Aubrey K. McClendon is one of the most successful energy entrepreneurs of recent decades. But he hasn't always proved popular with shareholders of the company he co-founded, Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK), the second-largest natural gas producer in the United States.
McClendon, 52, helped cause Chesapeake shares to plummet amid the financial crisis when he sold hundreds of millions of dollars in stock to raise cash for himself. Later, to settle a lawsuit by shareholders, he agreed to buy back a $12 million map collection that he'd sold to Chesapeake. His approach to running his company also is renowned: Among other employee perks, on-site Botox treatments are available at its headquarters in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Now, a series of previously undisclosed loans to McClendon could once again put Chesapeake's CEO and shareholders at odds.
McClendon has borrowed as much as $1.1 billion in the last three years by pledging his stake in the company's oil and natural gas wells as collateral, documents reviewed by Reuters show. The loans were made through three companies controlled by McClendon that list Chesapeake's headquarters as their address. The money is being used to help finance what could be a lucrative perk of his job: the opportunity to buy into the very same well stakes that he is using as collateral for the borrowings.
The size and nature of the loans raise concerns about whether McClendon's personal financial deals could compromise his fiduciary duty to Chesapeake investors, according to more than a dozen academics, analysts and attorneys who reviewed the loan agreements for Reuters.
"If Mr. McClendon has $1 billion in debt through his own companies — companies operating in the same industry as Chesapeake — he has or could have a high degree of risk for conflicts of interest. As in, whose interest will he look out for, his own or Chesapeake's?" said Joshua Fershee, an associate professor of energy and corporate law at the University of North Dakota.
The revelation of McClendon's bout of borrowing comes as he is scrambling to help Chesapeake avert a multi-billion-dollar cash shortfall amid a plunge in natural gas prices. It also exposes a potentially serious gap in how U.S. regulators scrutinize corporate executives, a decade after those rules were tightened in the wake of major accounting scandals. The loans portend a number of possible problems, the analysts said. McClendon's biggest lender is simultaneously a major investor in two units of Chesapeake. That connection raises questions about whether Chesapeake's own financing terms could be influenced by its CEO's personal borrowing.
Another concern: A clause in the deals requires McClendon "to take all commercially reasonable action" to ensure that other owners and operators of the wells, including Chesapeake, "comply with…covenants and agreements" of the loans. Such clauses are common in energy-finance deals. But it is rare for the CEO of a major energy company to be personally subject to one involving the corporation that he runs. That means McClendon could have an incentive to influence Chesapeake to act in the interest of his lenders, rather than of his shareholders.
"Basically what you have here is a private transaction that could potentially impact a public company, depending on the manner in which the clause is interpreted and applied," says Thomas O. Gorman, a partner at law firm Dorsey & Whitney in Washington, D.C., and a former special trial counsel at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). "That may create a conflict of interest." As a result, the loans should have been fully disclosed to Chesapeake shareholders, the academics, attorneys and analysts said.