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Arco founder led firm into major civic philanthropy

Times Staff Writer

Robert O. Anderson, a legendary wildcatter and philanthropist who founded Atlantic Richfield Oil Co. and used his clout to support an array of major cultural organizations, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to Harper’s magazine, died Sunday at his home in Roswell, N.M. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by Amy Wohlert, interim dean of the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management, which was named after the former Arco chairman and longtime New Mexico resident.

Wohlert said Anderson had a stroke recently, but she did not know the cause of death.

Anderson created Arco through a 1966 merger of the Atlantic and Richfield oil companies and was its chairman for two decades. He led Arco’s move from New York to Los Angeles in 1972, when it opened the landmark Arco Plaza at 5th and Flower streets. The company’s twin 52-story towers lifted downtown’s skyline and launched a building boom that transformed the area.

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“He saw Los Angeles as the city of the future,” said Robert Wycoff, a former president of Arco.

Anderson, who often wore a vintage Stetson and a bow tie, guided Arco to play an important civic and philanthropic role in the city. The company donated $3 million toward the cost of a new building for modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The building, which opened in 1986, is named for Anderson.

A lifetime trustee of the museum, Anderson was among a small group of local business leaders who were crucial to the growth of the arts in Los Angeles.

“Like Franklin Murphy, Ed Carter and Howard Ahmanson, Robert O. Anderson ensured that his corporation played an active role in the cultural institutions of Los Angeles,” said Melody Kanschat, LACMA president.

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Anderson was a lifetime trustee of the museum as well as of Caltech.

The Arco founder had an unusual range of interests, which encompassed enterprises as varied as the London Observer and Harper’s magazine, each of which he helped rescue when they faced financial insolvency.

For many years he also led the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, which held retreats for business executives to expose them to humanistic values. He vigorously promoted the responsible conduct of business, Wohlert said Tuesday.

Arco, which was merged with British Petroleum in 2000, was seen as a model corporate citizen, whose executives populated the boards of local nonprofit groups.

“Bob was very clear about our responsibility as citizens of this community,” Wycoff said. “I remember him once commenting about a person he didn’t think much of. He said, ‘If he just wants to sit at home and watch television all night, so be it.’ But he wanted us to be supportive of the whole community.”

At the same time, Anderson was a consummate deal-maker whose business savvy had turned Arco into the nation’s sixth-largest oil company by the time he left it in 1986 to pursue other interests. He was by then the largest individual landowner in the United States, with ranches and other holdings in Texas and New Mexico amounting to some 2,000 square miles and a personal fortune estimated at $200 million.

If risk-taking was inbred, Anderson was born to gamble in a volatile business in which fortunes could be won or lost in a day.

He was born in 1917 in Chicago, the son of a banker who knew a number of oil entrepreneurs and lent them money. His father, Anderson often said, was the first banker in the U.S. “who loaned money on oil in the ground.”

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Anderson attended the University of Chicago, where he was schooled in geology, economics and the university’s fabled “great ideas” program. He worked summers as a roughneck in oil fields in Texas and Oklahoma. By the time he graduated in 1939, he was certain that his future was in the oil business.

In 1941, Anderson went to New Mexico with $50,000 in borrowed funds and purchased control of an old oil refinery. His timing was fortuitous. When the U.S. entered World War II later that year, demand for oil escalated. Soon he was selling gasoline to the air bases throughout the Southwest, as well as diesel fuel for the atom bomb project at Los Alamos.

By the end of the decade he owned several refineries, had built a pipeline system and had become a wildcatter. He entered the top ranks of independent oil producers in 1957 with a major find at the Empire-Abo field in New Mexico.

In 1962 Anderson merged his operations with Atlantic Refining. In 1966, as Atlantic’s chairman and chief executive, he struck the deal with Richfield that resulted in a new company, Arco.

He pushed Arco to devote greater resources to oil exploration and production. In 1967, his persistence led to the company’s discovery of the largest pool of usable crude oil in North America at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope.

“It was like winning the Irish sweepstakes, and the odds were about the same,” Anderson told Forbes magazine in 1993.

He led Arco for 17 years as a strategic thinker in a formidable management team also led by Thornton Bradshaw, who was Arco president until he left to head RCA in 1981.

With Bradshaw, Anderson created the Arco Foundation and set an example for other companies to support the civic and cultural life of the city.

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At the same time, he broke the mold for oil executives by promoting mass transit and other environmental concerns.

His wide-ranging intellect was reflected in his championing of the London Observer and Harper’s when each fell on hard times. He persuaded Arco’s board to purchase the Observer in 1977 when it was nearly bankrupt. He called it “a modest bet on the survival of England.”

In 1980, Arco saved Harper’s with a pledge of $1.5 million, which was matched by a similar amount from the MacArthur Foundation.

“He was a unique man,” recalled Albert Greenstein, Arco’s longtime spokesman. He said Anderson saw his championing of the publications not as long-term investments “but a way of bailing them out and ensuring they would survive.”

In 1985, with crude oil prices set to plunge and hostile corporate takeovers in the offing, Anderson led a major restructuring of Arco. Although he left the company the next year, he did not retire.

“I happen to think that a rocking chair and television screen are a quick way to the graveyard,” he said in 1989, when he resuscitated his private Hondo Oil & Gas Co. in a merger with Pauley Petroleum. The move took him back to his beginnings as an independent oil producer in what he called “the best business in the world.”

He is survived by his wife, Barbara, of Roswell; seven children; and grandchildren.

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elaine.woo@latimes.com

Times staff writer Suzanne Muchnic contributed to this report.


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