Raymond Plank, energy innovator and colorful Minnesota business figure, dies at 96

November 13, 2018 GMT

Raymond Plank, co-founder and longtime leader of the energy firm Apache Corp., was a colorful and influential figure on the Minnesota business scene from the 1950s to 1980s and a philanthropist of broad interests.

Plank died last Thursday at his home in Ucross, Wyo., where one of his foundations operates a well-regarded retreat for artists and writers. He was 96.

Plank grew up on a farm in Wayzata, was a combat pilot in the Army Air Forces during World War II and returned to the Twin Cities to start a tax advisory firm. In 1956, the firm became Apache, which today is the nation’s second-largest independent producer by market capitalization.

The company was based in the Foshay Tower in downtown Minneapolis until 1987, when it moved to Denver and, four years later, to Houston.

In a diversification into real estate in the 1950s, Apache built Apache Plaza in St. Anthony, the region’s second indoor mall after Southdale Center. The 60-store mall, a marvel of modernist architecture with a central court larger than a football field, was a fixture of Twin Cities shopping for decades. It was torn down in 2004.

Plank remained a leader of Apache until 2009, when he retired as its chairman.

“The oil and gas business is extremely cyclical,” his son Roger, also an oil industry executive, told the Washington Post. “Raymond had a sixth sense about him, and was able to navigate those cycles extremely well. Early on, it was getting into those other businesses; later it was buying when everyone else was moving to the sidelines.”

Apache evolved from Plank’s tax-records and financial advisory firm after he and his colleagues studied oil and gas exploration and recognized that investors could be better served through different structures. The firm’s name came from the initials of its founders — Truman Anderson, Plank and Charles Arnao — provided the a, p and a. A secretary suggested they add c, h and e to form Apache.

The company became an early proponent of an investment vehicle that came to be known as master limited partnerships, or MLPs, to facilitate ownership in risky oil and gas properties. MLPs could be traded publicly and offered significant tax advantages to investors. MLPs popularized oil and gas investments that were previously largely confined to the rich, Mary Lyman, executive director of the National Association of Publicly Traded Partnerships, told the New York Times.

Apache stopped using MLPs for oil and gas properties after 1986 when a new tax law eroded their advantages. The company at the time was targeted by unwanted buyout offers, leading Apache to institute a “poison pill” defense and Plank to become a widely quoted opponent of hostile takeovers.

In that same period, Apache was buffeted by ultralow energy prices and Plank also became an outspoken advocate for an import tax that would have put a $24 floor under the price of U.S. oil. The firm shifted away from selling energy investments and into more direct ownership of energy assets. The move to Denver put Plank and other top managers closer to assets it had acquired in the western U.S.

“Not only did it cost the Twin Cities 150 jobs, but it robbed us of one of the more cantankerous, controversial — and downright interesting — business executives this area has seen,” Star Tribune business columnist Dick Youngblood wrote at the time.

It happened just three years after Plank promised then-Gov. Rudy Perpich to keep Apache in the Twin Cities after another heated public back-and-forth over the cost of doing business in Minnesota. Plank in the 1960s and 1970s often criticized the state’s tax and regulations, but he praised Perpich in the early 1980s for tax cuts and other improvements in the state. Plank and David Roe, a longtime labor leader in the state, later co-chaired Minnesota Wellspring, a statewide civic group.

In 1998, while visiting the Twin Cities, Plank acknowledged in an interview to Youngblood that his candor and temper sometimes got him in trouble. “As you know, I’m far more often wrong than in doubt on subjects that are important to me,” Plank said.

Those subjects were wide-ranging, and his philanthropic efforts reflected that sprawl.

In 1967, following riots in north Minneapolis, Plank helped form the Urban Coalition, an economic and social justice organization of minority leaders, corporate executives and nonprofit groups. He later served on the board of The Way, a controversial storefront community center in north Minneapolis.

After Apache’s investments grew in the west, Plank started the Ucross Foundation and formed an artist-in-residence program on a 20,000-acre ranch in Wyoming. More than 2,000 artists, composers and writers have since been granted uninterrupted time and space at the ranch. He funded similar grant programs for teachers in the U.S. and Egypt.

Plank endowed professorships at Carleton College and Harvard University’s Kennedy School. He was a major benefactor of the Blake School, which he attended, and of the Minnesota Historical Society’s restoration of Fort Snelling, where he enlisted in 1942.

Plank flew more than 40 combat missions from 1944 to the end of the war in 1945. When flights were canceled on Aug. 9, 1945, three days after a similar wave of cancellations presaged the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Plank and a friend decided to make an unauthorized flight to try to see what they could from the air. They were about 80 miles away when they saw the second atomic bomb explode at Nagasaki.

The New York Times and Washington Post contributed to this report. Evan Ramstad • 612-673-4241