Don't cry for me, Amarillo

How once-fearsome corporate raider T. Boone Pickens was beaten at his own game -- by a one-time protege

Among the boys, Batchelder, who, like his boss, had graduated from Oklahoma State University, stood out. "He was the first among equals," recalls Joseph Nocera, a senior editor at Fortune whom Pickens once hired to write his biography, then fired. "He would be the one guy who would be in the room when Pickens met with someone important."

Batchelder possessed skills that made him a natural for dealing with the outside world when his boss didn't have the time or inclination. Batchelder had been working as an accountant in Denver for Deloitte, Haskins & Sells before he started with Mesa in 1978 as $33,000-a-year assistant controller. He does not possess the stereotypical bean-counter personality, but is instead articulate, relaxed and convivial.

"David is good-guyish," says Robert Lovejoy, a former partner at the New York law firm Davis, Polk & Wardwell and now an investment banker at Lazard Freres who worked with the Mesa takeover team in the 1980s. "He is very smart, and he has great presentation skills."

A people pleaser, Batchelder became the contact man for Mesa with the banks. He was responsible for putting together the multimillion-dollar financial packages needed to make the tender offers of those days.

Batchelder also became Mesa's frontman with the financial press, a job of no small importance to Pickens when he was playing out a takeover battle. "He could talk when it seemed like Pickens should stay above the fray," says one former Mesa employee who worked with both men.

"David became the credible, articulate spokesman," recalls Warren Vieth, a former Dallas Times Herald business writer who worked for Mesa as a PR specialist in the 1980s.

Although Batchelder was clearly a favorite among the boys, his Mesa colleagues did not regard him as a yes man for Pickens. "David was not a kiss-ass kind of guy," says a former Mesa employee.

Pickens has told reporters that he considered Batchelder a buddy: at least, until Batchelder tried to take Mesa away from Pickens.

Now 47 and prematurely gray, Batchelder remains an accomplished practitioner in the art of obliging (and spinning) reporters, as he proved during a recent interview at his La Jolla, California office. Barred from talking negatively about Pickens by a legal agreement, he nevertheless granted a two-hour interview.

Batchelder insists that, even though he and Pickens spent an inordinate amount of time together, the close working relationship between them never became a friendship. "It was always an employer-employee relationship," Batchelder said, noting that since his departure they had little contact. "I wasn't in his social circles."

Batchelder doesn't deny that Mesa (and Pickens) made him a rich man. Both Pickens and Batchelder benefited from the unusual plan at Mesa that awarded "deal fees" to a team of executives -- Pickens, Batchelder, Craig and Tassin -- as if it were an internal group of investment bankers. After the Gulf Oil deal, the company began paying that group as handsomely as any outside investment banking firm would have been paid: 4 percent of each transaction's value. In the mid-'80s, Batchelder made more than $5 million for himself from deal fees, while Pickens personally pulled in a whopping $110 million from the same source.

"David came here with a net worth of $35,000 and left with $10 million," says one of the Mesa executives who would later help Pickens fight off the former protege.

On the surface, Batchelder's departure from Mesa in 1988 evidenced no bitterness. With his youngest child finishing high school, Batchelder wanted to keep a pledge he had made to his wife by leaving Amarillo, a claustrophobic West Texas town that he has compared to a truck stop. He and his wife preferred sunny La Jolla, Batchelder told Pickens.

Batchelder planned to set up a boutique investment banking firm. At first, Pickens and Batchelder discussed working out some sort of long-distance arrangement that would allow Batchelder to continue working for Mesa from the West Coast. But that never happened, Batchelder says, because Pickens needs to see people's faces daily to work well with them.

But the parting appeared amicable, and Batchelder gave Pickens plenty of advance notice before he left Mesa. "I told Boone one year before I was leaving that I was leaving," he says. "You have to have a pretty damn good relationship to do that."

When it finally came time for Batchelder to pull out of Amarillo, however, Pickens was suffering a wave of bad news and publicity. Mesa's earnings had dropped 55 percent from the year before (never to rise again until this past quarter, when Rainwater had already taken over).

In Amarillo, Pickens had gotten into a row with the Amarillo Globe-News after it reported about embarrassing cost overruns in one of Pickens' pet philanthropic projects, a $1.5 million mansion for the president of West Texas State University, where the Mesa founder was chairman of the board of regents.

Pickens reacted poorly to criticism, urging Amarillo businessmen to stop advertising in the Globe-News. When the paper's editor, Jerry Huff, left amid the fuss, Pickens hung a celebratory banner across the top of the Mesa headquarters building. It said: "Good-bye Jerry."

But when national reporters caught wind of Pickens' hometown fracas, they had a field day. On April 5, 1988 -- two weeks before Batchelder's effective departure date -- the Wall Street Journal published a caustic front-page story about Pickens entitled "Cranky Cowboy."

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