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The Man Who “Sees Around Corners”

April 24, 1992


Fortune magazine once described Philip F. Anschutz as “the richest American you’ve never heard of.” It is likely this story’s reporter did not conduct any interviews in Lawrence, let alone on the campus of the University of Kansas.

At KU, Anschutz (’61) is virtually a household word, and he is well known for his extensive donations to the University, most notably a $6.5 million endowment for funding library acquisitions. And on April 24, 1992, the University honored this Denver-based business executive, philanthropist, and alumnus for his community service and humanitarian efforts with its Distinguished Service Citation, the highest non-academic award KU bestows.

Originally from Russell, the Anschutz family has ties to the University of Kansas dating back more than 70 years, and Philip Anschutz is a second-generation Jayhawk. His father, Fred B. Anschutz (’33), formed a company called Circle A Drilling and made his first fortune in the oil and gas business. Philip F. Anschutz, born in 1939, eventually followed in his father’s footsteps and graduated from KU with honors in 1961 with a degree in finance. By this time, however, his father had fallen ill and the family’s business was in dire straits, so the younger Anschutz decided against law school at the University of Virginia and immediately stepped in to help run the day-to-day operations of Circle A Drilling. The next five years would prove to be trying, but they would lay the foundation for his subsequent business successes.

“As a wildcatter, 95 percent of everything you do is failure – most holes are dry,” Anschutz recalled to the Topeka Capital-Journal on February 9, 2000, at his induction into the Kansas Business Hall of Fame. And after years of such failures, he finally made his first major oil strike in 1967 near Gillette, Wyoming. “Upon the discovery,” wrote the Journal, “he immediately bought the surrounding oil leases on credit [and] the next day, a spark ignited his entire field. He called in the famed firefighter, ‘Red’ Adair, who was reluctant to cap the blazing well without assurance of compensation.”

To save his strike, Anschutz displayed some of the remarkable ingenuity that would prove so beneficial to him throughout his business career. He quickly “contacted Universal Studios which was filming a story on Adair at the time, and sold them the rights to film his fire for $100,000, enough to assure payment to Adair and continue operations.” (The movie Hellfighters, starring John Wayne, was released in 1968.) Like his father before him, Anschutz then proceeded to make his first fortune in the oil business, discovering in the late-1970s, on a farm in northern Utah, one of the largest pockets of oil since Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay.

In 1982, Anschutz sold most of his oil fields to the Mobil Corporation for the tidy sum of $500 million and began buying up railroad companies, beginning with the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1984 and the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1988. Indeed, Forbes magazine named Anschutz the country’s seventh richest man in 1984, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion, tying him with banker David Rockefeller and computer giant William Hewlett.

Demonstrating his ability, as one senior advisor once described it, to “see around corners,” Anschutz capitalized in the mid-90s on his railroad holdings to break into the new high-tech economy. According to Fortune, “he concluded that the Internet was creating a demand for specially switched networks of enormous capacity.” He thus proceeded to buy up telecommunications companies (such as Dallas-based Qwest) and use his railroad holdings to install fiber-optic cables along the rail lines themselves. When he took Qwest Communications public in 1997, Anschutz, as the principal stockholder, turned his original $55 million investment into $4.9 billion on paper.

Although Qwest may be among his more well known holdings, the Denver-based Anschutz Corporation has acquired an enormous and remarkably diverse collection of assets. They include ownership of professional hockey’s Los Angeles Kings, five European hockey clubs, four Major League Soccer teams, interests in basketball’s Los Angeles Lakers and the city’s new Staples Center. Anschutz also owns roughly 20 percent of the movie theaters in the US after acquiring majority stakes in major entertainment companies such as United Artists and Regal Cinemas, Inc. In addition to his entertainment, telecommunications, natural resources, and railroad holdings, Anschutz is a real estate magnate as well, owning over 300,000 acres of Great Plains and western farmland and cattle ranches. All told, when Forbes magazine published its 2001 list of the World’s Richest People, KU alum Philip Anschutz ranked number 16, with a net worth of $15.3 billion.

Anschutz is, however, a different kind of extraordinarily wealthy man, wrote Fortune reporter Brian O’Reilly in a September 6, 1999, profile entitled “Billionaire Next Door.” He is not like the Henry Fords or John D. Rockefellers who dominated single industries. “A much rarer few, like J.P. Morgan and Philip Anschutz, struck it rich in a fundamentally different way: They operated across an astounding array of industries, mastering and reshaping entire economic landscapes.” Yet one of the most interesting things about him “is not that he’s worth well over $10 billion. It’s that he’s a genuinely nice guy worth more than $10 billion. He didn’t make his money by being a nasty, grasping, miserly bastard. Once he got rich, he didn’t turn into a twisted, weirdo billionaire like Howard Hughes or spawn a dysfunctional feuding family like the Koch brothers. As billionaires go, Anschutz is abnormally normal.” Indeed, according to a Denver reporter, Anschutz once “grumbled good-naturedly,” “Why do you keep calling me ‘Billionaire Philip Anschutz’? My mother never called me ‘Billionaire.’”

As is seemingly the case with all wealthy and successful entrepreneurs, however, Anschutz has not been immune from oftentimes-harsh criticism of his business practices. Unlike his mother, many environmentalists and others predisposed against capitalism never miss an opportunity to attach the label “billionaire,” derogatorily, when speaking of Anschutz. Reporting on his plans to build a series of warehouses in L.A.’s Chinatown, the Los Angeles New Times, on March 3, 2000, referred to “shamefully rich developer Ed Roski Jr. and his bulging-with-billions pal Philip Anschutz” as “two incredibly slimy rich guys” seeking to despoil scenic acreage. The New York Times called his 1996 maneuver to combine the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads ”the most spectacular merger fiasco of modern times.” And critics were similarly affronted by his subsequent use of railroad rights-of-way to install fiber-optic lines, claiming that the move, though incredibly lucrative for Anschutz personally, was a big loser for Union Pacific stockholders.

Moreover, Anschutz’s financial support of Republican candidates, including his longtime friend and fellow Kansan Bob Dole and, in the 2000 election, President George W. Bush, has also been viewed suspiciously by those determined to manufacture or expose supposed nefarious links between Anschutz’s money and governmental decisions favorable to his business interests. Indeed, in February 2001, environmentalists led by the Sierra Club cried foul when just weeks after Bush’s inauguration, the Bureau of Land Management ended years of regulatory delay and granted Anschutz Exploration Corp. the right to drill for oil under the so-called Weatherman Draw, a 4,200-acre site in south-central Montana that is revered by some Native American tribes.

Such supposed callousness towards environmental sacred cows, combined with his penchant to avoid interviewers and guard closely his and his family’s privacy, have left many in the media to describe him as a “reclusive, right-wing billionaire,” as did the Internet magazine, the Industry Standard. Yet any friend will tell of his passions for running marathons; playing tennis and squash; supporting conservative and Republican causes and candidates; and being active in his local Evangelical Presbyterian church. According to O’Reilly, “he is very private … [and] doesn’t need a glitzy public persona to help him sell anything.”

Moreover, he has been collecting Western American art for the better part of 40 years; and indeed, his Anschutz Collection, according to art connoisseurs, is among the finest in the world. Portions of it have been loaned to museums around the world, from the former Soviet Union to China and, in 1981, to KU’s own Spencer Museum of Art. Additionally, Anschutz has served on the boards of numerous organizations, such as the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

If anything could top Anschutz’s business acumen, though, it might possibly be his and his family’s commitment to a wide variety of philanthropic causes, the principal reason behind KU’s decision to honor him on April 24, 1992, with their Distinguished Service Citation. His wife, Nancy Park Anschutz, is the vice president of the Anschutz Foundation of Denver, aimed primarily at helping underprivileged children and their families. With nine-figure assets, this foundation sponsors everything from Christian sports camps, to hospital construction, college scholarships for needy students, and the preservation of the nation’s historic and artistic treasures. In addition, his sister, Sue Anschutz Rodgers (’55), has been a prolific benefactor as well over the years, making a number of gifts to the KU School of Education and the Adams Alumni Center.

Indeed, the University of Kansas has for many years been on the receiving end of the Anschutz family’s generosity. In 1980, father Fred Anschutz himself established a $750,000 annual scholarship fund and, additionally, gave $1.4 million to build the campus sports pavilion that bears his name. Perhaps their most prominent and best-known gift, though, involved the University’s $13.9 million science library, conceived in 1986 and opened three years later.

On June 29, 1989, as part of the University’s Campaign Kansas capital campaign, Philip and Nancy Anschutz donated $6.5 million to go towards a permanent endowed library acquisitions fund. “Nancy and I are extremely pleased to continue our support of the University of Kansas,” said Anschutz to the Lawrence Journal-World. “My family is proud of what the university has accomplished in the past, and through this gift, optimistic for its future.” “To the best of our knowledge,” said Jim Ranz, Dean of Libraries, “the Anschutz endowment is the largest endowment for collections at any public university in the country. What’s more, I’m certain it is one of the largest among all universities, public or private.”

That summer, in recognition of their gift, Chancellor Gene A. Budig proposed to the Kansas State Board of Regents that the then-unnamed science library be named in honor of the Anschutzes’. And on August 9, 1989, the Regents unanimously agreed to call the building the “Marian and Fred Anschutz Library,” at the request of Philip Anschutz who sought to honor his father and late mother. The “heart of this library,” said Chancellor Budig at the building’s dedication, “and of all our libraries – indeed the heart of the University – has been given new strength and a firm foundation by Nancy and Philip Anschutz. For their generosity, which is great, we are truly thankful…. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of their gift, or the impact it will have on KU in the future.” He concluded by insisting, “no future evaluation of the University and its libraries can ever be complete without an acknowledgment of their influence.”

In addition to his support of KU Libraries, Philip Anschutz has donated to the Williams Educational Fund, the Dole Institute for Public Service and Public Policy, the Adams Alumni Center, and the addition to Summerfield Hall. To honor his longtime friend, business associate, and fellow KU alum Jordan Haines, Anschutz gave $500,000 to the University in 1990 to establish the Jordan L. Haines Distinguished Professorship in the School of Business. A past vice president of the Alumni Association, Anschutz has also received several other honors from KU, including membership in the Mount Oread Society, for those whose lifetime contributions exceed $1 million, and recognition as a Distinguished Alumnus from the Business School in 1998.

As to Anschutz’s future business and philanthropic plans, friends point inquiring reporters to some of his newest ventures: one company called Walden Media and another called Crusader Entertainment. Both are oriented towards providing educational and family-friendly movies and television programs. According to a friend and close associate, Anschutz also “has a latent interest in doing something significant in American Christianity. He is working deliberately and diligently on it” but, at present, is “still in the process of thinking what to do and how to do it.”

Whatever he decides, this man who “sees around corners” will almost certainly achieve success and help many others along the way. That he has never forgotten his state or his University is a credit not only to him, but to his alma mater as well.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: For information on Philip F. Anschutz, see the Anschutz Personal File, located in University Archives, 4th Floor, Spencer Research Library. See specifically: Lawrence Journal-World, June 29, 1989, pp. 1A, 7A; July 1, 1989, p. 3A; and April 8, 1992, p. 3A. Kansas Alumni (July 1989), p. 8; (April 1990), p. 10; and (March/April 1992), p. 36. University Daily Kansan, October 4, 1984, p. 8; and July 5, 1989, p. 6. See also, Topeka Capital-Journal, February 9, 2000, pp. 1C, 3C. For a wealth of materials related to the Marian and Fred Anschutz Science Library, see the facility’s Building File located in University Archives, 4th Floor, Spencer Research Library. Also, Oread, March 21, 1986, p. 1; Kansas Alumni, no. 5 (1999), and no. 1 (2001); and news releases for the Office of University Relations for the following days: September 2, 1987; August 9, 1989; September 29, 1989; and November 21, 1989.]