How I Saved Bunker Hunt Millions

 

Bunker Hunt died yesterday.

He was the son of the legendary Texas oilman H.L. Hunt. And he must have inherited some of his father’s wildcat genes. He took risks in far flung places like Pakistan and Libya and raked in a fortune without benefit of his father’s money. And he was one of the world’s first billionaires.

He was also on the Board of Directors of the International Linguistics Center (ILC) in Dallas. And that is where I come in. ILC sits on 110 acres in SW Dallas at the top of an escarpment and has a great view. And it is here that the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the Wycliffe Bible Translators built their international headquarters.

The founder of Wycliffe, Cameron Townsend had a genius for involving local people and through the efforts of Rudy Renfer (initially) a board was assembled composed of leading Christian businessmen in Dallas with the task of raising the funds to build the buildings for this Center. When I came to Dallas in the spring of 1972 to attend seminary, ground was being broken for the first building, a dorm, and I was offered a job in construction on that site. I declined and took a job with H.B. Zachary and poured cement all summer (good learning experiences often comes from bad choices—it was a very hot, hard summer).

And over the years that board, as well as friends of those board members, along with others, built the 16 or so buildings that now comprise this campus. In 1991, after a 4 year term in Kenya, I was invited to join the staff of the development department of ILC, headed up by Tom Werkema.

We got situated in our home in Duncanville in July and by mid-August of 1991 I was in my seat learning what I needed to learn about fundraising and more particularly about the project we were attempting to fund at the time. This was the new administrative building (now called the Key Building), a 50,000 sq. ft. building being built, for the most part by Wycliffe Associates who use willing volunteer workers to do construction around the world to advance Bible translation. The task was to raise $2.5 million and about half of that was already raised.

A glance down the roster of the ILC Board members would impress anyone familiar with business leaders in Dallas. And from the outset Bunker Hunt was by far the most famous and without a doubt the wealthiest.

After I had been in place about two weeks, Tom announces one morning that it was time for me to meet all the board members. And in the next month we visited most of them where he introduced me as his newest staff person. The first Board member Tom had me meet (and the most memorable because of what eventuated) was Bunker Hunt.

Our appointment was for 2 PM. The building was one of the high rises downtown. We were zipped 30 floors up and let ourselves in the door of his office (which had a number on it but no company name anywhere). The receiving area was outsized, perhaps 30 feet by 30 feet with several offices off of it. There were a few chairs, comfortable, but not plush. No secretary to be seen anywhere. Decor was minimalist and pretty plain. I was surprised that the office of one of the richest men in the world had absolutely no visible indication of wealth, power or influence–no large Persian carpet, no wall of pictures of him with the rich and famous, no Monets or Picassos on the wall. Just…very plain.

At 2:15 or so Bunker Hunt, a man larger than life and, in fact, quite large, came out and waved us into his office. It was a corner office with a great view, but rather small (perhaps 15 by 15 or so). And again, no pictures, no hand woven carpet, nothing. Just plain.

I was introduced.

We sat down. Tom spent the next ten minutes going over some board related matter. Mr. Hunt listened, nodded, and asked a few questions. And then, suddenly, and with no prior warning, Tom turned to me and asked me to tell Bunker a little about myself. This was not hard to do (I know the subject matter pretty well), and so I started with the fact I was raised in India, and went to college in Seattle and I had gone less than one minute when I noticed his eyelids went to half mast. It was after lunch. I don’t think I was boring him, it was just that he was drowsy. So I just started leapfrogging through my life–Dallas Seminary, Khartoum for Arabic, allocated to the Didinga tribe in the S.E. corner of Sudan….and got about there when he said, “Did you say Sudan?”

I guess he was listening after all.

“Yes sir, that is where we worked.”

The next question was, “What do you know about Sudan?” And I asked what did he want to know? He wanted to know something about the history of it. Being an avid reader and having a considerable amount of free time when we were in Khartoum I had read anything I could get my hands on about the country I was going to live in for the foreseeable future.

For the next ten minutes (he was no longer drowsy) I gave a brief history lesson about the country, the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (a somewhat unusual governing arrangement that lasted from 1899 to the end of 1955 at which point Sudan received its independence). I gave a quick overview of topography, the division of north and south Sudan and the constant state of conflict between the north and south (divided by race, religion, language and topography).

When I was done Mr. Hunt just sat there. Thinking. Mulling something over. And then, squinting slightly he leaned forward in his chair, lowered his voice a bit and said, “I think I can trust you boys with the information I am about to divulge since you are not in the oil business.” He then went on to detail how he and a few partners were on the verge of buying out Chevron’s oil concession and interests in Sudan for “pennies on the dollar”.

When he was done he turned to me and asked, “What do you think of that idea, Mr. Van Rooy?”

The question was preposterous.

Here I was, a linguist, a Bible guy, with no business experience whatsoever being asked by one of the world’s wealthiest oil men about a business deal in Sudan.

“Well, Mr. Hunt, this is something I know very little about. I was in Khartoum when Parker Drilling brought in the fields in Bentieu in Southern Sudan, somewhat south west of Malakal. And all I know is that it has been difficult to extract it, and get it to market and there has been constant armed conflict in that area. I suppose if you are looking at a 25-30 year return on your money this might be a good investment. But if you are thinking in terms of 5-7 years it probably isn’t.”

It seemed to me that this answer was not what he was expecting to hear. His next question, “Why?”

“Why? Because Sudan is a medieval country. It is lost in a time warp. In fact, time means nothing in Sudan. Why not send one of your principals to Sudan and have a look-see yourselves? You can read all the books and reports you want, but if you have never been there you are in for a bit of a surprise, I think.”

He drummed is fingers on his desk. “Mr. Van Rooy, I am meeting with my partners in a few days. I wonder if you would be so kind as to give me your home phone number and allow me to call you one evening next week. I will have a speakerphone on the table and I want you to go over with them what you have just shared with me.”

I gave him my home phone number.

Several days later I got a call about 6 PM. It was Mr. Hunt and his five partners. I gave them the same mini-lecture as I had given Mr. Hunt. They had questions. I did my best to answer them (remember, linguist and Bible guy which does not readily mix with oil and business).

Towards the end of the conversation when the questions had died down, I suggested that they draw straws and one of them go to Khartoum. I suggested that they NOT stay at the Meridien or Hilton but in a C class hotel (like the Acropolis) to get a better feel for the country. And that they stay a full two weeks, nothing less (or they were not going to get a feel for it). And I told them I would do my best to get them some contacts to visit there. As it happened, my colleague, Denny Dyvig, (one of our pilots there), was stationed in Khartoum and the Minister of Mining and Minerals (or whatever the title was) was a Southerner (a Dinka) who was a friend of Denny’s.

They thought this was a good idea and the next day John Strickland (if I recall the name correctly) called me and said he had drawn the short straw. I had emailed Denny and I gave him the contact information that I thought he would need for Denny and a couple other people.

About a week later I got a call from John Strickland. “I thought you were going to go to Sudan. When are you leaving?” I asked him.

“I have already been to Khartoum and I am back. Mr. Van Rooy, I know you painted what you thought was a fair and balanced picture of the place, but ‘medieval” just touches the surface of it. I went. I saw. It is not medieval. It is in the dark ages. I spent three days there–yes, yes, stayed at the Hilton–and that was all I needed. We are not doing this deal. And I want to thank you. I owe you lunch sometime.”

And that, folks, is how I saved Bunker Hunt millions.

Steve Van Rooy
Dallas, October 23, 2014

(Eventually Chevron sold their interest to a Canadian consortium by the name of Talon, if I recollect correctly, and they eventually sold out to the Chinese. If he had bought and held out for 20 years he would have done just fine, I think).