Robert O. Anderson; founded Atlantic Richfield Oil Co.; at 90

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Elaine Woo
Los Angeles Times / December 6, 2007

LOS ANGELES - Robert O. Anderson, a legendary wildcatter and philanthropist who founded Atlantic Richfield Oil Co. and used his clout to support an array of major cultural organizations, died Sunday at his home in Roswell, N.M. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by Amy Wohlert, interim dean of the University of New Mexico's Anderson School of Management, which was named after the former Arco chairman and longtime New Mexico resident.

Mr. Anderson created Arco through a 1966 merger of the Atlantic and Richfield oil companies, and was its chairman for two decades.

He led Arco's move from New York to Los Angeles in 1972 when it opened the landmark Arco Plaza. The company's twin 52-story towers lifted the downtown skyline in Los Angeles and launched a building boom that transformed the area.

Mr. Anderson, who often wore a vintage Stetson and a bowtie, guided Arco to play an important civic and philanthropic role in the city. Arco donated $3 million for a major renovation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which in 1986 named a building after him to house modern art.

The Arco founder had an unusual range of interests, which encompassed enterprises as varied as the London Observer and Harper's magazine, each of which he helped rescue when they faced financial insolvency.

Mr. Anderson was also a consummate dealmaker whose business savvy had turned Arco into the nation's sixth-largest oil company by the time he left it in 1986 to pursue other interests. He by then was the largest individual landowner in the United States, with ranches and other holdings in Texas and Mexico amounting to some 2,000 square miles and a personal fortune estimated at $200 million.

Mr. Anderson was born in 1917 in Chicago, the son of a banker who knew a number of oil entrepreneurs and lent them money. He attended the University of Chicago and worked summers as a roughneck in oil fields in Texas and Oklahoma.

By the time he graduated in 1939, he was certain his future was in the oil business.

In 1941, he went to New Mexico with $50,000 in borrowed money and purchased control of an old oil refinery. His timing was fortuitous; when the United States entered World War II later that year, demand for oil escalated. Soon he was selling gasoline to air bases throughout the Southwest and diesel for the atom bomb project at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

By the end of the decade, he owned several refineries, built a pipeline system, and became a wildcatter. He entered the top ranks of independent oil producers in 1957 with a major find at the Empire-Abo field in New Mexico.

In 1962 he merged his operations with Atlantic Refining. In 1966, as Atlantic's chairman and chief executive, he struck a deal with Richfield that resulted in a new company, Arco.

In 1967, his persistence on oil exploration led to Arco's discovery of the largest pool of usable crude oil in North America, at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope.

"It was like winning the Irish sweepstakes," Mr. Anderson told Forbes magazine in 1993.

In 1985, with crude oil prices set to plunge and hostile corporate takeovers in the offing, he led a major restructuring of Arco. He left the company in 1986, but he did not retire.

"I happen to think that a rocking chair and television screen are a quick way to the graveyard," he said in 1989.

He is leaves his wife, Barbara of Roswell; seven children; and grandchildren.

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