Fred L. Hartley Dies; Built Unocal Into Energy Giant : Oilman: He left his imprint on almost every aspect of the company he joined in 1939 as an engineer trainee.
Fred L. Hartley, the outspoken oilman who built Unocal Corp. into a worldwide energy concern, feuded with the press and successfully fended off a takeover attempt by financier T. Boone Pickens Jr., died Friday afternoon in his Palos Verdes Estates home after a long illness. He was 73.
Hartley, a longtime Los Angeles business leader remembered as gruff and aggressive one moment, charming and affable the next, left his imprint on almost every aspect of Unocal Corp., the company he joined in 1939 as an engineer trainee.
He died while the company was observing its centennial.
During his 50-year career, Hartley was credited with building Unocal from a local oil company into a multinational energy firm with $11.4 billion in revenues in 1989.
He fueled its steady growth by plowing profits back into the company, analysts said. Until the fractious 1985 takeover battle with Pickens--a battle in which he was credited with saving Unocal from dismemberment--he was also praised for keeping the company’s long-term debt level low.
Hartley’s defeat of Pickens was seen as a turning point in the merger mania of the 1980s.
“Mr. Hartley was a creative engineer, an executive of vision and a man of great integrity who led Unocal for a quarter of a century and transformed it from a small, regional oil company to its present position as a worldwide earth resources company,” said Unocal Chairman Richard J. Stegemeier, Hartley’s successor, in a statement. “He was a close friend who will be sorely missed by all of us who knew him and worked with him.”
David Batchelder, an adviser to T. Boone Pickens Jr. during the failed 1985 takeover attempt, recalled that Hartley was “a very determined man. He carved out his path and stuck to it all the way through.”
Franklin D. Murphy, former UCLA chancellor and former chairman of Times Mirror Co., parent company of The Times, remembered that Hartley would rail at him about news coverage of Unocal one moment, then “in a few minutes after he got that off his chest, he’d have his arm around me and be calling me his friend.”
No details of Hartley’s condition were given, but he was believed to have been ill for some time. He missed the company’s annual meeting in April, as well as several board meetings and centennial celebrations, said John Imle, a Unocal senior vice president.
Hartley, was born in Vancouver, Canada, Jan. 16, 1917. He joined Union Oil in 1939 as an engineer trainee and worked his way up the corporate ladder, rising to president and chief executive officer in 1964, and chairman of the board 10 years later.
One of his first tasks was presiding over the then-largest merger ever: the $900,000 acquisition of Pure Oil that propelled Union from a regional company to a national firm.
He ran the company almost as a personal fiefdom, relying on only a handful of trusted advisers. “He was a fighter, and we had to prove our ideas to him all the time,” said Sam Snyder, now Unocal’s general counsel.
“He was not single-minded. He presented to the public a single-mindedness, but he also used his advisers and listened to them.”
Hartley led Unocal’s efforts in developing geothermal and shale oil as alternative energy sources. Unocal remains the largest commercial shale oil producer in the country with its costly project in Parachute, Colo., and the largest geothermal energy producer.
In the meantime, he feuded with environmentalists, financial analysts--whom he sometimes referred to as “bums"--and with the press.
Hartley’s distrust of the media stemmed to the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, which came from an offshore Unocal platform. Comments made to a Senate subcommittee on the deaths of sea gulls were widely misquoted.
Hartley’s comment, “I am always tremendously impressed at the publicity that the death of birds receives versus the loss of people in our country in this day and age,” became: “I’m amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.”
Later, during the first oil shocks of the 1970s, he unsuccessfully sued The Times and cartoonist Paul Conrad for a panel critical of him during the first oil crisis.
Hartley proved to be a formidable enemy to the likes of Pickens, who cast his eye on the then-Union Oil Co. while prowling for undervalued oil stocks.
On Valentine’s Day, 1985, Pickens’ Mesa Petroleum notified the Securities and Exchange Commission that he had acquired 7.9% of Union Oil’s stock. Pickens’ apparent hope was to force a restructuring.
"(Hartley) was very calm, very collected,” said Snyder, one of the chief engineers of Unocal’s defense. “He organized a group, and he said, ‘We will fight.’ ”
Hartley built his defense team from nearby, believing, Snyder said, “that if you got into the maelstrom with Wall Street advisers, you would play by their playbook and wind up the way everyone else did who plays. He wanted the venue in Los Angeles.”
The battle left Unocal independent but saddled with a huge debt load: $6.1 billion, which the company has managed to whittle down to more than $4 billion through asset sales, including that of its headquarters building downtown.
In 1988, Hartley stepped down as chief executive and president, handing the reins to Stegemeier, his hand-picked successor. In 1989, Hartley resigned his final leadership role as chairman of the board. He remained a director and chairman emeritus of the company at his death.
Hartley was a longtime participant in Los Angeles civic groups, including the California Institute of Technology, Southwest Museum, California Museum of Science and Industry, Music Center, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Huntington Library.
Hartley is survived by his wife, Peggy; daughter, Marnie; son-in-law, Dan Gruen, and son, Fred L. Hartley Jr.