Tulsa is home to a breed of rancher who is just as comfortable in a suit as they are in their denim work clothes.
They are businessmen who during the week focus their attention on millions in loan portfolios, billions of cubic feet of natural gas or hundreds of thousands of insurance customers.
But they are just as likely to be thinking about the cost of diesel to run their tractors, “sweeping” the orchard floor or how they are going to beat daylight to check on their cattle.
They are examples of Tulsa’s urban ranchers – well, businessmen who are also ranchers.
And, although they have taken different roads to get there – they share a respect for working with the land and the business savvy it requires to succeed.
Until he retired in 2006, Ron King was president, chairman and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma. Each day he had to make decisions controlling a $1 billion corporation consisting of three different companies with 1,200 employees meeting the health insurance needs of 600,000 Oklahomans.
In 1998, he purchased an old soybean farm south of Bixby and began turning the property into his 400-acre retirement ranch.
“It’s a whole different mindset,” King said. “When you sit behind a desk in meetings all day and you come out here and get on a tractor or grab a chainsaw or saddle a pony, everything changes, you just start unwinding. That’s what I found was a big benefit for me. It kind of helped me cope sometimes.”
King, who with his wife Jan took the rest of his work years to clean up the property and build a home and barns, moved onto the land three years before he retired.
“This was 27 miles from the front door of the office when I was working, so it wasn’t that far to drive,” he said. “Jan was the architect on the house – you do the house, and I’ll do the barns – it worked out great.”
They faced a steep learning curve because they had no real experience on a farm or ranch.
“We put in a lot of hours, but we are having a lot of fun doing it,” he said. “It’s where I went to escape. It was my sanctuary. A lot of guys play golf and go to the lake. We looked at doing that, but we both really enjoy the country life.”
The ranch life is more of a legacy for Samuel Combs III, president of Oneok Distribution Cos.
During the work week, Combs overseas the distribution of natural gas to 2 million customers in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.
“Oneok operates the largest gas utility in Oklahoma, the largest in Kansas and the third largest in Texas,” he said, noting the company has $2 billion in revenue and $3 billion in assets.
“We probably move 200 billion CF annually through the three states,” he said.
But on the weekend – “sometimes during the week, too” – he is working the 200 acres he operates between Bristow and Slick.
“I have the family’s original 40 acres, which has been in the family for over 100 years,” Combs said. “My dad, Sam Combs Jr., was an agriculturalist and my great-grandfather farmed that land. I don’t live there, but my mother still lives there.”
“Once my dad passed in ’99, then it really kind of fell to me to keep things going,” he said. “I run commercial cows there, Angus primarily, and registered Angus bulls. Sometimes I am tearing out of the office, trying to beat daylight and feed. I have been doing it I don’t know how long. A long time.“
This is where the greenhorn question slips in. How many head of cattle do you have?
“Well, you don’t ever ask that,” Combs said.
“You don’t ever ask a man the size of his spread or how many cows he has,” added King.
“Enough to keep me busy, but not enough to retire,” Combs answered.
As of March 31, Sean Kouplen is growing his own bank.
A group of investors led by Kouplen, operating as Regent Capital Corp., purchased the $100 million asset Regent Bank and Trust Co. of Nowata. Regent Bank has experienced a 46 percent increase in loans and a 32 percent increase in deposits since the purchase was announced in August 2007.
But the family ranch is as much in his blood as banking.
Kouplen works a Hereford cow/calf operation with his father, Steve Kouplen, between Beggs and Mounds.
“We run some cattle together, and I go down primarily on the weekend, and during the week in the spring and fall and summer when you are working cattle or harvesting wheat and hay,” he said. “Those are my primary involvement times. His is full time. It’s a larger operation and needs to be for him to live on it.”
Working in the bank during the week and on the ranch on weekends provides an interesting dynamic, Kouplen said.
During the week, Kouplen is CEO of the bank, but on the weekend “I am the work hand.”
“I spent my whole youth trying to figure out how to get away from the farm, and now, I spend my entire adult life trying to figure out how to get back to the farm,” he said. “I think, more than I realized, it gets in your blood. It’s a way of life that is completely different from what we do or did during the day, and, frankly, is a wonderful diversion. All day long you deal with people and conflict and pressure and decisions, and then you go to a place where you don’t control prices or weather, but at least the cattle typically do what you want them to do.”
Kouplen also skirted the acreage and head of cattle questions.
“We have 14 different pastures with commercial Hereford herds in each. Lets leave it at that.”
A common theme among the businessman ranchers is the sense of community that is evident in the rural side of their lifestyle.
Combs noted, “Sean is from over by Beggs, and my dad was a vocational agriculture teacher at Beggs at one time and knew his father and I know his father through my dad. One of the things that is great about this kind of lifestyle and business is that people know each other. It’s a real community thing.”
He is a partner in his operation with his brother-in-law, Theodore Joseph, but he also has a “guy that I pay and he is always checking the place.”
But if they are not available, “I have a couple of really good neighbors who will do just about anything for you,” he said. “They know my situation and they pretty well watch the place for me, so if anything happens, they will call me.”
Kouplen and King agreed.
“I have guys around here that if I help them they help me and we just swap off and that’s how it works,” King said.
“It’s very different than what we are used to living in the city,” Kouplen said. “People don’t mind stopping and pulling you out of a ditch, or the cattle are out and they help you get them in or at least they call you, as opposed to when you go home you don’t see the neighbors because they pull in the garage and shut the garage door. It’s totally different.”
But since he started new to the ranching life, King was not totally kidding when he said, “I provided all of the Monday morning donut shop discussion in Bixby for all these guys: ‘You ought to see what the city slicker did this week.’”
That may have been because when they bought the property, he bought his wife her own tractor and brush hog.
Or it may have had something to do with his choice of cattle – Santa Gertrudis, which is uncommon in the state: “That’s one of the reasons I went with them is because its an unusual breed here in Oklahoma.”
And then there is the pecan insurance.
King, who has a business degree from OSU, said the pecan trees on his property provides half of the operation’s income, with the rest coming from cattle and hay.
A drought two summers ago destroyed the hay and pecan crops. The next spring, a late freeze killed the pecan crop again, and the ice storm in December took out a third season of production.
“All these guys laughed at me when I bought pecan crop insurance. The old-timers said you are just wasting your money,” King said. “Am I glad I had it the last couple of years. It came back and at least covered my expenses for the crop.”
Although the nature of the work on the ranch is different from the office, “the business decisions and things that we do everyday are no different,” King said. “You are CEO of this place. You have budgets, expenses, insurance issues, risk and price controls.”
Combs, who holds a degree in industrial engineering from Oklahoma State University, said he enjoys the science of ranching and respects the handed down knowledge.
He said the operators who are the most successful not only employ science, but also incorporate what they have learned from practice and their predecessors.
“One of the things that I have come to appreciate over the years, is a lot of these old boys that I see out there that I thought were pretty much just operating, they are very smart,” he said. “Whether they have taken some classes from OSU or their extension agent has gotten with them or they have just learned through trial and error, they know what they are doing.”
Citing the hay shortage of a couple of years ago that had a lot of ranchers scrambling for sources, Kouplen, who has an agricultural economics degree from OSU, noted, “It’s supply and demand just like any industry.
“There is a perception that farmers and ranchers are less sophisticated than business people during the day, and that’s absolutely not true,” he said. “In fact, in many ways it is a more challenging business because there are things that are out of your control – Mother Nature and prices. You are pretty much a price taker and so you have to be a particularly good manager, because there are going to be cycles in farming and ranching. You have to be able to weather the low time, and take advantage of the good times. It’s just like any other business.”
A business background may give a rancher the advantage of more of an open mind and an analytical sense, Kouplen said.
“I am a third generation rancher, and I remember my grandfather would look at things in a very closed minded way – this is just the way you do it, this is the kind of cow you run, this is the kind of crop you have,” he said. “Doing what we do every day requires you to constantly look for better ways and so you are not locked in to one specific way of operating.”
With inputs skyrocketing, he said a rancher might need to step back and, realizing that certain commodity prices are also skyrocketing, consider converting some resources and assets to other uses.
“I thought about it,” Combs said. “That hay meadow I have down there is starting to look like a good cornfield, but it’s too wet.” ?