The Kings of Big Spring by Bryan Mealer


The Kings of Big Spring by Bryan Mealer

Author:Bryan Mealer
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Flatiron Books


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The fall of Raymond Tollett … a town mourns its king …

For Raymond Tollett and Cosden Petroleum, the 1960s opened with a surge of expansion. In 1960, Cosden began licensing its plastics technology overseas—first to Sinclair and Koppers, then to Naphtachimie in France. Within a few years engineers were flying from Big Spring to Japan, Germany, Belgium, Poland, Italy, China, and Czechoslovakia to open new refineries. And since only 3 percent of a barrel of oil could be used for petrochemicals, the company operated over a thousand filling stations nationwide to market its gasoline.

Tollett, now twenty years at the helm, had taken the $6 million company and increased its earnings to $83 million. Each year brought new innovations, dreamed up by his scrappy team of engineers tinkering in the middle of nowhere, their zeal for the company and its president resembling that of a sports team. What people at Cosden loved most was their underdog status, which drove bigger companies crazy. And thus, it was only a matter of time before the big boys came for a piece.

Out in New York, J. Peter Grace was fascinated by Cosden. He was president of W. R. Grace and Company, which his grandfather—former New York City mayor William Russell Grace, who accepted the Statue of Liberty from France—had founded in the 1850s as a shipping firm. When J. Peter took over in 1945, he began branching into chemicals, and by the mid-fifties had snatched up companies across the country. He started pursuing Cosden in 1956, smitten by its vast supply of crude, pipeline, and chemical capacity. Grace proposed a merger, but Tollett and his directors declined. Another attempt failed in 1959. Finally, in January of the following year, Grace staged a takeover by purchasing 51.9 percent of the company’s common stock, making Cosden a subsidiary.

At first, it proved a convenient arrangement. Tollett remained president and the company kept its name. Better, with oil prices at a momentary low, the security that Grace provided guaranteed expansion. A new product line was introduced, and Grace even built a fertilizer plant across the street that further bolstered Cosden’s portfolio.

But the two men clashed. According to executives, Grace wanted to plunder the employee pension plan, which Tollett had put into a trust that couldn’t be touched. The sluggish market eventually put a damper on what Grace originally thought he could make off the refinery. Fed up and occupied by more lucrative ventures, Grace sold its controlling shares in April 1963—and with it, Tollett’s claim on his prized Jewel of the West.

The buyer was American Petrofina, the U.S. operator of the mammoth Belgian oil company, which laid down $90 million for the entire outfit. All existing shares, including Tollett’s, were liquidated. The old stockholders, who’d met each year at the Cosden Country Club over T-bones and tumblers of whiskey, gathered one last time on the top floor of the Petroleum Building to await the final sale. Nearly two thousand miles away in Jersey City, a team of lawyers gathered signatures and it was done.



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