Marvin Davis Was My Dad

A legendary oilman through the eyes of his son

At age 13, when I first began working summers at Davis Oil Company, little did I know I was beginning an amazing adventure alongside one of the smartest and most fearless men that I would ever know. Behind his larger-than-life business exploits and physical presence, Marvin Davis was also full of love and generosity.

He was one of the legendary oil men and business titans of the 20th century. During his lifetime he found dozens of oil and gas fields, owned a movie studio, a ski resort, golf courses, hotels, skyscrapers, a bank, movie theaters and radio and TV stations. When he passed, he had 53 years of marriage, five children, 14 grandchildren, and knew heads of state, presidents and Oscar-winning stars. He was not perfect by any means, with his share of failed business deals and various personal, health and family issues that come with a large life.

Here is my story of “Big Marv,” my father.

“Make a Buck”

It began in 1939 when my grandfather Jack Davis formed Davis Oil Company.

A sailor in the English Navy, he arrived in New York in 1917. An entrepreneur, a gambler and a boxer, Jack fought more than 100 professional fights and vied for the light-heavyweight championship of the world.

Jack married Jean Spitzer and had two children, Joan and Marvin. Jack made his living in the clothing business, building a successful low-cost dress business called Jay Day Dress Company. He liked investing in deals.

Dad sold newspapers as a kid, flipping them for a profit. He loved making a buck. When Jack formed a partnership with wildcatter Jack Ryan to drill wells in Evansville, Ind., Dad went to work in the oilfields and found his passion. Then he met his lifelong love, Barbara Levine, whom he married in July of 1951. Shortly thereafter they moved to Denver where he took over Davis Oil.

“The man who drills the most wells has the best chance of finding the most oil.”

When I was eight years old, my father took me to his office on Saturdays. Davis Oil was open six days a week. I already had a curiosity about his business, as Dad regularly talked of the “wildcats” he was drilling.

“I’m teaching you the oil business,” he’d state with pride and excitement. We would sit at a huge round conference table with many other gentlemen. My father’s team would spread out large sheets of paper. Dad explained, “These maps show where to drill for oil.” I loved his enthusiasm and that he always had hot chocolate and donuts for me.

When alone, he would impart his wisdom, usually through a story of someone he knew. His favorite was about H. L. Hunt, whom Dad thought “was the greatest oilman ever.” He remembered Hunt saying, “Son, the man who drills the most wells has the best chance to come up with the most.” Soon I’d learn that’s exactly what my father did – drill the most wells.

“Hire the best of the best, pay them well.”

My first summer working was 1976.

Dad said, “During the day you’ll work with my team and I’ll call you in for meetings to see how I do things.” He was passionate, always upbeat. Dad had the best geologists in the business. “Hire the best oil finders, pay them well and let them tell you where to drill,” he said. Most of his team were graduates of the best petroleum schools in America, like the Colorado School of Mines. Once they had worked at one of the majors, often Amoco, he’d hire them away.

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Marvin and Gregg Davis

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At age 13, when I first began working summers at Davis Oil Company, little did I know I was beginning an amazing adventure alongside one of the smartest and most fearless men that I would ever know. Behind his larger-than-life business exploits and physical presence, Marvin Davis was also full of love and generosity.

He was one of the legendary oil men and business titans of the 20th century. During his lifetime he found dozens of oil and gas fields, owned a movie studio, a ski resort, golf courses, hotels, skyscrapers, a bank, movie theaters and radio and TV stations. When he passed, he had 53 years of marriage, five children, 14 grandchildren, and knew heads of state, presidents and Oscar-winning stars. He was not perfect by any means, with his share of failed business deals and various personal, health and family issues that come with a large life.

Here is my story of “Big Marv,” my father.

“Make a Buck”

It began in 1939 when my grandfather Jack Davis formed Davis Oil Company.

A sailor in the English Navy, he arrived in New York in 1917. An entrepreneur, a gambler and a boxer, Jack fought more than 100 professional fights and vied for the light-heavyweight championship of the world.

Jack married Jean Spitzer and had two children, Joan and Marvin. Jack made his living in the clothing business, building a successful low-cost dress business called Jay Day Dress Company. He liked investing in deals.

Dad sold newspapers as a kid, flipping them for a profit. He loved making a buck. When Jack formed a partnership with wildcatter Jack Ryan to drill wells in Evansville, Ind., Dad went to work in the oilfields and found his passion. Then he met his lifelong love, Barbara Levine, whom he married in July of 1951. Shortly thereafter they moved to Denver where he took over Davis Oil.

“The man who drills the most wells has the best chance of finding the most oil.”

When I was eight years old, my father took me to his office on Saturdays. Davis Oil was open six days a week. I already had a curiosity about his business, as Dad regularly talked of the “wildcats” he was drilling.

“I’m teaching you the oil business,” he’d state with pride and excitement. We would sit at a huge round conference table with many other gentlemen. My father’s team would spread out large sheets of paper. Dad explained, “These maps show where to drill for oil.” I loved his enthusiasm and that he always had hot chocolate and donuts for me.

When alone, he would impart his wisdom, usually through a story of someone he knew. His favorite was about H. L. Hunt, whom Dad thought “was the greatest oilman ever.” He remembered Hunt saying, “Son, the man who drills the most wells has the best chance to come up with the most.” Soon I’d learn that’s exactly what my father did – drill the most wells.

“Hire the best of the best, pay them well.”

My first summer working was 1976.

Dad said, “During the day you’ll work with my team and I’ll call you in for meetings to see how I do things.” He was passionate, always upbeat. Dad had the best geologists in the business. “Hire the best oil finders, pay them well and let them tell you where to drill,” he said. Most of his team were graduates of the best petroleum schools in America, like the Colorado School of Mines. Once they had worked at one of the majors, often Amoco, he’d hire them away.

To lure them, Dad gave royalties in deals they generated and sold. The true entrepreneurial oil professionals, he believed, liked overrides, as they could get immediate benefit from their efforts.

The office was always alive. Dad would walk down the hall and pop into a meeting. Mark Goldberg, a landman at Davis Oil who started working when I did, said, “When your father was in the office, he would exude such positive energy that you worked faster, were more focused because you wanted to get the job done. In meetings, he’d listen to diverse opinions and then laser-focus on a course of action that everyone understood and knew their role.” 

Each summer I apprenticed in all departments through college, learning every aspect of the business. At age 18 I generated, sold and drilled my first prospect, the No. 1 Gregg Federal, a discovery in the Powder River Basin.

My father loved his team. They were his second family. Everyone was on a first name basis: “Marvin,” they called him, and everyone on his team got a nickname. Every day at 4 p.m., he had a meeting in his office. I’d sit next to him, watching him eye every deal. He kept detailed notes on a yellow pad.

December 2017, Larry Rasmussen did a story on Dad’s geologists for the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists’ newsletter, The Outcrop. In it, Dan Bean related that Dad “had an incredibly good memory. He remembered your key well, and he knew the operator, and he knows about such and such DST. He may know as much as you do, so you better get your facts right or you’ll be skewered. That was always fun. The main thing is, to push something forward there was no waiting on the other guy. Marvin would chase something down if someone was waiting on something, in order to get it done. If it took money, he’d get money. If it took a kick in the ass, he’d give a kick in the ass.”

“The Third for a Quarter Deal”

Davis Oil was one of the largest prospect generation companies in America. Dad’s philosophy was, “Have a lot of prospects ready to sell.” Through the years he sold hundreds of millions of dollars of deals to all types from major oil companies to former presidents like Gerald Ford and celebrities such as George Lucas and Lucille Ball. In 1979, Forbes reported DOC was the third most active driller in the United States, second only to Exxon and Amoco. In all, Davis drilled more than 10,000 wells and found hundreds of millions of barrels of oil and several trillion cubic feet of gas.

To mitigate risk, Dad developed the “one-third for one-quarter deal.” If a company invested in a deal, they paid a “promote.” To acquire a 25-percent interest in a prospect, an investor paid 33.33 percent. When Davis sold three 25-percent interests, the well was paid for and Davis had a carried 25 percent, after fronting the land and geology expenses. This business model was widely adopted by the industry and is still used today. He always said, “If you can’t sell it to another smart oil company, don’t drill it alone.”

“Be nice to all you meet. You never know who will have the next great deal.”

Dad knew he was an intimidating person at 6 feet 4 inches and 350 pounds, but he had an open-door policy. “Be nice to everyone,” he’d say.

His favorite story was “False Teeth,” about one of his discoveries. In the 1960s, Dad used to go well sites. One evening he went to a restaurant and while sitting eating a steak, he saw a fellow he knew, an old “company man” for major oil companies. “Hey Curly” he said. “Hello Mr. Davis”, Curly said. My father noticed Curly was eating oatmeal.

“Why are you eating oatmeal? Let me buy you a steak!” he said.

Curly thanked him but refused saying he couldn’t eat steak because his false teeth had broken. My father said to go buy some “store-bought teeth,” but Curly didn’t have the money. My Dad took him to the store and bought him some new teeth.

Months later, my father received a call.

“Mr. Davis” Curly said, “I got something.” He proceeded to explain that he had been sitting a well in Wyoming and the company he was working for just fired him. My father thanked him and then called his top lieutenants together at the office and went on to lease the land around that well. And that was the beginning of another great field.

“A deal is a deal.”

At daily meetings, if a new discovery was made, he would congratulate the geologist. And if there was a dry hole, he wouldn’t dwell on it. He’d say to the geologist, “Forget it, what’s next?”

Dad was a cheerleader, always enthusiastic, refused to get down and wouldn’t let others. “You can do anything,” he’d say. He meant it. It was coming from a man who had sold newspapers on the corner.

In 1981, my father put his fields up for sale. Home Petroleum out of Canada was the high bidder, paying $630 million. A day before the deal was to close, Dad received a call from the president of a major oil company. He offered more money and would pay any break-up fees and litigation. My father refused. He told me “a deal is a deal.”

The day of the deal, I was in the office with my father and the executives and lawyers from both companies. He wanted me by his side as he orchestrated the closing. Dad narrated the final phases and explained how the documents would be shared and the monies transferred. I watched him and the CEO of Home sign the stacks of papers and shake hands. When all was complete, he handed me one of the gold pens he used to sign as a keepsake.

After the sale to Home Petroleum, Davis Oil kept on drilling, making big discoveries and then sold the remaining fields. In all, he raked in $870 million. In today’s dollars that would be more than $2 billion.

“Buy Trophy Assets, Do the Best Deals.”

Like my grandfather, Dad liked investing in deals. His motto was, “Buy the best properties, do the best deals.” If you bought one-of-a-kind assets there are two ways to make money: operating them well and appreciation. If you had something others admired, there was always a buyer.

One of his greatest deals was buying Twentieth Century Fox Studios that included ownership in Aspen Ski Corp and The Pebble Beach Company, all unique assets that others admired and wanted. After the sale of Davis Oil, the family moved to Los Angeles so Dad could oversee the studio. He and my mother became prominent in the Los Angeles social community, hosting lavish parties filled with major celebrities, studio chiefs, politicians and billionaires.

I never knew who I might meet at Dad’s office or at my parents’ home. They even hosted the queen of England at Fox Studios. I continued working alongside my father as he managed and developed Pebble Beach and Aspen and made a host of other business deals. He made bids for companies including United Airlines and Mesa Petroleum and even a couple of NFL teams. In 1986, he bought the Beverly Hills Hotel and began planning a major renovation to add it to the Little Nell Hotel in Aspen and The Lodge and Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach to make a world class hotel chain. I worked at the Beverly Hills Hotel for nine months learning the business. However, within a year, the sultan of Brunei came along offering a large profit. Dad sold it with no regrets.

When it came time to sell, my father would discuss his thinking and seek my opinion. When he contemplated the sale of Fox, he asked my opinion to see if I remembered his lessons. He was going to make a big profit. “Make a buck,” I said. But Fox was more than an asset. Having a studio, for most, would be their defining asset. “Don’t fall in love with your assets,” I said. He was proud of me.

“Timing is Everything”

In 1995 my father decided it was “time to get back in oil” and started Davis Petroleum Corp. He said, “3-D seismic shows there’s a lot of the big prospects to drill.”

In 1997, I devoted myself full-time to the business, moving to Houston with my family. That year we tested DPC’s first major discovery, Eagle Point in Galveston Bay, at 75 million cubic feet of gas and 10,000 barrels of oil per day. It turned out to be the largest discovery in our history, producing nearly 22 million barrels of oil and 150 billion cubic feet of gas. It set our company on a great growth trajectory.

Vince Manara, the geoscientist behind Eagle Point Field and many others said, “I attribute most any business acumen I have today to having worked for him. He was a real motivator, a great optimist, and you wanted to succeed for him. He’d say, ‘great Vince, what else you got,’ ‘keep plotting’ and ‘if we are not drilling wells, we are going out of business.’  Even though he was formidable and larger than life, he always treated everyone the same, with respect! He would look you in the eyes when talking to you, no matter what your station in life, and he truly cared about what you had to say!”

The best part of Davis Petroleum was getting to build the company while my father was alive. As he did, I was able to work with some of the best oil and gas professionals in our industry. My father’s exploration business philosophy was now mine:

“Hire the best oil professionals and let them tell you where to drill.”

“Build a team smarter than you in each and every discipline and incentivize them properly.”

“Keep the bins full. Have a diversified portfolio of prospects with varying risk and reward profiles.”

“Bring in partners, especially other oil companies and savvy investors.”

“If it doesn’t sell, put it on the shelf. Don’t drill it yourself and be too smart.”

Dad and I spoke twice a day, every day. He regularly came to Houston or the team and I went to Los Angeles. He had his oil family back. When a well was getting close to its main pay zone, he’d always say “Remember, call me anytime, day or night to tell me how we did, even if it’s 3 a.m.”

From Eagle Point, and while my father was still alive, DPC grew. I had the joy of having my own oil family and sharing that with my father. We had regular meetings just like the Denver days when we would go around the table discussing every deal. I also made sure there was plenty of food, including hot chocolate and donuts.

What I miss more than anything are the phone calls and the meetings where he and I would talk for hours. Marvin Davis died in the early hours of Sept. 25, 2004, with his whole family gathered around, passing on peacefully. His bright light had slowly faded out, but his funeral was a brilliant event, filled with his family, friends, business colleagues, partners, celebrities and politicians. I miss him to this day and wish I could talk to him again.

He was never dull and always inventive. I am forever grateful for the amazing experiences he shared. I loved my father and he loved me. Working together was Dad’s way to offer his love and his wisdom and to prepare me for his dream that I would become an oilman, too.

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