Aubrey McClendon: A Life “Outside the Box”

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Aubrey always rocked the pink tie

Regardless of where anyone is sitting while they read this, how many of you know a true visionary?

How often does news regarding a business leader’s personal life spread like wildfire, through social media, text messages, in passing, and at the dinner table? How many communities are indelibly linked to such a titan of industry, where you all know him/her, but he/she doesn’t know you but still plays the role.

How often does an urbanist, a planner, a bicyclist – write glowingly about the guy who has single-handily furthered the practice of fracking?

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Outdated aerial (just showing the older Georgian section) of the Chesapeake Energy HQ Campus in OKC, from The Lost Ogle

Aubrey McClendon, the lightning rod founder of Chesapeake Energy, was that guy for Oklahoma City. He was (past tense is still weird) to OKC as Jeptha Wade or John D. Rockefeller were to Cleveland.

My hometown of OKC is an undeniably oil-dominated city, with the economy inextricably linked to oil’s volatile boom and bust cycles, drawing energy professionals from across the world, but offering few opportunities for the hometown kids who don’t go into energy.

Aubrey founded several energy companies, and even got booted from the largest one, but unlike most of these guys whose real talents may be better suited for trading stock futures – Aubrey was energy. He exuded energy; and not only in an enigmatic way, but also as an actual geologist, geographer and physicist. He was a rare breed of CEO that, despite his controversial compensation, got down in the nitty gritty and did it all. Including the infamous micro-managing.

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OK State’s new Spears School of Business – notice a resemblance?

I remember when Chesapeake kicked him out of the company he created. He had just given a huge donation for Oklahoma State’s new business school, and everyone on campus was worried if that would still happen (it did).

I’ve had many a friend work for him, all sharing… interesting experiences. Not bad, just interesting. Said interesting experiences exist amongst the entire community, well beyond his payroll. Commuters on Western Avenue would frequently spot him down in the weeds measuring distances between trees going in a new streetscape project. Restaurateurs have told stories of him coming in to taste-test every possible variety of salad garnish, striving to perfect the corporate cafeteria’s healthy food options.

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Loud City

He brought the NBA to OKC, giving the state a brighter spotlight than ever before.

He brought Whole Foods to OKC, against their will, which has been so successful they are planning several more stores.

He brought the world’s premier rowing venue and related boathouses to the “Oklahoma River,” an overgrown ditch that was previously a line item in the city’s mowing budget.

And yes, he brought big earthquakes to Oklahoma, as the tremors are now reaching the magnitude 5 threshold on a regular basis, causing real earthquake damage.

He was crazy.

In a city full of conservative squares, he was special. He was reviled and revered.

Omaha has no idea how good they have it. Buffett similarly gets stuff done, without his assets marked by such volatility, and without his persona embodying even more volatility. Buffett is steady.

Aubrey is not. Indicted one day. Dead the next.

It’s been a weird week. But yes, for those of you back home, I heard the news alright.

Love him or hate him, the story of Aubrey McClendon is best summarized as that of a guy who didn’t just think, but lived outside the box. Incredibly, and despite it all, he now goes back into a box – to rest.

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