Eric S. Eissenstat – Continental Resources
Though oil and natural gas companies had been mired in the Great Recession, along with so many other industries, an energy renaissance of sorts seemed to be dawning when Eric S. Eissenstat was approached by his friend and longtime client, Harold Hamm, in late 2010.
A self-made billionaire and executive chairman and founder of Oklahoma City-headquartered oil and natural gas producer Continental Resources, Hamm thought then—as he does now—about how to optimize operations. Some years earlier, Eissenstat helped Continental score $30 million in punitive damages against a rival producer, so Hamm reasoned he could do even more in-house.
But that would mean the 50-ish Eissenstat surrendering his partnership and leaving his clients at Fellers, Snider, Blankenship, Bailey & Tippens, where he had logged over 27 years. That took serious soul-searching.
“My initial thought: ‘Why?’” Eissenstat tells Vanguard in May, after more than a decade as part of Continental’s executive team. “After talking about it with my wife, it occurred to me, ‘what other publicly traded company would invite me, at my age, to be general counsel?’”
So he accepted a three-year trial period with both parties agreeing that Hamm could fire Eissenstat the next day and Eissenstat could quit on the spot. He’s now in his 11th year at Continental, bearing the letterhead of senior vice president, general counsel, chief risk officer and secretary. Notwithstanding recent years bringing shades of the dark ages back to the energy industry, he’s upbeat about helping Hamm make Continental “America’s Oil Champion.”
“The executive focus is to advocate for energy independence in a safe and clean way,” says Eissenstat.
In due time, it might seem small change compared to the impending breakup of Bill and Melinda Gates, but the settling of Hamm’s much-publicized divorce, in 2014 and 2015, seemed staggering, with him writing a near-$1 billion check to his former wife.
Reuters alleging wrongdoing in the unrelated case of another high-profile executive, Aubrey McClendon, the late co-founder of Chesapeake Energy and part owner of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, the news service went to the state’s Supreme Court to unseal many of Continental’s internal documents.
“Just as McClendon had left Chesapeake, Reuters thought the divorce would destroy the company,” Eissenstat says. “I successfully advocated to keep 99 percent of the trial confidential and closed to the public, and that was quite a feat.”
What Reuters wanted, Eissenstat goes on to explain, was Continental’s “secret sauce” that the company would need to mitigate another free fall in the price of oil and gas. Being entrepreneurial despite its size—it ranks 581st on the Fortune list—Continental retained its secrets, kept its stakeholders happy and Hamm isn’t going anywhere.
Eissenstat, who shares the boss’ goal of free cash flow and growing the company in a sustainable way, handles business matters that have included $7 billion in transactions and $1 billion in acquisitions. His work has also involved building sophisticated, strategic relationships in other areas such as minerals and water.
“We’re probably as active politically as any company,” Eissenstat says. “While we work within the regulatory framework in an ethical way, we don’t shirk from stating our case.”
All pumped up
In 2015, Continental led the charge in urging Congress to repeal the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 that banned most exports of U.S.-produced crude oil, with Eissenstat providing Hamm support and counsel along the way. While that law had great emotional appeal—enacted during the 1970s Arab oil embargo—Eissenstat says it was a disincentive to production, cost industry jobs and negatively impacted countries in need while benefiting Saudi Arabia, Iran and OPEC.
“We intend to make clean energy accessible the world over and solve environmental problems as well,” he says. “With clean petroleum, for example, the Chinese wouldn’t have to burn so much coal.”
Even electric cars have their downside, Eissenstat explaining the consequences of strip mining and processing the toxic materials necessary to assemble a battery. Meanwhile, natural gas, and Continental’s around the clock efforts, spared dwellers the effects of the February deep-freeze that left Texans shivering.
As to how Eissenstat acquired his energy law expertise, he attributes much of it to location. A 1983 University of Oklahoma College of Law graduate, he focused on business and litigation, and in the Sooner State that meant a lot of oil and gas matters. He took to it well enough to achieve partnership at Fellers, Snider, Blankenship, Bailey & Tippens by the time he was 30, going on to score big-ticket damages for clients.
“But I also had a desire to save the world,” he says. “I wanted to give back to society through volunteer work.”
He’s done so through various faith-based and secular groups, including Oklahoma Lawyers for Children which advocates on behalf of neglected and abused youngsters. He chaired the board for a decade, often heartsick at the circumstances but grateful to at least be helping one child at a time.
“Though reconciliation with parents was always the goal of the state, sometimes it just wasn’t possible,” the devout Methodist laments.
He’s also lent his skills to the Access for Justice Foundation, whose causes include assisting the poor with access to legal services; and Skyline Urban Ministry, which provides low-cost assistance to distressed children, families and seniors. He’s aided in all these efforts by his wife of 37 years, Sandy, a former general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Insurance who became hearing examiner after giving birth to the couple’s three children, all now grown.
The goodwill work extends into Continental, Eissenstat says, mentioning the company’s longtime focus on issues surrounding ESG—environmental, social, governance—matters that, among other provisions, require a higher standard of documentation. He’s the lead of an in-house group that creates and implements such ESG risk oversight and works with the company and board to ensure ESG best practices.
It’s all part of a greater corporate mission, he says.
“Making energy clean and affordable helps people worldwide,” Eissenstat adds.
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