The fight for control of Unocal is one of the most dramatic local business stories in many years. I read the daily accounts with a mixture of fascination and horror. Theoretically I am, as an occasional very small stockholder, the type of person with whose welfare T. Boone Pickens is most concerned.
But I don't think it takes a graduate degree in finance from Harvard Business School to see whose interests are really at stake in this spectacle. It is Pickens and his collection of unsavory friends and financiers who would be right at home in an 18th-Century pirate ship out for rapine and plunder on the Spanish Main.
Union Oil has been a stable and vital part of Southern California for almost 100 years. It was founded and has been nurtured by people who put their lives and financial futures on the line to develop an enterprise and an industry that serves our society, adds to its economic base and develops new technologies of benefit to far more people than its stockholders alone--small or large. It's not just a listing on the New York Stock Exchange. It's a special part of the development of Southern California.
Where is the Pickens group's record of blood and sweat, to say nothing of the long commitment of years it takes to build and maintain an ongoing enterprise with all the risks that that implies?
All that the so-called "risk arbitrageurs" risk is the blow to their egos on the rare occasions that their heavily leveraged bets on the current contest for stealing other people's assets results in slightly less than outrageous profits that they then use to sink another solid industrial ship.
If Fred Hartley does nothing more than expose this whole smelly business of corporate takeovers with the unscrupulous financial deals and the unfair tax breaks that encourage it he will more than justify his long and distinguished career.
I hope that I am not alone in my conviction that I would never trust my investment in any company acquired and run by men like Pickens who are motivated only by unthinking greed and the next corporate "play" that may be on the horizon rather than the challenge of running the corporations they might succeed in acquiring.