From a distance, T. Boone Pickens didn’t appear to have much in common with Bill Gates.
That is, except money and billions of it.
Pickens, who died at the age of 91 on September 11, 2019, was an oil tycoon turned corporate takeover wizard. His nature was unpretentious and direct, no matter whether he was at his beloved Panhandle ranch or an exclusive Wall Street boardroom. He could speak knowledgeably to a landman about dusters or an Ivy League MBA about a complicated balance sheet. And yet, to the end of his life, he never mastered a Smartphone – a complex man, Pickens was not completely wired in, but at the same time, well ahead of the game.
Seems like a long way from this to the software empire that Gates inhabits. Or perhaps not, at least in some approaches to their work.
Pickens, like Gates, was hypersensitive to time management. Unnecessary meetings were an anathema to him — “it seems as if everything I do is geared to saving time,” he wrote in his autobiography Boone.
Gates is said to have learned from Warren Buffett one of the key lessons of his life: time is the only commodity that money cannot buy. Meetings with him are said to be clocked to the minute, right up to the final handshake.
In the go-go eighties, a meeting with Pickens was a study in discipline, particularly if the meeting took place in Amarillo, Texas at the home office of Mesa Petroleum.
If Pickens wanted to see you, the trip might start on his jet at your neighborhood airport. Well appointed, including beverages and food, the plane was helmed by two experienced, personable, and rigidly punctual pilots.
The fifth floor Mesa offices were conservative, adorned by western art and subdued rugs. Mesa was clearly not an overstaffed operation — “we work shorthanded, that way people have a greater opportunity to advance and less time for office politics,” Pickens said.
That small staff appeared to have the profile Mesa preferred — “young, lean and hungry,” was the way Pickens described it.
There was no waiting around at Mesa: when the hour arrived, visitors were ushered into Pickens’ office with no fanfare. The latter could also be said of the host — well attired in a traditional Oxxford suit, direct but not impolite in manner.
Small talk was not the order of the day. Any exchange of lengthy biographies or background information was superfluous. Pickens was witty, likeable, but on a mission — he would respond thoughtfully, for example, if an artist on display (like one of his later favorites, Wilson Hurley) was commented upon, but nothing more. The agenda stayed on point.
Most memorable, perhaps, was departure time. One or two assistants would emerge from another office, copies of his book would be signed, handshakes exchanged, and future plans succinctly summarized. That was it.
Author Alan Lakein once famously noted, “waste your time and waste your life, or master your time and master your life.” Pickens followed that playbook and Gates professes to be right there with him.
One other commonality that Pickens and Gates shared was an interest in philanthropic work. It is estimated that Pickens donated well over a billion dollars to charity.
When he passed away, Pickens’ net worth was around $500 million — a relatively low amount for him, but, in later life, he gave away much of what he earned. It is said that Pickens wanted to pass his money along while he was still alive so that he could appreciate the results of his charity.
“You give the money where you want it,” Pickens once commented. Oklahoma State University was where he wanted it: he gave over $650 million to the school, about half of it to athletics and the rest to academic pursuits.
Pickens was an Oklahoma native (raised in Holdenville): he will be laid to rest on the Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, near the OSU campus and also close to his relocated childhood home.
In a final message before his death, Pickens was moved to mention Bill Gates in this context: “in 2010, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates asked me to take their Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. I agreed immediately.”