At 85, T. Boone Pickens has discovered a powerful source of energy: his own. He’s got a new love, a new natural gas empire and a continuing mission to change the world. All he needs now is time.
Aboard his Gulfstream G550, T. Boone Pickens — legendary trader, corporate raider, energy visionary and billion-dollar philanthropist — slides off his shoes and reaches down to grab his feet. He’s got a surprise in store. Pulling his legs up onto the thick leather seat, he tucks himself into lotus position, as if getting ready to meditate. It’s proof that he’s still got it: physical strength, stamina, ability. A future.
“He’s the most flexible man I’ve ever known,” Pickens’ wife, Toni Brinker, says with a wry smile. The two were married on Valentine’s Day in the lovely chapel next to the opulent lodge on his 68,000-acre ranch northeast of Amarillo in the Texas panhandle. It’s the fifth marriage for Pickens and the fourth for Brinker, who is some 20 years his junior. The two have known each other for a decade; Pickens was friends with her late husband, Norman Brinker, the restaurateur who founded the Chili’s chain. What sealed the deal for Pickens is that Toni enjoys traveling with him, is keenly engaged with the events of the day and always looks great everywhere she goes (especially with that enormous new diamond on her finger).
It was only two years ago that Pickens got divorced from his previous wife, Madeleine. And just a year ago that Pickens had “Toni” embroidered on the headrest of the seat next to his on his plane. (His own headrest features a TBP monogram.) Pickens’ beloved Papillon, Murdock, takes turns sitting in their laps. “If you can get your dog to like your girlfriend,” he says, “you’ll keep your girlfriend.”
Putting Toni’s name on the seat was another form of commitment for Pickens. After all, rather than settle in for a plush retirement, he lives on that Gulfstream, logging 500 hours a year jetting around the country to give speeches and interviews about the miracle of the American oil-and-gas boom, the importance of weaning the country from foreign oil and the no-brainer of powering cars and trucks with cheap natural gas instead of expensive gasoline and diesel. He’s the largest shareholder in publicly traded Clean Energy Fuels, which is building out a network of natural gas fueling stations. Retirement? “That’s not me,” Pickens says.
Besides, he’s had too much fun reinventing himself over the years. In the 1980s, Pickens was the original corporate raider (“I prefer the term ‘shareholder activist,’” he says), famously going after the likes of Gulf Oil and Unocal. During the next decade, he lost control of his Mesa Petroleum by getting overleveraged in natural gas. By the 2000s, he reemerged as a hedge fund manager–and not only made his first billion after age 70 but turned it into $4 billion. Then in 2008, deep into his fifth decade of investing, he literally tilted at windmills, launching his ambitious Pickens Plan to build $2 billion worth of wind energy projects. The recession, paired with the shale drilling boom, gutted both energy prices and Pickens’ fortune. “My timing hasn’t been perfect,” he admits. “I’ve lost two billion, given away one and I’ve got one left.”
After he fell off The Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans last year, he tweeted to his more than 110,000 followers: “Don’t worry. At $950 million, I’m doing fine. Funny, my $1 billion charitable giving exceeds my net worth.” The quip was retweeted nearly 3,000 times.
“Some people are most brilliant when they don’t know what’s coming,” says longtime friend Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. “Boone has as high a tolerance for ambiguity as anyone I’ve ever met.”
The reason is pretty simple, Pickens says. “I know I can make it all back–if I have enough time.”
At 85 , Boone Pickens knows he’s mortal. He figures he’s got another ten years left–if he’s lucky. A fitness fanatic since the 1970s, he’s also made damn sure that he’s going to be remembered long after he’s gone. The $1 billion he’s given away has gone to dozens of institutions. And he’s not exactly shy if they want to name a building after him. The biggest recipient of his largesse has been his alma mater, Oklahoma State University, where, in 1951, he earned his degree in geology. Among the $500 million he’s designated to OSU is $165 million for the athletics department. His name is now on the football stadium as well as the school of geology.