Less than a month after "retiring" as CEO of Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK), Aubrey McClendon decided it was time to get back to work. In going back to what he knows best, McClendon has come to the point in the process where his new venture, American Energy Partners, is lacking one important ingredient: money. That's why it's not at all surprising that Aubrey McClendon is searching high and low for that one critical component.
According to reports, McClendon is targeting a billion dollars in capital from private equity groups and sovereign wealth funds. McClendon would use this capital to fund his plans to build American Energy Partners into a best in class exploration and production company. It's not yet known how much capital he has been able to secure, if any.
As an investor, this is an interesting story to watch as there are many lessons to be learned from studying the past. Many Chesapeake investors loathe McClendon because his lavish pay packages and aggressive approach burned them. However, he did build the company into the second-largest natural gas producer in the country trailing only ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM). In the process, he amassed vast tracks of land and data that are just waiting to be unlocked. If gas prices hadn't plunged then McClendon might be known as an energy visionary, instead his imaged has been forever tarnished.
There is a valuable lesson to be learned here for investors. Sometimes you can have the right idea, but just the wrong approach. In the case of Chesapeake, and other industry peers, the idea of growing energy production was a noble one, but the aggressive approach taken turned to be the wrong way to go about it. The growth in gas production fueled a growing bubble which when burst incinerated investor's portfolios and tarnished the reputations of some very smart men.
That same tarnish can also be found on SandRidge Energy (NYSE:SD) CEO Tom Ward, also a co-founder of Chesapeake with McClendon. Ward followed the same Chesapeake blueprint when he took over SandRidge which, unfortunately, didn't work there either. It's entirely possible that Ward will soon experience the same fate as McClendon – his board has until the end of this month to determine whether he remains its CEO.
While the plunge in natural gas prices crushed the stocks of both SandRidge and Chesapeake, it didn't have to be that way. Both were aggressive growers and used too much debt while not having the diversity to withstand the collapse of natural gas prices. Compare this to ExxonMobil on the other hand, which has withstood the test of time as it's been a very conservative allocator of capital while taking a more balanced approach. Not only is the energy giant the largest natural gas producer in the country, but it produces oil around the world which is complimented by strong chemical and refining businesses. That diversity comes in handy when commodity prices dip.
Neither Chesapeake nor SandRidge need to be as diversified as Exxon to be successful. The key though is having the financial flexibility to withstand plunging prices and that's where SandRidge has a bit of an advantage over Chesapeake. The company's capital plans are funded through 2015, while Chesapeake is looking to unload a couple billion dollars in assets just to fund the gap in this year's capital spending plan. Neither company has yet to embrace the idea of living within cash flow so this will always be an area to watch as an investor. Both are now taking a more balanced approach that includes both liquids and a solid balance sheet and should lead to less volatility for investors.
Today, both companies are working diligently to remove some of the tarnish of past mistakes. That's also where we find Aubrey McClendon these days as he starts over. Few investors give him credit for leading Chesapeake to more than 1,400% gains in his 20 years at the helm of the company in the public markets; instead, we just see the 70% drop from its peak. Maybe history will remember him more fondly as he embarks on his new venture.
Fool contributor Matt DiLallo owns shares of SandRidge Energy and has the following options: Short Sep 2013 $5 Puts on SandRidge Energy. The Motley Fool has the following options: Long Jan 2014 $20 Calls on Chesapeake Energy, Long Jan 2014 $30 Calls on Chesapeake Energy, and Short Jan 2014 $15 Puts on Chesapeake Energy. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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