Dallas — You couldn't want to meet a more self-effacing guy than Lamar Hunt. Sitting in his middle-management-size office, looking squarely out of unassuming eyeglasses, he strikes a perfect Clark Kent Figure, bringing new dimensions to phrases like "mild-mannered" and "soft-spoken." The man seems to disappear inside his own modesty.
Were it not that his two brothers, W. Herbert and Nelson Bunker, whose offices are right down the hall here at the Dallas headquarters of Placid Oil, are said to have hoarded enough silver to send shudders through the commodities market, jeopardizing the fortunes of thousands of investors, and nearly toppling one of the nation's largest financial institutions, one might be tempted to think of him as just another kid on the block.
He does have certain views that you would expect from a multimillionaire: "I'm not a strike-oriented person," he says ingenuously, adding that he thinks unions are a good thing; but when it comes to strikes, well, a person could just go and find something else to do.
And he's about as bullish on a windfall-profit tax as you might expect from someone who owns enough petroleum properties to put his own car through several million oil changes and still have enough left over to light and heat the city of Dallas through a long north Texas night.
But otherwise he's a perfect replica of Everyman, the kind of person nobody could reasonably call a stuck-up rich kid.
"I don't think I'm a particularly good businessman," he says with a self-deprecating laugh, when asked if he was self-taught or if he got special tutelage in being a multimillionaire from his father, H. L. Hunt.
He chews silently over another question -- Would he be a different person if his dad had owned a gas station, instead of an energy empire? -- and, sounding like a young Henry Fonda, allows: "Well, I don't know. I really think that people are what they are born. I hope I wouldn't be different in the way that I would treat people, or the outlook I would have toward fair play."
In fact, the way Lamar Hunt treats you turns out to be so friendly and, well, just Kinda regular, that you wouldn't think twice about inviting him out to McDonald's after a football game (even if he does own the team and probably used to own most of the gas you'd use to drive him over there).
But, as he sits chatting pleasantly about sports (he owns the Kansas City Chiefs football team, the Dallas Tornado soccer team, and numerous other sports interests), you can't help bringing up the reported $1 billion loan his family company, Placid Oil, is about to get -- with a helping hand from the Federal Reserve Board chairman, Paul Volcker -- to bail his brothers out of their disastrous speculation in silver futures.
When you do, you find that he resents the implication that his brothers acted in concert to manipulate the world silver market.
"I would say that 95 percent of what I read [about us] in the papers -- and I read the papers quite heavily -- is inaccurate in one context or another," he complains. He also takes umbrage when the press wrongly lumps all of them together by writing, "The Hunt brothers did this or that," as if they were a single entity.
"I've been active over a six-or seven-year period in trading futures contracts. I've been out of them at certain times, and not at others, only to find that my brothers were doing the opposite. We just have not operated as a family in concert." (Lamar Hunt's name seldom comes up in newspaper accounts of "the Hunt brothers'" silver escapades, but he is throwing his own silver holdings into the rescue package designed to save his siblings.)
"My brothers really believed in silver. And I'm not aware of any law that says you can't make an investment in something you believe in," he argues.
There may not be a law against picking your investments, but there have been repeated reports that the Hunt brothers -- er, twom of the Hunt brothers -- acted illegally in trying to corner the market in silver, charges alluded to in an advertisement run by Tiffany chairman Walter Hoving which deplored efforts by unnamed investors to acquire control of billions of dollars' worth of silver, thus driving up the price of countless products and creating a financial crisis.
From all the controversy spewing out under the glare of congressional hearings, one can gather that there was indeed a crisis atmosphere surrounding the Hunts' adventure in silver, one that came so close to creating a panic in the nation's financial markets that chairman Volcker felt he had to step in to avert a national economic disaster.
Mr. Volcker has appeared before congressional committees to defend the wisdom of a $1 billion loan package to cover speculations in silver commodities (even though one of the Hunt brothers lamented to congressmen that "$1 billion just isn't what it used to be"), testifying strenuously about the shock that would threaten the nation's financial markets if the Hunts were to default on their commitments. The general theory is that some people have so much money that what happens to them becomes important to all of us.
Does it bother him that there seems to be a widespread public resentment over one family's having enough wealth and power to create panic and bring down economic havoc on the investing public?
"Well, obviously, they didn't have that power. Certainly, any investment in gold or silver wasn't to try to bring the market down. . . . I know darn well my brothers don't have a corner on the market in silver, and never did have," he says defensively. "There isn't that much money in existence."
Is it fair to ask how much money there is in existence around the Hunts' place?
"I don't have any idea. Not near as much as some people think. And not near as much as I'd like. . . ."
As an indication of just how much money Lamar Hunt really has, there is a story, given wide circulation but systimatically denied by Mr. Hunt, that once his father was told he was losing $1 million to $1.5 million a year in his sports ventures. "That's all right," the oil billionaire replied airily. "At that rate, he'll be broke in only another 250 years."
"People have asked me how much money do the Kansas City Chiefs make, or how much does the Dallas Tornado lose; and I really have never believed in releasing financial information. They're private companies, and the purpose of those companies is to build a successful venture that's profit-making. . . . I just believe in privacy of financial things."
This privacy was invaded recently by an army of reporters who turned up some startling facts regarding the current state of the Hunt empire. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the Hunt brothers have had their share of financial crises as a result of their silver speculation. The newspaper cites court documents showing that the family has had to mortgage many of their personal possessions in order to meet their silver obligations. Hardest hit, according to the paper, was Lamar Hunt, who is said to have mortgaged his Mercedes Benz, his wife's fur coat and rings, and numerous other personal belongings.
All this is unfortunate for Lamar Hunt, who believes in being rich, saying that it certainly "beats the alternative of not having money." Money is really "the gauge in business, kind of thescoreboard. [All businessmen are] trying to make a profit, to make as much money as they can," he adds.
For Lamar Hunt, the projects that matter and must turn a profit are his sports teams and his interest in the World Championship Tennis organization. Professional sports, especially football, are his real business passion. The Sports trophies, autograped pictures of heroes like soccer star Pele, and other memorabilia only hint at the consuming attraction sports competition holds for him. His conversation is crowded with sports terms, and he seems to view life largely in the context of sports competition.
Even though he has a reputation as a nice guy, Mr. hunt is known to be a tough competitor in trying to make as much money as he can on a project.
"I've read that. I think with the phrase 'tough competitor' you think of athletics and someone who is very good with three balls and two strikes against him, or very good on a third down with three yards to go, whether it's offense or defense. I don't know what the reference might be here. I feel like I have a reputation for being hardheaded and staying with things maybe longer than they logically should be stayed with; but I believe that, if you make a commitment to a thing businesswise, it takes a lot of years."
Lamar Hunt is the only two-time winner of the "Bone-Head of the Year award, given by a private club in Dallas to those who "don't have the sense to give up on a bad bet." He won it the first time for pitting his struggling American Football League team against the Green Bay Packers, the entrenched National Football League champion, in the world's first Super Bowl. No mean undertaking, no matter how much money you have behind you.
With that kind of determination, does he think he would have as much money today if he had started with $150 when he was 12?
"No. And, I don't know how much money I have now -- I know how much I owem ). . . . I had, obviously, significant advantages, with my parents providing the opportunity for me to have solid investments to start with."
One of the ways he has used those prodigious investments is in indulging another passionate avocation: collecting. The oil scion and his wife scour the little shops and markets of the world looking for interesting things to own. According to Dallast rumor, their latest find was the painting "The Icebergs," by Frederic Edwin Church, recently donated anonymously to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, which fetched the comely and unheard-of price of $2.5 million.
Mr. Hunt refuses to comment on his reputed role in purchasing the painting, but says he's delighted to chat about the other "junk" he has accumulated over the years, including on officeful of oddments like the first Dr Pepper bottle produced in Japan (Dr Pepper has almost legendary significance to Texans, who regard it as theirm soft drink), a small vial of oil from an exploratory well that came in around 1970, and a rather ugly bronze statuette of the Nile River with dozens of little elfin creatures all over it.
"That one is from a humorous standpoint," he explains. "In fact, I wanted that one at the office, because that's the way I feel sometimes. That's me with all the swarms of problems."
If collecting came naturally to him, was it hard for him to find his motivation in business as a young man?
"I remember wondering what I would do. I didn't ever want to wind up sitting in an office doing paper work. I wanted to be an archaeologist at one time. I used to take naps, but now life is so incredibly hectic. There is no way for me to do things today that need doing."
he doesn't have to do anything. He could just sit on a boat.
"That would have no appeal to me. I like to try do something, even if it's as menial as clipping the hedges in the yard. I'm a member of a Dallas country club, and I see people sitting there playing backgammon. It just kind of blows my mind, because there's so much to be done.
"I'm more project-oriented than just sitting back and being an investor."
After pleasantly chatting for an hour about sports and other things that interest him, Lamar hunt shows me around his office, explaining the bric-a-brac, the trophies, the pictures, as though he had not another thing in the world to do. Finally, after offering me a Dr Pepper, he says goodbye and sees me out.
Then, as an afterthought, he pokes his head back out the door and asks if I'm going to be in town two weeks from now. "Oh, no? Too bad, that's when the World Champion Tennis match is opening. Well, let me know if you're around. We'd love to have you drop by and see it."