The way Tom L. Ward sees it, he would be just as happy today if he had never left his hometown of Seiling, Oklahoma. Remote western Oklahoma was a great place to grow up.
“I have great memories of working with my father and brother, and mom was always there,” says the soft-spoken Ward. “It was a great opportunity to play sports, which I loved. It was a small school, so it afforded me the opportunity. My wife is from Wenoka. I never anticipated leaving. If we had never left, if I had just gone to work in a plant following high school, then we would have had a great life. It’s a fabulous place to be.”
While at times it seemed unlikely Ward would get too far from his roots, he, indeed, did. Far enough that today he’s regarded as one of Oklahoma’s energy industry giants – and, of course, energy giants in Oklahoma enjoy the same lofty epithet on the world stage.
But that seemed like an unlikely career arc then for Ward, now chairman and CEO of SandRidge Energy, Inc.
“I didn’t anticipate college,” Ward says. “When I didn’t get into college for football, I really thought that was it.”
Ward had worked his senior year with his uncle in local oil fields, and it’s possible destiny might not have taken him farther from home than that. However, he’d met his future bride in high school, and when she moved to attend the University of Oklahoma, the die was cast. His experience in the oil fields prompted his interest, and with OU’s degree options in the field, it was an easy decision for Ward to head off to the state’s largest university.
College was not thrill-a-minute, either.
“It was drudgery,” Ward recalls. “I was working all the time. I didn’t take one extra class. I worked at a local horse farm. I had no fun in college, got through in three-and-a-half years and took the last three hours by correspondence.”
Ward graduated in 1981 with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Petroleum Land Management. It was a good time to enter the field professionally, Ward recalls. “You could get a job anywhere.”
Ward again gravitated toward western Oklahoma and worked extensively in the Wenoka area, quickly becoming familiar with prominent business leaders and energy interests. But the infamous July 1982 failure of Penn Square Bank sent shockwaves through the oil and gas industry, driving many to ruin and others out of the sector completely.
“It was a difficult summer of 1982,” Ward says.
But Ward had launched his first business venture with the assistance of friends and persevered through one of the worst periods in Oklahoma economic history. By 1983, he had an office in Clinton and by 1984 he had one in Oklahoma City. In ’83 he also first met Aubrey McClendon.
“We were the only two, post-Penn Square Bank, who were aggressively buying leases and wells, so in short order we were partnering,” Ward says. “From 1983 to 1989 we dug a ton of wells.”
In ’89, Ward co-founded Chesapeake Energy with McClendon, and the years that followed are legendary in energy history. Chesapeake grew to be an energy giant, propelling both men to the forefront of the industry and Ward to a position that seemed as far removed from his hometown as possible.
But despite the success, the humble Ward’s values and focus remained unchanged.
“It reached a time when I evaluated how content I was as a person and what I could continue to do,” he says. “I decided I couldn’t keep it up.”
Ward says he always enjoyed the hands-on approach to business, and he is driven by the excitement of creating value for shareholders and the teamwork element of working with employees and colleagues. He decided to continue pursuing those interests when he left Chesapeake and founded SandRidge Energy in 2006.
Success – on Ward’s terms – followed. SandRidge Energy is the primary developer of the Mississippian Oil Play, with valuable assets in the oil-rich Permian Basin and Gulf of Mexico. The company owns 225,000 acres of leasehold primarily in the Central Basin Platform of the Texas Permian Basin, where approximately 7,350 potential future drilling locations have been identified. If production continues on the current pace for the Mississippian, the company predicts that 100,000 jobs will be added in Oklahoma and Kansas over the next three to five years (not just with SandRidge, but in the play overall).
Financial success is not the only – or even the primary – means by which Ward defines himself or the company culture at SandRidge.
“We like for employees to have a level of contentment in life brought by having a stable home life and by helping others that then permits them to focus on projects,” Ward says.
SandRidge is widely acclaimed for its charitable and community involvement – particularly when it comes to the disenfranchised, abused or educationally challenged youth. Ward and his son, Trent, co-founded White Fields, Inc., a home for severely abused and neglected boys, in 2000. Under Ward’s direction, SandRidge also provides employment opportunities for felons returning to society, in addition to numerous other efforts.
As an employer, Ward says he sees the company’s role as facilitating: helping people achieve their goals. “It can be fulfillment from achievement and from helping others – and then the third leg of the stool is taking that into home life.”
These days those things are also more in focus to Ward personally.
“I’m getting old,” he says. “Over time I’ve felt more contentment from helping others. I don’t have to be dependent on if something works at the office for contentment.”
Ward doesn’t just espouse his philosophy; he lives it. One Christmas Eve, he read in the Wall Street Journal about an Egyptian Coptic Christian, previously an engineer, who was washing dishes in New York City after effectively being run out of his country in the recent rash of ethnic cleansing. Quietly, without fanfare and without issuing a press release about it, Ward brought the man to Oklahoma City where today he is living and a valuable member of the SandRidge family.
“That person will be with us for a long time and be a terrific employee,” Ward says. “That’s the kind of person we love to have at SandRidge.”
There’s no denying that Ward has traveled far and wide since the days of his 40-student graduating class. But when listening to him discuss those things that are important to him personally and as SandRidge Energy’s leader, another fact emerges. You can take the man out of dusty western Oklahoma, but you can’t take the values and work ethic of his home out of Tom Ward.