During a farewell speech to employees on Thursday, Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon choked back tears at times and recalled how he came across the company's first handwritten, five-page business plan while cleaning out his office and that he once had to borrow money from his father to make payroll.
It was an uncharacteristically somber McClendon who took to a stage set up on one of Chesapeake's immaculate athletic fields on Thursday during a farewell picnic that featured piped-in classic rock songs and box lunches.
McClendon reassured employees that Chesapeake has a solid leadership team in place, although the company has yet to name McClendon's successor.
“They are not going away,” McClendon said. “I'm leaving, but they are staying — you have a very strong leadership team here and I hope you have the inner drive to continue with what we have started here.”
Chesapeake employees wore T-shirts to the farewell party printed with an illustration of McClendon's signature tie — pattered with drilling rigs and hard hats.
The shirts were also emblazoned with the phrase “onward and upward,” McClendon's signature sign-off to Chesapeake workers.
The oil and gas industry was a staid place when McClendon and Tom Ward founded the company in 1989 from a suburban brick office building at NW 63 and Western Avenue, he said during his speech.
“It was a bunch of old guys — like I am today,” McClendon, 53, said. “It was not a particularly dynamic or creative place — companies were not built to challenge the status quo.”
Focusing on unconventional drilling techniques, McClendon and Ward built Chesapeake into what is today the No. 2 natural gas producer in the United States, behind ExxonMobil Corp.
“Probably my greatest joy today knows that this company played such a leading role in industry,” McClendon said. “As a consequence, we have lower energy costs, greater prosperity, cleaner air, less foreign oil and fewer — hopefully no more — foreign entanglements.”
Wearing a rumpled white dress shirt and khaki pants, McClendon walked through the crowd, greeting employees and posing for cellphone pictures during the picnic.
The departing CEO dismissed employees early Thursday afternoon before leaving the stage to a standing ovation.
Chesapeake employee Blayne Cook sang the John Denver song “Calypso,” a tribute to explorer Jacques Cousteau, as an homage to McClendon's pioneering work in the natural gas industry.
“There's not a single one of us here today who wouldn't follow you into battle any day, anywhere,” Cook said to McClendon from the stage. “I've worked at other companies where I didn't feel like I knew the CEO or the founder of the company — the things that you do to make us part of the company matter every day.”
Adam Wilmoth, Energy Editor