Originally published in Flourishing March 2012
Thirty-odd years ago, I was working for W. J. Powell Construction Company in Beloit,Kansas. “Dub” was a wonderful person and a fair employer. The job wasn’t all that challenging, though, so I would take a book to work, and often used my lunch break to read biographies. That’s when it started—that little fire in the belly that says, “You can do more.”
One of the books that I read during that period was Study in Power: John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist, Philanthropist, by Allan Nevins.
Born in 1839, John D. Rockefeller rose from the lowest rungs of society to become one of the world’s wealthiest men and greatest philanthropists. His father was a ne’er-do-well elixir salesman and bigamist, who frequently abandoned his family for months and years at a time. Notwithstanding, John D. was serious, studious, hard-working, frugal, and well-behaved; and before he was forty, he was a member of the One Percent.
I mention John D. here, because I want to introduce you to a more recent member of the One Percent—a man from similarly humble beginnings. The two men have more in common than great wealth.
Born in rural Oklahoma in 1945, Harold Hamm was the youngest of thirteen children. His father was a share-cropper, who raised his family in a one room shack, devoid of indoor plumbing. Harold left home before graduating from high school, and took a job as a pump-jockey (a term of endearment, if you please) at an Enid, Oklahoma gas station.
Fast forward fifty years: Last November, Harold Hamm was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, along with Tommy Franks of Wynnewood; Marques Haynes of Sand Springs; Cathy Keating and Steve Malcolm of Tulsa; Elizabeth Warren of Oklahoma City; and (posthumously) Roger Miller of Erick. He still likes burgers from Sonic Drive-In, but Harold is now #36 on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans. His net worth is $9.0 billion, give or take; virtually all of which is still invested in finding and producing oil and natural gas.
Ever grateful for his success, Harold’s many generous gifts include a recent $30 million donation for the Harold Hamm Diabetes Center on the University of Oklahoma campus. “If it hadn’t been for education, I would have never had a chance to break away from the poverty cycle my family and I were caught up in ever since the Depression years.” (After his initial success, Harold went back to school; and he has never stopped learning.)
Of his induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, Harold said, “It’s a great honor, and it’s not anything I ever thought I would receive … it’s really beyond my dreams. …For this honor to come about right now while I still have some siblings alive, and for them to share this with me, means everything.”
That says a lot about the kind of man Harold Hamm is. He started in business with a $1,000 loan, co-signed by a friend. In 1967, at the age of twenty-two, he incorporated his business—a one-man, one-truck oilfield services company—as Shelly Dean Oil Co., named for his two oldest daughters. His wife kept the books, and as the little company grew, Harold and Sue Ann’s daughters answered the phone.
“Back then it was one day at a time, it was one minute at a time, almost. It was a very meager beginning and we’ve been very fortunate.”
Harold’s little company has done well over the last forty-five years. At the end of 2010, Continental Resources (formerly Shelly Dean Oil Co.), which is still based in Enid and Oklahoma City, had proved reserves of 364.7 MMboe (million barrels of oil equivalent). Continental now operates in twenty states and is far and away the largest leaseholder (855,936 acres) and producer (6.9 MMboe in 2010) in the Bakken Shale region of North Dakota and Montana.
Bakken, which accounted for 44% of Continental’s 14.7 MMboe production in 2010, had been written off by almost every industry expert just a few years ago as not worth exploring and developing—almost every expert, but not Harold Hamm. According to the company’s 2011 Annual Report, Continental is “on track to triple production and proved reserves from 2009 to 2014”. Like most businessmen in the One Percent, Mr. Hamm, who still owns 68% of Continental’s shares, consumes an infinitely small fraction of his income, preferring instead to reinvest in his community and in the work he loves to do.
One line that I remember most vividly from my ancient reading of Study in Power was a comment by one of John D. Rockefeller’s associates: “He sees far ahead of everyone else; and then, he sees around the corner.” What that man meant was that Rockefeller knew more than anyone else about his industry—because he studied more and worked harder. Rockefeller nearly always sought the counsel of his associates, but he was willing to accept full responsibility for his business decisions by repeatedly staking his own life and fortune on them. Ditto, Harold Hamm. That’s why they are the essential heroes—the One Percent. mh