Meet 'The Frackers': A Wall Street Journal reporter's take on three Oklahoma magnates

Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman‘s book “The Frackers” tells a story about some of Oklahoma’s most prominent energy magnates.
Published: February 15, 2014
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In “The Frackers,” Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman tells a story about a few of Oklahoma’s most prominent businesspeople. How he does so is revealing, and of interest to Oklahomans.

Although Zuckerman doesn’t put Oklahoma in the title of the book, he might as well have. Oklahoma figures more prominently than any other state: three of the six main characters in the book — Aubrey McClendon, Tom Ward and Harold Hamm — are Oklahoma natives whose businesses are based in Oklahoma, and most of the book is dedicated to their stories. A fourth character, George Mitchell, a hydraulic fracturing pioneer from Texas, sold his company to Devon Energy.

It’s not every day that a Wall Street Journal reporter writes a book in which Oklahoma plays such a big part.

Many Oklahomans already know at least in general terms the story told in “The Frackers.” So they should: much of the state is home to oil wells, and most Oklahoma residents likely know someone who works for an oil and gas company. Not to mention that McClendon, Ward and Hamm are household names in Oklahoma.

As descendants of participants of the state’s formative land runs, residents of the Sooner State can also probably relate to the race to lock up drilling rights nationwide.

But Zuckerman is, of course, not writing for Oklahomans; he is trying to reach a much broader audience. His typical reader is likely unfamiliar with the petroleum industry, and doesn’t even know anyone from Oklahoma.

So perhaps because Oklahoma is foreign to most of his readers, the author spends a lot of time describing the characters in his story, who are not as well known outside of the state, and describing how their origins and personalities fit in with their life’s work.

The author pays a lot of attention to McClendon. McClendon, of course, has the most moneyed origins of the three — as a Kerr, he is nearly Oklahoma royalty. He is portrayed as smart and competitive, and outgoing and charismatic as well — a natural leader. Ward, by contrast, while also bright and competitive, is more introspective and thoughtful. He does not come from a wealthy background, and his upbringing is described as being affected by the scourge of alcoholism.

Both McClendon and Ward are well-suited to being landmen, the former negotiating deals and the latter doing the analytical work in the office. Zuckerman says the pair elevate the position of landman. He describes landmen as traditionally the “Rodney Dangerfields” of the oil patch because they command little respect: “Movies are made about wildcatters. Jokes are made about landmen.” Countering that image, Chesapeake is a company run by landmen, and puts a premium value on the talents of its landmen.

It seems to follow from their personalities, according to the author, that while McClendon is suited to dealing with bankers and investors at Chesapeake, Ward takes charge of operations and relates with people in the field.

Zuckerman also spends time delving into Hamm’s background, the most colorful of the three. Perhaps reflective of his country roots as the 13th and youngest child of sharecroppers, Hamm “talked like a hick” and came across as a “dumb country bumpkin” early in his career, a longtime friend of Hamm’s tells the author. That led to Hamm being underestimated in his business dealings, often to his advantage, according to the same friend.