Ex-Chesapeake Energy chief Aubrey McClendon in legal fight
Since Aubrey McClendon walked away from Chesapeake Energy, the company he had founded and led for 24 years, everything he has done has suggested an inability to let go.
In the same month that he left, April 2013, he launched a new privately owned vehicle, American Energy Partners, with the aim of replicating the spectacular success in the shale industry that had made Chesapeake the second-largest gas producer in the US. AEP even chose offices only a 15-minute walk from Chesapeake’s 120-acre campus on the north side of Oklahoma City.
Mr McClendon has hired many former Chesapeake staff to AEP’s 600-strong workforce, including his chief operating officer.
Most contentiously, though, he has brought AEP-linked companies directly up in competition against Chesapeake to secure drilling rights in the Utica shale of Ohio.
That move lit a fuse that has led to the rivalry between Mr McClendon and his former company flaring up into headlines.
Chesapeake has filed a lawsuit in a state court in Oklahoma against AEP and affiliated companies, alleging that Mr McClendon stole “trade secrets” before he left. Its filing alleges that he sent “dozens” of emails with confidential company information to his personal account. But it focuses on one report and map in particular, giving up-to-date information on the Utica shale. Chesapeake argues that these data were used by AEP-affiliated companies to do deals in the Utica, snatching leases on potential development acreage from under its nose.
Mr McClendon has denied the allegations, saying he took only information he was entitled to, and that Chesapeake information was not used in the particular deals the company has complained about.
However, the legal battle is another dramatic episode in the career of man who has long been one of the industry’s biggest personalities.
The best-known photograph of Mr McClendon shows him in his usual shirtsleeves, grinning broadly next to the model Kate Upton, who is a cousin of his wife. They are seated in the Chesapeake Energy Arena, home of the Oklahoma City Thunder, a National Basketball Association franchise part-owned by Mr McClendon — which was moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City in 2008 in acrimonious circumstances.
It is an unusual image for an oil and gas executive, but entirely characteristic of Mr McClendon. Most leaders in the industry are geologists, engineers and accountants, but his genius is as a dealmaker.
His success took some time coming, though. He founded Chesapeake in 1989, and it struggled for years before the shale revolution of the 2000s. Mr McClendon had nothing to do with the technical breakthroughs that made shale production commercially viable for the first time. However, more than anyone else, he saw the potential of the new industry, and acted quickly to capitalise on it.
Chesapeake built an unrivalled portfolio of assets in the principal shale gas regions of the US, financed by debt. When the gas price slumped, its finances became precarious. Shareholders’ concerns eventually led to Mr Mr McClendon being forced out.
He is now trying to build his new business in more difficult conditions than a decade ago. But his enduring star-power is evident from the speed with which companies linked to AEP raised more than $11bn in equity and debt financing. The industry downturn could be a great time to do deals.
If AEP is a success, it seems the triumph will be all the sweeter for Mr McClendon for having been achieved in the face of the challenges from Chesapeake.
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