Don't Envy, Emulate: A Lesson From Russell, Kansas

Aug. 1, 2006
Russell, Kansas claims less than 5,000 people. It's not a big town. Yet, it's one of those obscure places that every now and then gives birth to someone

Russell, Kansas claims less than 5,000 people. It's not a big town. Yet, it's one of those obscure places that every now and then gives birth to someone famous. The most famous person from Russell is Bob Dole, the former U.S. Senator, Vice President, and Republican Party presidential nominee. Yet, Bob Dole is NOT the most successful person to hail from Russell. That honor goes to Philip Anschutz (also claimed by nearby Hayes, Kansas).

Unless you attended college at the University of Kansas, you've probably never heard of Philip Anschutz. If you did attend KU, you probably don't know much more than the fact there's a few buildings bearing his name. You know the script: Alumnus done good. Gives back. Gets everlasting ego monument to bear his name and cause future generations of Anschutz Jayhawkers to turn red and shuffle their feed when someone connects the name with the building.

Rich as Rockefeller
But in Anschutz' case, it's not an ego monument. He likes his privacy. He's a remarkably grounded man who doesn't seek headlines, though he could. This is one of the richest men in the world. He's got as much money as Rockefeller or a Saudi prince. You've heard of Rockefeller. You've heard of Saudi princes. Who's heard of Anschutz?Dad's Failing Business

His story is a real rags-to-riches tale. He wasn't born wealthy. He worked as a yard boy, grocery sacker, messenger, and bank teller while growing up. Anschutz graduated from KU and was preparing to head off to the University of Virginia to attend law school when his father became ill and the family business ran into trouble. Anschutz put off law school and stepped in to run Circle A Drilling, an oil company. Anschutz entered the oil business. Not just the oil business, but the wildcat oil business.

"As a wildcatter, 95% of everything you do is failure," remarked Anschutz in a rare interview. “Most holes are dry,"

Turning Lemons Into Lemonade
Anschutz drilled his share of dry holes before finally making a strike in Wyoming. As fast as he could following the strike, he used credit to buy the surrounding leases. No sooner did he get this done when a spark ignited the whole field. Anschutz turned to Red Adair to put out the fire, who looked at Anschutz's balance sheet, calculated the chance of a payment for risking his life and said no thanks. Adair told Anschutz to come up with some upfront or guaranteed money.

This would have been the end of most people. Not Anschutz. He turned to Hollywood of all places. A movie studio was working on a movie about Red Adair (“Hellfighters" staring John Wayne, who happened to belong to the same fraternity as Anschutz and the much poorer guy who writes Comanche Marketing). Anschutz sold the studio the rights to film Adair putting out the fire for $100,000.

Anschutz went on to make a fortune in oil and gas, making the largest find since Prudhoe Bay. He sold his oil fields to Mobil in 1982 for $500 million just before Reagan deregulated, causing oil prices to collapse. From Oil to Railroads
As the back end of an oil deal, he ended up with a small railroad. He leveraged this into the purchase of a bigger railroad. He saw an opportunity to make money with oil pipelines using railroad right-of-ways and started buying troubled railroads to get access to their right-of-ways.

Why Not Fiber Optics?
He figured what works with oil pipelines would work with communications, specifically fiber optics. He founded Qwest Communications, went public at the perfect time to take advantage of the dot-com run up.
Seeing Opportunities Others Miss

Here's a guy who made a fortune in oil and then turned around and made a fortune in railroads and another in telecom. Very few people are able to hop industries like this and do well. His is why John McCool from KU's history department noted that Anschutz is described as “a man who can see around corners."
Maybe he sees around corners. I think he just opens his eyes and sees opportunities where others overlook them. And he's doing it again.

Anschutz was frustrated by the lack of movies he could take his grandchildren to see. He noted that Hollywood has produced over 2,000 R-rated films since 2000, but only 137 G, and 252 PG movies. Yet, there is not a single R-rated film among the top 20 money making movies of all time. Among the top 50, only five are R-rated.

In a speech at Hillsdale College, he said, “I decided to stop cursing the darkness — I had been complaining about movies and their content for years — and instead to do something about it by getting into the film business."

He added, “My reasons for getting into the entertainment business weren't entirely selfless. Hollywood as an industry can at times be insular and doesn't at times understand the market very well. I saw an opportunity in that fact. Also, because of digital production and digital distribution, I believe the film industry is going to be partially restructured in the coming years — another opportunity. But also, yes, I saw a chance with this move to attempt some small improvement in the culture."

Unmet Needs & Leveraging
In other words, he sees an unmet need. He also sees an opportunity to use the fiber optic networks Qwest laid on the railroad right of ways to digitally distribute movies to theaters.

Anschutz bought up troubled theaters at below market rates, often buying their notes or purchasing them as they emerged from bankruptcy (today, he owns one out of every five domestic movie theaters). He set up a production company in Hollywood and an education company “headquartered as far from Hollywood as we could get it — in Boston."

Finding Opportunities by Asking Questions
The education unit hired teachers and parents, charging them to interact with schools. Today, they have a relationship with 10,000 schools and 30,000 teachers. They ask what kind of movies people would like to see. They ask about the important books kids are reading in schools.

As a direct result, Anschutz' company produced the movie, “Holes," based on the children's book. The film grossed $60 million after its first six weeks. It's not a blockbuster, but it was a success. Anschutz' company is also responsible for “The Chronicles of Narnia," based on C.S. Lewis' book series, and “Around the World in 80 Days."

By design, this is not the normal Hollywood fare. “Our company," Anschutz says, “makes G and PG and, occasionally, very soft PG-13 movies. They are primarily family films — films that families can see together. We expect them to be entertaining, but also to be life-affirming and to carry moral messages."
Escaping the Herd
Yet, there's also a business motive. “Speaking purely as a businessman," Anschutz said, “It is of utmost importance for a business to try and figure out a way to make goods and products that people actually want to buy. And as I've already suggested, I don't think Hollywood understands this very well, because they keep making the same old movies — the same kinds they have been making for years — despite the fact that so many Americans are tired of seeing them. Why can't movies return to being something that we can go and see with our children and our grandchildren without being embarrassed or on the edge of our seats?"

Yes, he's making money, but he's also giving back. Like most successful people, he's taken his share of shots, lots of them. I wonder, how many of the critics are willing to work 14-hour days, as Anschutz does as routine?

A Handshake Kind of a Guy
His friends and business partners are typically mum about Anschutz at his request. Lewis MacAdams with Los Angeles Magazine sought to find out more about Anschutz when his name surfaced with the purchase of the Staples Center, Los Angeles Coliseum, Kings hockey team, and a share of the Lakers.

In MacAdams' article he wrote, “Nearly everyone who knows Anschutz personally, also refused to talk including his L.A. partner, Roski, who blew off several interview requests. Those who would say anything had only praise. 'A real gentleman,' says a lawyer who has represented Anschutz in rural Colorado. 'A handshake kind of a guy,' says a lawyer who represents him in downtown L.A. A brilliant person, a great negotiator; great values, very family oriented, echo others. 'He's a very decent human being--very, very generous; says former Colorado governor Dick Lamm, who now heads the Center for Public Policy at the University of Denver, which has received grants from an Anschutz foundation. 'I just wish I could tell you some stories.'"

Generous indeed. I imagine few people could match his philanthropy financially or in the time he donates. In fact, when his exploration company acquired drilling rights to the Weatherman Draw canyon in Montana, the company gave up the drilling rights (an estimated 10 million barrels of oil) to protect some Native American paintings in the canyon.

"To my knowledge, this is the first time an oil company has donated leases to a nonprofit organization," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which received the donation.
We need more successful people like Philip Anschutz.

Don't Envy, Emulate
Regardless of whether you're fated to reach a fraction of Anschutz' success, you can emulate the man.

You can work hard.

You can look for the opportunities that are staring all of us in the face, but that everyone's overlooking.

You can find out what your prospects want and offer it.

You can look for opportunities to leverage your business into new arena.

You can try to raise the standards and quality in your industry.

You can ignore the critics.

You can stay grounded once you are successful.

You can give back.

You can do what's right.

Matt Michel is president of the Service Roundtable (, an organization dedicated to helping contractors prosper. Matt is also the publisher of Comanche Marketing, a free marketing e-zine. Subscriptions are available at You can contact him directly at [email protected]. Or send your comments to Contracting Business at [email protected].