Apache founder Raymond Plank was one of a kind
When Apache founder and former Chairman Raymond N. Plank passed away at his Ucross, Wyoming, home on Nov. 8, at the age of 96, it marked the departure of one of the U.S. oil and gas industry’s last truly larger-than-life figures.
As his son, Roger Plank, currently founder and CEO of Apex International Energy, notes so well, “Raymond Plank was many things to many people: ‘One of a kind; a force of nature; larger than life; a rugged individual, who lived life on his own terms; fiercely independent; a war hero; feisty and demanding; driven; entrepreneurial; a pioneer; a real contrarian; opportunistic; engaging; inspirational; a man of integrity; a builder; a voracious reader and prolific writer; a true leader!’”
Early days. Plank was born on May 29, 1922, on a farm in Wayzata, Minn. As a young boy, he demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit by selling eggs, maple syrup and other products produced on the family farm. He entered Yale University in September 1940, but after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and served as a B-24 bomber pilot in the Pacific theater during World War II. Plank completed 40 missions and earned a Bronze Star and two Oak Leaf Clusters.
After the war, he returned to Yale University and graduated with a BA degree in 1946. Following graduation, Plank returned to Minneapolis and, with two partners, founded Northwest Business Service, an accounting, tax and business advisory firm. Accordingly, Ray became familiar with oil and gas investment structures, and thought he could do better for investors. In 1954, this led to Plank and two friends to use $250,000 of initial capital to start Apache Corporation.
Over the years, the company grew steadily, financing its drilling programs through individual partnerships. Looking for a more permanent financing mechanism, Plank in 1981 worked with a law firm to pioneer the first publicly-traded partnership, better known as a master limited partnership (MLP). “It was a surprisingly simple idea, but I can only imagine the negative response to his lengthy memos that must have accompanied that idea,” recalls Roger. “After four different law firms rendered their expert opinions that the idea would never work, the fifth said otherwise.”
During the oil downturn of the 1980s, Plank and Apache were looking to gain critical mass, just to survive. By the late ‘80s, even the MLP fell victim to the downturn and had to be rolled up. “First to give it birth, and first to bury it,” said Ray with typical brutal candor. With the MLP gone, Apache had to look to debt, to get large deals done. Roger says that when an investor asked at a conference, “Ray just how much debt are you willing to take on, to make a big deal,” he thought for a moment and said, “Oh, I don’t know exactly—but enough to scare you!”
Growth period. The deal referred to was Apache’s eventual half-billion-dollar acquisition of MW Petroleum and its mature properties from Amoco in 1991, which doubled Apache’s size overnight. Throughout the 1990s, Apache continued its expansion, as Plank guided the firm into acquiring properties in major plays, including the North Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Egypt and Australia. Along the way, Apache bought properties from Shell, Texaco, BP, Oxy, Repsol and other large firms.
Even so, one firm, Exxon, remained elusive. One day, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Plank which companies he was talking to about deals. Without missing a beat, he replied, “We’re talking to pretty much all the majors, except for Exxon. They only talk to God!” That quote went into the newspaper. Two or three years later, recalls Roger, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, and his #2, Harry Longwell, had a meeting with Plank and Apache’s Steve Farris. “After a far-reaching, two-hour discussion, Lee Raymond put his arm around Plank and quipped, ‘See, Ray, we don’t just talk to God!’”
Outside the office. Life with Ray Plank as a father was not always easy, remembers Roger. “He was a man on a mission, totally dedicated to building a business and making a difference.” Along with that came a penchant for detail and counting everything. Roger also remembers Ray as loving the outdoors, fishing and hunting, particularly fishing for walleyes on Lake of the Woods in Ontario. “He was a skilled fisherman and an unbelievably good shot….Dad fished the last 20 years of his life with his favorite fishing rod, which, at last count, had caught some 20,000 walleyes.” And after World War II, Ray kept up his pilot’s license and often flew the family on trips in his Cessna.
Plank retired as Apache’s chairman in 2009 at age 86. In his retirement and later years, he worked with a number of charitable organizations, particularly the Ucross Foundation, which he founded in 1981. It fosters the creative spirit of artists and groups by providing uninterrupted time, studio space and living accommodations on a 20,000-acre working ranch in northeastern Wyoming.
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