2008 SUCCESS Achiever of the Year: T. Boone Pickens

UPDATED: May 6, 2009
PUBLISHED: May 6, 2009

In a half-century of business, T. Boone Pickens has gone full steam ahead in seeing and seizing opportunities, working hard, thinking innovatively and taking calculated risks. His fortunes have been down at times, and his key to bouncing back has involved building on what he learns from every experience.

The Texas billionaire could choose to bask in his successes in the oil industry’s drilling fields, boardrooms and futures markets. But as he enters his 81st year, with a birthday in late May, he seems to be just turning a page in another chapter of his life and career.

“Feeling the pure joy of work and success—jumping out of bed in the morning charged up to accomplish in the day ahead—is necessary for an entrepreneur,” Pickens says.

Casting a long shadow in 2008, Pickens kept busy as a political power broker, philanthropist, author and hedge-fund manager. But his boldest, farthest-reaching endeavor last year was the Pickens Plan, launched last July, in which he outlined an energy strategy that he says would rid the United States of its dependence on foreign oil.

For his boldness, as exemplified by his Pickens Plan, as well as his perseverance, entrepreneurial exuberance and philanthropy, Pickens is SUCCESS magazine’s Achiever of the Year for 2008.

To hawk the Pickens Plan, he spent some $58 million. Pickens starred in a television commercial and bought airtime from summer into fall to send his message about alternative energy. He also gave numerous interviews to broadcast and print reporters, and he’s lobbying U.S. lawmakers, calling for bipartisan support for his energy plan. During the presidential campaign, Pickens met with both candidates to educate them about it.

Pickens also put his money where his mouth is. His company, Mesa Power LLP, ordered 667 wind turbines in May for $2 billion as the first phase of a four-phase wind farm that eventually aims to power 300,000 average-size U.S. homes.

The keystone to his plan is the harnessing of wind energy that within 10 years can provide 20 percent of the nation’s energy, Pickens says. That’s an increase from its current 1 percent or less. Wind power “is 100 percent domestic, it is 100 percent renewable and it is 100 percent clean,” he preaches.

The wind initiative intertwines with other facets of his plan. “We can use new wind capacity to free up natural gas for use as a transportation fuel,” he says. “That would displace more than one-third of our foreign oil imports. Natural gas… is cheap and it is clean.” Natural-gas vehicles emit 95 percent less pollution than gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles, he says.

“At my age, a dollar saved is a dollar wasted.”

Pickens also goes green in many ways, from turning off the lights when he leaves a room to restoring the native habitat on his Texas Panhandle ranch; as he asked a Texas Monthly writer, “What would be all that bad about reducing our carbon footprint?” That’s a quote from Pickens, the visionary. Pickens, the entrepreneur, sees opportunity as well as responsibility in his plan. He has invested heavily in natural gas as well as wind turbines.

Critics snap that Pickens is just putting a platinum lining over the gold in his pockets. He volleys back in his new book, The First Billion Is the Hardest: Reflections on a Life of Comebacks and America’s Energy Future: “At my age, a dollar saved is a dollar wasted,” he says.

And he likes the idea of helping landowners in the “wind corridor”—the Texas Panhandle through the Great Plains all the way to Canada—earn $10,000 to $30,000 per year in royalties for hosting the turbines on their properties.

In fact, the drive to earn money and spread it around may be Pickens’ personal energy source. “I like making money. I like giving it away… not as much as I like making it, but it’s a close second,” he says on his Web site. And he elaborates in The First Billion Is the Hardest, “I didn’t want to wait until after I was dead to give away my fortune; I wanted to see the impact of my donations in my lifetime.”

Again, he backs up words with action. In 2008, he donated $100 million to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University. He gave $25 million to the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Medicine and $5 million to the Downtown Dallas YMCA. And Pickens is contributing proceeds from the sale of his new book to the Warrior and Family Support Center, a project of the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, and Fisher House, a program that helps injured military personnel and their families. His generosity hasn’t gone unnoticed: He received the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ top philanthropy award in March 2008—the Paschal Murray Award for Outstanding Philanthropist.

These days, Pickens says he must cut back on philanthropy because of the U.S. economy’s swoon from late 2008 into this year. His hedge fund, BP Capital, peaked in value last June, and like many investments has experienced horrific erosion since then.

The recession has stalled the wind-turbine project, too. With a $10 billion price tag, Pickens has said there hasn’t been credit available to finance the multistate wind farm.

If that makes the Dallas businessman sound down and out, don’t bet the ranch he’ll stay down. Pickens has been there before and welcomes the challenge.

As he wrote in The First Billion, “I learned that if you push through the resistance and keep driving for what you want, you will ultimately achieve rewards beyond any you had hoped for.”

Indeed, Pickens rescued his struggling Mesa Petroleum more than once, before leaving the company in 1996. After that, when he tried his hand at running a hedge fund, he struggled to pass the required exam to become a commodity-pool operator, receiving a passing score on his third try.

But once his operation was up and running, money gushed from BP Capital. Pickens stayed the course, and the resulting turnaround helped him make his first billion.

“A fool with a plan can outsmart a genius with no plan,” Pickens is fond of saying. And he has quite an ambitious plan—for the whole country.

SUCCESS readers chose T. Boone Pickens as the first SUCCESS Achiever of the Year from a field of nominees including Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps; producer, writer and actress Tina Fey; PepsiCo CEO and Chairman Indra Nooyi; and Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.

Read more about T. Boone Pickens in this November 2008 feature on SUCCESS.com.