Editor’s note: May 21, 2019, marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the legendary George Mitchell. Hartenergy.com marked the event with a special tribute video. Now, Contributing Editor Jeff Share, remembers his own experiences with Mitchell and talked to one of his former executives.
Opinions expressed by the author are his own.
You can’t blame Tony Lentini for still shaking his head at the memory of a potential career-destroying moment, even if it happened over 35 years ago.
He could—and would—thank his beneficent boss, George P. Mitchell, that it wasn’t. From that point forward, Lentini would earn a successful career as a communications executive for the energy and real estate developer tycoon.
Lentini, now retired, had been with Mitchell Energy & Development Corp. in The Woodlands, a community Mitchell created, for just two years. The West Point grad picks up the story.
“I was just a junior member of the communications staff, working on energy policy because George was always after a national energy strategy that made sense. He kept going after the federal government to do it to help U.S. production capability.
“There was a series of hidden panels on his wall. In front of the door where I had to go in to give a presentation was an easel with a large, one-of-a-kind, ornately framed rendering of the Tremont House, a building he owned but had not yet developed in Galveston. I was moving the easel to get to the door and it broke. So, I’m picking up pieces of glass, thinking I’m going to get fired, when he came out to see what happened.
“I apologized profusely, offered to pay for it. I knew how much this meant to him. But the first thing he says is ‘Are you all right? Don’t worry about it, It’s just a picture.’ A couple minutes later he comes back, I’m still feeling terrible, puts his arm around me, and tells me again, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s just a picture.’
“He really cared about me as a person and that’s how he treated everybody. He was never mean and never spoke ill of someone,” Lentini recalls.
The Tremont House, now a Wyndham hotel, was close to Mitchell’s heart because the Galveston native was determined to help restore the coastal community to something approaching its glory days before the 1900 hurricane destroyed the island. The Tremont House, originally built in 1839, would be beautifully restored by Mitchell and become the focal point of the rebirth of the historic Strand district. The Tremont became the second home for Mitchell and his beloved wife, Cynthia, who died in 2009. It was where Mitchell died on July 26, 2013, at age 94.
Mitchell was known for his philanthropy as well as being a visionary. He and Cynthia poured millions into rebuilding Galveston, even restarting the Mardi Gras which is the community’s premiere social event. They donated millions more to charitable causes and science research. As a visionary, Mitchell pictured a model community which would be environmentally friendly, free of the urban blight plaguing cities throughout the country. In 1974, he created a non-incorporated community about 30 miles north of downtown Houston which would be appropriately named The Woodlands. It became the headquarters of Mitchell E&D, ultimately to become a Fortune 500 company.
About 100,000 people now live in The Woodlands, where Lentini remembers Mitchell having a special affection for trees, so much so that he would drive through the community, pull his Cadillac off to the side of the road, and go over to advise flabbergasted workers whom he thought were working too close to a tree.
“He saved a whole bunch of them,” Lentini said. In fact, there are so many trees in The Woodlands that one can easily get lost looking for a specific address.
Of course, it is in the world of energy that Mitchell made his greatest contribution, the successful commercial development of hydraulic fracturing that has been called one of the most important developments in the history of energy. Knowing that there had to be a way to crack the tight reservoirs that contained untold trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and billions of barrels of crude oil, he spent millions through the 1980s and 1990s, goading his staff to find the solution. With the help of the Gas Research Institute (now GTI) and the federal Department of Energy, that dream would come true.
Gregory Zuckerman’s excellent book, The Frackers, The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters, (Penguin, 2013), describes how Mitchell built his company with the help of older brother Johnny, and the work to break the fracking mystery. Besides hard work, a canny strategy and a fortunate tip from a bookie were instrumental in creating a billion-dollar business empire.
“If we did over five dry holes in a row they (investors) would leave us.” To avoid that scenario, Zuckerman wrote, Mitchell made sure to always retain one especially promising well in reserve, to drill if he ever hit a losing streak, a move that kept the investors from bailing. Soon cash was coming their way from all over the country, including Galveston gambling magnate and organized crime boss Sam Maceo, Zuckerman wrote. Another was Barbara Hutton, famous heiress to the Woolworth retailing fortune, daughter of a co-founder of E.F. Hutton, and a former spouse of Cary Grant.
I always liked the story about the bookie, which Zuckerman also discussed.
“One day in 1952 a bookie in Chicago shared a tip with another of George Mitchell’s investors, Louis Pulaski, about a natural gas field in north-central Texas, near Fort Worth. The bookie didn’t know much when it came to energy; he usually just took bets for Pulaski, the owner of a Houston junkyard. But the out-of-town bookie told Pulaski that he had spoken with contacts in the drilling business and had a hunch that a 3,000-acre spot under the Hughes Ranch in Wise County would be a winner. Figuring the bookie might have a hot tip, Pulaski called George Mitchell right away, urging him to look into the field.”
Despite his early skepticism, Zuckerman wrote, Mitchell agreed to explore the field and hit on seven consecutive winners as they had discovered a huge underground natural gas reservoir. Mitchell bought up 300,000 acres in the next ninety days until he ran out of money. Though the majors wanted nothing to do with natural gas, Mitchell foresaw a profitable market starting to develop as demand was growing in cities such as Chicago for the cheap fuel. He promptly became the biggest natural gas supplier to the Chicago region.
As his company’s reserves began their inevitable decline, Mitchell knew that new sources of natural gas had to be developed, and his search for the fracking fix began in earnest. He would be known as the “father of fracking,” “the pioneer of the shale revolution,’’ among many such plaudits. Those titles weren’t important to him. Having seen the ebb and flow of its energy production leave the U.S. vulnerable to foreign entities, some of them not very friendly, he wanted energy security for his country. He also had a dream that the much cleaner natural gas would be the fuel of the twenty-first century.
I know that because I interviewed Mitchell in 1993 and 1995 in his office located in downtown Houston’s tallest building. Natural gas dominated our conversations, even though prices were so low at the time that no one gave it a second thought. Except George Mitchell.
This is what he told me:
“Financially, the industry is still a good investment for people of capital, particularly if you get natural gas, which is the fuel of the future. In twenty-five years, natural gas will be lacing the world just like oil is today. Geologically, there is much more natural gas, so it will be easier to find than oil. We’ve got an eighty-year reserve of gas in this country, but it takes new wells and pipelines to connect these reserves and transport them.
“I think that the potential worldwide is going to be natural gas, and that bodes well for this country because the environmental impact with gas is so much better than oil or coal.”
As I sat in this modest billionaire’s office, I could almost see his Galveston, about 60 miles to the south, and looking the other way, The Woodlands, 30 miles to the north. Somehow sitting in the center of it all seemed the right place to be.
As the shale revolution grew and helped save the U.S. economy during President Obama’s tenure, I watched with interest as he discussed his sudden love of natural gas. I decided to give it a test. I implored federal officials including members of his administration to confer the Presidential Gold Medal on the aging philanthropist and energy genius who had done so much for his community and his country. He was certainly as deserving as any others being so honored, I pointed out. He’s even a Democrat.
“But you don’t get it,” someone finally told me on the phone. “He’s an oil man.”
He just didn’t get it. As Tony Lentini told me, “He’s always used his money to do good things because he believed in giving back.”
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