Phil Anschutz

One night in 1968, a 29-year-old Phil Anschutz sat in the bar of the Casper, Wyoming, airport cutting the biggest deal of his life with an oil wildcatter named Jeff Hawks. Outside, in the direction of Gillette, the sky was on fire, the result of an inferno that had erupted after a well being drilled by Anschutz's struggling company blew out, sending a gusher of oil arcing over the snow-covered fields. Inside, Hawks, who had a reputation for being able to drink like a fish with no visible effects, was ordering round after round of straight whiskey and dickering with the outwardly calm but inwardly desperate oilman across the table.

As Anschutz would recall in a rare interview with the Colorado Historical Society in 1974, his then-three-year-old company had almost no money and stood to be bankrupt within the week if he couldn't figure out a way to salvage something--anything--of value from the fire. The two drilling experts he'd taken along to back him up weren't much help. "Both of my experts by 10:30 were so drunk they could hardly say their names," he said.

But unlike his hard-living father, a maverick oilman who likely would have joined Hawks and the gang in knocking back a few shots, Phil was a fastidious young man who left little to chance. During his negotiations with Hawks, he displayed a coolness under pressure that would serve him well in the coming decades. By 1 a.m., Anschutz had agreed to assume all of Hawks's liability for the flaming well--which by then was a lawsuit waiting to happen. In return, Anschutz got an additional interest in whatever oil might be left if the fire could be put out.

Having completed the transaction by scrawling the terms of the contract on a tablecloth, Anschutz loaded his inebriated crewmen into his rented plane and headed back to Denver. As the plane took off, he looked toward Gillette and saw the eerie red light cast by flaming oil that was still shooting hundreds of feet into the air. "My God, this is the end," he recalled thinking. "I'll never be able to overcome all this."

Where others might have seen only doom in the night sky, however, Anschutz glimpsed opportunity. As soon as he got back to his apartment, he hired legendary oil-fire fighter Red Adair to fly in from Houston and put out the blaze, paying him with cash he raised by selling off the interest he'd just wrangled from Hawks. Then, remembering that Universal Studios was making a movie about Adair's exploits, he called Hollywood and convinced the studio to pay him $100,000 for the rights to film the blaze. As a result, the fire that could have ruined Anschutz was immortalized in the John Wayne epic Hellfighters. Anschutz went on to cap the well, put out the fire and make his first million.

Anschutz later described the Gillette fire as the defining moment in his business career. "There's always a point that if you go forward, you win--sometimes you win it all--and if you go back, you lose everything, and that was that point for me," he said in the 1974 interview. "You don't learn that in school. You have to have the initiative, be able to be pragmatic and tenacious, seeing all of the opportunity that could exist." And, he added, you have to "work like hell and not worry about what people think of you."

The soft-spoken Anschutz has since parlayed that philosophy into a net worth that now hovers near $7 billion. Along the way, he's developed a magician's sense of timing when it comes to buying and selling the pieces of a sprawling empire that ranges from oil and gas leases to agricultural interests and professional sports teams.

Anschutz has been the largest owner of Colorado real estate as well as the state's biggest farmer. He has dabbled with downtown skyscrapers--he picked up his latest, the Tabor Center, for $123 million in 1994--and bought and sold the capital city's hometown railroad, the beloved Denver & Rio Grande Western. For years he has used the spur tracks at Denver's magnificent Union Station as a personal parking lot for the luxury railcars in which he likes to entertain politicians and other guests.

Personally and politically, he's as conservative as his wildcatting father, Fred Anschutz, was colorful. Phil married his high-school sweetheart, got a business degree from the University of Kansas and by his late twenties was already showing up at the office at 6:30 a.m. and religiously putting in "at least two hours in the evenings and on weekends." His work ethic has only grown more severe over time. His days now begin at 4:30 a.m. and include ten-mile training runs in preparation for the marathons he likes to run with his three children. He lives in a mansion in the Polo Club, and his only known vice other than his abiding passion for Western art is an occasional beer over cracked ice. In 1993 he contributed $100,000 to Bob Dole's Republican think tank; a year earlier, he quietly gave $10,000 to the backers of anti-gay-rights Amendment 2.

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Andy Van De Voorde

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