the lead investor in that group, despite that Clay Bennett is the spokesman (Bennett has significant NBA experience as an owner of the Spurs).

2. Oklahoma River. Mike Knopp just hoped he could get funding for a log cabin boathouse along the river - the potential donor he courted, however, had some different ideas: Chesapeake Boathose, CHK Finish Line Tower, countless other facilities, not to mention having Aubrey's personal architect (Rand Elliott) design it all. Nobody should get more credit for the Oklahoma River, and recognizing potential greatness along a river that used to be mowed twice a year, than Aubrey. It's often said that some of these wildcatters' innate sense of where oil and gas is located displays great visionary capacity, however, finding this diamond in the rough that was here all along, perhaps that is on another level altogether.

3. Whole Foods. Oklahoma City was trying to get Whole Foods to come here forever, at the annual retail convention in Las Vegas, the Chamber delegation always spent significant time pestering the upscale grocer. I simply can not fathom why they routinely passed us up for markets like Omaha, Tulsa, Richmond, Birmingham ALABAMA, and so on, but they did. Now they can't even explain it, as the OKC location has out-performed projections in a huge way and now Whole Foods is looking at a second OKC store already despite scaling down their national expansion footprint. It's not just that Aubrey lured Whole Foods by personally offering incentives to locate in Classen Curve, arguing (correctly) to his board that these kinds of amenities are necessary for CHK to attract the best and brightest. The addition of Whole Foods to OKC completely revolutionized the OKC grocery market in just two years, completely turning it on its head. Crest sensed the move, and also sensed a major market gap in South OKC, and invested in a grand location at SW 104th and May. Then the metro-based  Buy For Less invested in the incredible "Uptown Grocers" in Edmond. Sunflower Farmer's Market, a business very similar to Whole Foods, added a location in OKC. There are other such new grocers, and Aubrey/CHK is adding another in Nichols Hills Plaza which is under major renovations right now. Walmart used to have a 40% market share on the OKC grocery market, which didn't just eliminate our local options, but it prevented new options from taking a risk on OKC. Now that market share has plummeted and OKC's grocery market is robust and healthy, including several competitive local options, and this is all because Aubrey ponied up the cash to get Whole Foods to stop writing OKC off.

4. Western Avenue. This is another one of those quiet urban transformations, because many of you have not noticed all of the new businesses along Western in the last ten years - probably because Western has been a cool restaurant row for a long time, and was never really blighted. However, it is now cooler than ever, busier than ever, and less blighted than ever, all because of Aubrey. In addition to new businesses as well as the Classen Curve and Whole Foods projects, Aubrey is building a grand new Oncue called "The Peake" at 50th and Western (pictured) and has been instrumental in getting the city to spring for a major streetscape project all the way from 63rd down to 36th (unfortunately this stops just north of the mile stretch that IS blighted and desperately needs a streetscape). This streetscape includes roundabouts, such as the one proposed at Western and Grand. The convergence of these Aubrey projects, city investment, an entrepreneurs getting in on the area's prosperity, has led to a resurgence of Western Avenue like no other - a seriously underreported story.

5. 5,000 jobs and a ton of cool modern, and traditional architecture. I think that the presence of CHK Energy Corp. speaks for itself. In case anyone thought Devon was OKC's largest private employer, that is incorrect (they just have the more productive facility) - CHK is actually quite a bit larger. They also employ more interns from OU and especially OSU than anyone else. While I think the campus format is less conducive to productivity than having everyone in one tower, you can't deny that OKC goes as CHK goes, and if CHK leaves town or goes bankrupt, OKC is back in instant depression, not just recession. It's also not just the thousands of jobs, and growing - it's the millions of volunteer hours, it's the local advertising that Aubrey takes out for each of his new hires, and that brings me to the biggest point - CHK and Devon are together the sole reason that young people are staying in OKC. It has nothing to do with anything that the Chamber or City Hall have came up with. The overwhelming majority of CHK's new hires (and Devon's too) are young college graduates FROM Oklahoma. That's not to say they aren't drawing a ton of other state's college grads. But that is to say that they have single-handedly stemmed the brain drain that used to be such a prominent funnel on Oklahoma's economy.

These are all 5 things that Aubrey has worked harder than anyone to achieve for OKC, and these are all major ingredients in OKC's turnaround. The going has gotten rough for him, and I personally hope he can bounce back and get redemption with CHK and continue doing what he is so good at - competing and cornering the natural gas industry. However, if things don't work out with CHK, and I'm honestly just not sure what continued leadership role is left for him after these scandals, I really think he needs to follow his real passion and go into local politics if he can't rescue his role at CHK. Maybe become a developer and live that second life he's always wanted to be able to focus on OKC as his monopoly board. However, I think in addition to that, he ought to consider getting into local politics. I would NOT suggest running for Senate like his uncle, Robert S. Kerr did (Aubrey is brilliant, just not his politics LOL) - I would suggest that he take his unique visionary and innovative abilities to City Hall where they are so desperately needed right now. City Hall is grid locked and is going to take OKC down the cliff if we can't get a new bold, enigmatic leader to force this city to embrace innovation and new ideas. Kick the engineers running the show to the curb. An example of how long it takes the City to make the wrong decision, Wenger was recently quoted in the Gazette saying that making some changes to the Boulevard plan would add 6 months or so and they will need several more months to decide if they want to do that. Aubrey makes decisions in nano-seconds, and as he says, he usually gets them right 90% of the time. That's the guy I want running this city.

So give it some thought Aubrey, run for mayor. OKC needs you. And if you like sports, food, jobs, urban planning, architecture, the river, Western Avenue, and living somewhere that is finally considered cool - I think you guys owe AKM a collective thank you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you've been misinformed. There's no news about Aubrey stepping down as CEO. He's stepping down as chairman of the board. He's held both jobs and now he will only hold one.