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Why Endeavor Energy's founder sold his company after years of rebuffing offers

Published 02/13/2024, 05:02 AM
Updated 02/13/2024, 10:42 AM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A pumpjack is shown outside Midland-Odessa area in the Permian basin in Texas, U.S., July 17, 2018. Image taken July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Liz Hampton/File Photo

By Liz Hampton, Arathy Somasekhar and David French

(Reuters) - For years, Endeavor Energy founder Autry Stephens' refusal to entertain acquisition offers for one of the most lucrative producers in the U.S. oil patch vexed some of his peers.

"It's not for sale, it hasn't been for sale, it's probably not going to ever sell," Pioneer Natural Resources (NYSE:PXD)' former CEO Scott Sheffield, a contemporary of Stephens, told a Barclays energy conference in 2021 about his interest in buying Endeavor.

On Monday, Stephens agreed to sell the company for $26 billion in cash and stock to Diamondback (NASDAQ:FANG) Energy, another oil and gas producer which, like Endeavor, hails from Midland, Texas, and operates in the Permian basin, the most productive U.S. oilfield.

Stephens, who launched Endeavor in 1979 and grew it by snapping up tough-to-drill wells that oil majors snubbed, rebuffed several offers over the years for the company, arguing there was still room to grow it, according to industry executives and investment bankers familiar with the approaches.

The 85-year-old wildcatter's decision to sell came after he was diagnosed with cancer, according to three people who discussed his health with him. One of them, Texas oil businessman Javaid Anwar, said he uses his private plane to fly Stephens to Houston for treatment.

With the wealth of his wife and his two children tied to Endeavor, Stephens moved to settle the company's future rather than let his estate decide on a sale after his death, according to three investment banking sources. In a discussion that one of his friends conveyed to Reuters, Stephens expressed satisfaction with the deal's financial outcome but regret that he could not carry on because of his health.

A spokesperson for Endeavor declined to comment on Stephens' health or make Stephens available for an interview.

Stephens had hoped for a wide auction process that would attract major players including Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM), Chevron Corp (NYSE:CVX) and Occidental Petroleum (NYSE:OXY), according to the three banking sources. He went ahead even though those three companies were in the midst of completing major acquisitions inked in the last three months, the sources said.

A spokesperson for Occidental declined to comment, while spokespeople for Exxon and Chevron could not be immediately reached for comment.

A source close to Diamondback said it approached Stephens shortly after Reuters reported on Dec. 8 that Endeavor was preparing to launch a sale process with help from JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) bankers.

FRUGAL AND DRIVEN

Interviews with over 15 oil and gas executives, investment bankers and friends of Stephens paint a picture of an entrepreneur whose relentless work ethic and frugality have changed little since he became one of the richest people in Texas.

He regularly works weekends, has stuck with a decades-old car, and usually travels economy on commercial flights. One of his favorite restaurants is El Banquete, a low key Mexican restaurant on the south side of Midland where a breakfast burrito costs about $5, one of his friends said.

Those who know Stephens say he was shaped by years of austerity in the 1980s and 1990s, when he went through tough spells to get Endeavor off the ground.

"He bootstraps his way," said investor Dan Pickering of financial services firm Pickering Energy Partners, who has done business with Stephens.

Born in 1938, Stephens grew up on a farm in DeLeon, Texas, where his family grew peanuts and produce. He studied engineering, despite coming into college behind in math, according to a profile on the University of Texas' engineering school website.

Stephens drilled his first well in 1979 in Midland county. He would pick up leaseholds for acreage that oil majors found too expensive to drill and would lower production costs by handling most of the operations. He created and used his own fracking, construction and trucking companies.

"He is the hardest worker probably in our industry," said Bryan Sheffield, son of Scott Sheffield and founder of shale firm Parsley Energy (NYSE:PE).

Chuck Meloy, a former Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE:APC) executive who Stephens tapped to serve as Endeavor CEO between 2016 and 2020, helped modernize Endeavor, convincing Stephens to spend more on salaries and bonuses, two of the people who know them said.

Stephens' wife Linda and his daughter Lyndal are in the family business. LinkedIn lists Linda Stephens as an owner of Endeavor, though two people - a friend and a fellow Midland businessman - said she is not involved in day-to-day operations. Lyndal Stephens Greth, an attorney, serves as vice chair of Endeavor's board.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A pumpjack is shown outside Midland-Odessa area in the Permian basin in Texas, U.S., July 17, 2018. Image taken July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Liz Hampton/File Photo

Stephens' son, Joseph Martin, is not involved in Endeavor. He was pardoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2020 for a felony gun charge that he pleaded guilty to in 2008, according to a White House statement and criminal records.

Linda Stephens, Lyndal and Joseph did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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