It seems that almost everyone in Oklahoma City has a story about Aubrey McClendon. He touched many people’s lives, helping countless individuals without a second thought. In the spirit of remembering a great man, I thought that I would share my Aubrey McClendon story with others in the hopes that those who knew him can hear another example of his kindness and generosity while those that never had the pleasure of meeting him can be inspired by the way that he lived.
I was born and raised in Oklahoma City, attending the same school in the same grade as Jack, Aubrey’s oldest son. In fact, one of my earliest memories is not being allowed to go to recess in kindergarten because Jack and I had spent too much time drawing and not enough time in the library. My friendship with Jack made me more aware of the role Aubrey played in Oklahoma City’s development. Not because Jack would tell me about it, but simply knowing Aubrey was Jack’s dad made me take note of his impact. In a lot of ways, people my age that were raised in Oklahoma City grew up with the city. A visitor in 1990 would have a very different opinion than someone who visits today and Aubrey was one of, if not the single most important contributing factor for the city’s improvement. As Chesapeake Energy, the company that Aubrey founded in 1989 with Tom Ward, grew from its initial $50,000 investment to a company that employed over 10,000 people, the city flourished. Aubrey took a personal interest in developing the area surrounding the company, eventually transforming the company’s headquarters and surrounding shops and restaurants into a thriving mini city. Oklahoma City stopped making national headlines for the worst possible reasons (natural disasters and domestic terrorism) and started showing up on best places to live lists. Aubrey was part of the group that brought the Thunder, our first professional sports team, to the city. It was an event that for many signaled the end of the city’s up and coming status and cemented its place on the national stage.
If Aubrey’s achievements were only looked at from a macro perspective, he would have left an incredible legacy. But, in my mind, what was really special about him was his ability to connect on an individual level. People used to talk about Bill Clinton’s charisma and how he was able to make every single person in the room feel like they were his best friend. Aubrey had the same gift. He was able to make everyone feel important, and he showed a genuine curiosity as to what you were doing with your life. The summer after my freshman year in college, I worked at a tree farm that he owned in Arcadia, Oklahoma. At the end of the summer, Aubrey came out to the farm and thanked us for working there. He asked everyone what projects they had been working on and talked to each of us about our plans for next summer and where we wanted to be after graduating college. Inevitably, when we would talk about office jobs Aubrey would reiterate the importance of college, semi-joking about the availability for permanent positions on the farm for those that didn’t perform well in university. It’s still incredible to me today that the CEO of a company the size of Chesapeake would come out to a farm to talk to college interns about their plans for the future. The following two summers I would end up working at Chesapeake, where he maintained an even more impressive tradition of meeting with every single new hire of the company. He insisted on small groups of 10 or 15 people where he would discuss the founding of the company and his vision for the future. Next, he would go around the room, one by one, talking to every person about their background and what division they worked in. Finally, everyone would have the opportunity to ask him a question. It was another example of his genuine curiosity for people, especially those who had made the decision to help him grow a company that he founded and cared deeply about.
Practices like these helped Aubrey develop an almost celebrity-like status at Chesapeake. Many employees would find themselves star struck if they encountered him in one of the corporate restaurants or health club. Even if employees didn’t find themselves asking for an autograph, Aubrey’s willingness to engage with all employees regardless of level could leave some struggling for the right words when speaking to the CEO. My brother found himself in such a situation in a story I still give him a hard time about. At the time, I was an intern in the accounting department and my brother was working full time as a land man. One day after work, we were in the company gym at the same time as Aubrey. He was running from machine to machine, at a pace that suits someone who had accomplished as much as he had, with one of the gym’s trainers trailing behind him. At one point he noticed me and stopped his workout to come over and say hello. After some quick small talk, he said “And who’s this?” looking at my brother beside me.
“Oh, Mr. McClendon, this is my brother,” I replied. As I did so, my brother reached out his hand.
“Mr. McClendon, I’m Mr. Thompson,” my brother said awkwardly, introducing himself. I found this hilarious because it is obvious that his last name is Thompson (he is my brother) and it also implies the CEO of the company should address my brother as Mr. Thompson. It must run in the family because I’ve too often noticed the incoherency or randomness of my words as they leave my mouth in the worst possible moments.
Aubrey laughed it off and talked to Matt for a few minutes about his department, his supervisor and why that group was important. It was a moment that could have gone a different direction, but Aubrey’s ability to make one feel at ease empowered people that work for him. My brother would later follow Aubrey to his next venture, American Energy Partners, and loved working in a more direct role with him there. Matt would tell me that working through tough conditions during a downturn in the energy industry was a great experience because of the opportunity he had to work closely with Aubrey.
After I graduated from undergrad, I would no longer work for Aubrey but he continued to positively impact my life. When a friend of mine passed away shortly after graduation, Aubrey was the largest contributor (by far) to a fundraising effort I led. When I applied for business school, he agreed to write one of my letters of recommendation. I wrote him a thank you note, addressing him as Mr. McClendon, as I always had, telling him how much I appreciated what he had done for the city and for me. He replied that I was a grown man, successful and accomplished and that we were on the same level; he asked me to please call him Aubrey from then on. It was an absurd comment, telling me that we were on the same level after I had three years of working in commercial banking under my belt, but it meant a lot to me.
After graduating from business school, I would run into him twice while living in New York. The first was at a movie theater near Lincoln Center. I had been struggling through some personal setbacks and was trying to distract myself with a sneak peak of The Wedding Ringer. I walked out of the theater and was shocked to see Aubrey walking out of the theater for Fury. He was equally surprised when I called over to him. We caught up and he asked about my job following business school, telling me he was proud of me. At the end of our conversation he laughed again about running into me there and told me with a half-smile that there was always a place for me if I came back to Oklahoma. He didn’t know that I was struggling or the impact of his statement, but it was a reassuring gesture to know that there were people like him that believed in me.
The last time we ran into each other was in January of this year. I walked around the corner from my apartment in Brooklyn into my local Starbucks. I saw him sitting at a table reading the Wall Street Journal. For a split second, I debated whether or not I should interrupt him to say hi. I hesitated briefly, but then walked over and for the first time that I can remember, called him Aubrey. He looked up and laughed. He stood up and joked about running into each other again in another random spot in New York and asked how I was doing. After a minute or so of small talk he told me to grab a coffee and sit down with him. It was an uncharacteristically long conversation we had and certainly one I won’t forget. We talked about our families; he told me my brother was doing a great job and I told him how much he enjoyed working with him. He asked about New York and if I ever saw any of the Oklahoma people around. Finally, he asked about my job. It was the weekend and I had given my two weeks notice the week prior. Aubrey wanted to know what was next and I mentioned that my roommate and I were thinking about starting something together. He asked a few follow up questions and concluded by asking me to send him a note with more detail so that he could introduce me to a venture capital firm. It was another gesture by him that went above and beyond and combined both his curiosity for other people and his desire to help them succeed.
Aubrey was truly an incredible person and anyone that knew him will talk of his remarkable ability to connect with others. The conversation we had that day in Starbucks meant a lot to me at the time, but I hold it more dearly now. I can’t thank him enough for what he has done for me. I hope that through this story and countless others of his generosity, we can collectively try to be a little more like Aubrey when it comes to taking a deeper interest in the lives of others, making people feel important and doing what we can to help those around us succeed.