Ask Frank Bavendick how much money he’s making from oil production in western North Dakota, and he’ll tell you a story about Texas mining barons Nelson and William Hunt.
The way Bavendick tells it, the Hunt brothers tried to corner the world’s supply of silver back in the 1970s and were summoned by a congressional committee to respond to allegations that they were monopolizing the market. When asked during the hearing how much money he had, Nelson Hunt replied, “People who know how much they are worth generally aren’t worth very much.”
Bavendick gets a kick out of Hunt’s cageyness.
“So, when people ask me how many oil wells I’m under, I tell them that anybody who knows how many oil wells they are under must not be under very many oil wells,” said Bavendick, 82, who at one time was reputed to own more acres of mineral rights in North Dakota than any other individual investor.
It’s true: Bavendick is a wealthy man. He began accumulating land and mineral rights at the age of 35 while brokering leases for oil companies that were wildcatting in western North Dakota during the 1960s. And, as a landman, he became familiar with both the territory and acquisition strategies of large companies such as Union Oil and Stanolind Oil, which later became Amoco.
Unlike the Hunt brothers, Bavendick didn’t come from a billionaire family. Instead, he worked hard for his paychecks and invested whatever was left over into land and minerals. They were small purchases at first, but, over time, his holdings grew into a hodge-podge empire across the Williston Basin.
As a young man, he believed land and minerals were wise investments, but he couldn’t have known hydraulic-fracturing technology would one day unlock the full potential of North Dakota’s oil fields and make the state the second-largest oil producer in the U.S.
Then again, if the folklore of Bavendick’s prescience is true, maybe he foresaw everything working out this way long ago.
“I just bought minerals because it was part of my investment portfolio, so if I took a day off of work or went on vacation I would still have something cranking the cash register,” he said. “We had no idea what we were buying value-wise. It just happened to be inexpensive stuff in the oil patch. Over the years I leased a couple times, and then the Bakken play hit.”
These days, Bavendick is semi-retired but still manages his investments, which include mineral rights under more than 300,000 acres of land, farms in seven counties and participating interests – part ownership in the oil-extraction infrastructure, not just the mineral rights – in more than 80 oil wells.
Getting exact figures from Bavendick is like playing a game of 20 questions. He doesn’t offer details about his business without relentless pestering. The truth is, if it were up to him to tell his story, he would focus on his family, his contributions to the community and his lifelong obsession with collecting artifacts.
If you don’t know Bavendick very well, he might be coy enough to make you believe he’s no different than other retiree living on a meager pension.
“I’m just an old retired guy, trying to make ends meet with my Social Security checks,” he said with a pokerfaced expression that almost hid the twinkle in his eye.
Birth of a Landman
After graduating from the University of North Dakota in 1952, Bavendick was waiting for word on a job that would have taken him out of Bismarck when he went on a blind date with a young woman from Baldwin named Joanne Meyer. They married in December 1953.
Bavendick, who worked at J.C. Penney’s at the time, was offered a job in the accounting department of Union Oil. That was his first foray into the oil industry.
Two years later, when the oil boom of the 1950s died out and Union Oil moved out of North Dakota, Bavendick was hired by Stanolind Oil and Gas in Casper, Wyo. He began securing leases and purchasing mineral rights for the company in the oil fields of Wyoming, Colorado and North Dakota.
In 1963, Bavendick left Amoco at the age of 33 to start his own property management company in North Dakota. But friends in the oil industry called on him repeatedly to broker leases, and within a month he was working as an independent landman.
Bavendick believes trust is the most important commodity in business, and he made it the foundation of his work. When he quit his job at Amoco, they begged him to stay for another month, which was unusual considering the sensitivity of company information in the oil industry, he said.
“Even after I left Amoco, they treated me like an employee. I’d go back in and talk with the geologists and seismologists, and they’d tell me what they were doing. That was trust,” he said. “As a landman, you always have to be honest and up front. You need to build a rapport with people.”
Duane Sorby, a retired accountant who lives in Bismarck, said Bavendick established himself by working harder than anyone else in his field and was always able to get leases other landmen couldn’t.
“You know how farmers are. They would say ‘I’m not going to lease it, go to hell. But come in for a cup of coffee,’” Sorby said. “Three hours later, Frank would walk out with a lease. I don’t know how he did it.”
Sorby likes to tell a story about running into a bunch of landmen at a hotel in Dickinson many years ago: By about 3 p.m. most of the landmen had called it a day and were swimming in the pool and drinking at the bar, but not Bavendick.
“I stopped in to have a drink with them that afternoon,” Sorby said. “And about the time I was leaving around 9 o’clock, here comes Frank – just came in from the road, hadn’t eaten. He had to get one more lease. That’s Frank.”
Bavendick the Visionary
When Bavendick was 35, he decided to begin laying a foundation for his family’s future. So, on Feb. 16, 1965, he bought 10 acres of mineral rights in Renville County for $25 per acre – the first in a long string of investments that led to his fortune.
When Bavendick bought his second batch of mineral rights later that year, he began another tradition – philanthropy. He secured the mineral rights on 735 acres just south of Watford City for $2.21 per acre from a family that had sold their farm and contacted Bavendick to see if he would buy the mineral rights. As soon as Bavendick struck the deal, he gave half of the mineral rights to Bismarck Junior College and UND.
“Now they’re drilling big oil wells on it,” he said. “They’re worth about $10,000 an acre now.”
Bavendick continued brokering deals for oil companies and as a personal investment for the next 30 years. He also bought and sold several prominent buildings in Bismarck, including the old Montgomery Ward building and the former Dakota Bank building downtown.
“It wasn’t my goal to become a wealthy man. I just bought whatever came along,” he said. “When I acquired these interests, almost every time the people came to me wanting to sell. I wasn’t going out knocking on doors trying to buy this stuff.”
Sorby, who has known Bavendick for more than 50 years, said Bavendick would buy mineral rights that oil companies didn’t want. When a company set its sights on a particular tract of land, Bavendick would invest nearby.
“Without a doubt, he’s the smartest man I’ve ever known,” Sorby said. “He’s a visionary. He sees things that are going to happen, things that we don’t see, and he acts on it. At the time, it looks like the dumbest thing a person could do, but then turns out to be brilliant.”
When Bavendick reached his mid-40s, he realized he was spending so much time on the road that he was missing everything else life had to offer. He remembers working late one Saturday afternoon while his three children were waiting for him in the driveway with the boat loaded and ready for the river. So he cut back on his work hours to spend more time with his family.
“Working days, nights, weekends and holidays just about did me in. Pretty soon you realize it’s going to consume you,” he said. “I wish I would have set priorities a little different for my family. Work always came first. You have a lot of little regrets, and that’s one of mine.”
Even now, though, Bavendick can’t bring himself to retire fully. He spends mornings at home with his wife and afternoons at his office on Broadway, in a building he once owned and passed on to his son, Greg, who helps manage the family’s assets. He stopped buying mineral rights in the mid-1990s, but a few years ago he began investing along with oil companies when they drill wells where he owns mineral rights.
Some people like to gamble at cards or slot machines. Bavendick, however, gets a rush from playing the odds beneath the North Dakota soil.
“I pretty much stopped doing some of those risk things before the Bakken play,” he said. “I’m back in it now with participation in wells, but I look at that a little differently. Before, one out of nine wells would come in as a producer. But now the play is such that 99.9 percent of them will pay out. It’s like a no-miss kind of thing. So that’s why we participate in the wells.”
The Second Chapter
If you spend any amount of time with Bavendick, it’s easy to see what his true passions are. His office is adorned with original paintings by the late Gary Miller, glass cases holding an assortment of Civil War-era pistols and tomahawks, and plaques from just about every notable organization in the state.
In a special place alongside his awards, Bavendick has arranged several photographs of his family. But two of the photographs are difficult for him to talk about.
“Not everything in life is roses,” Bavendick said, holding a photo of his son, Brad, and one of his grandson, TJ, both of whom have passed away. “My story wouldn’t be complete without touching on the huge tragedies that I have been forced to endure these past 15 years. I lost a tremendous grandson and then lost a very close friend and hunting partner, my son.”
Bavendick said his family has always provided the support and motivation to make his community a better place. And, just like he did as a landman, Bavendick has set the pace for everyone else when it comes to community involvement.
He has been president of the Tom and Frances Leach Foundation for the past 15 years, leading the organization through a period in which it has given more than $12 million to student scholarships and community projects. He also has held leadership roles with the Bismarck State College Development Foundation, the University of Mary and the UND Alumni Association.
Naming all of the organizations to which Bavendick has provided financial support would be unwieldy. But, if it’s a good cause that serves the community, odds are Bavendick has contributed to it.
“My wife thinks I’m giving all of our money away,” Bavendick said with a laugh. “But the truth is I’ve put most of it into the ground.”
Bavendick refuses to divulge how much money he’s given away over the years. But you can get a general sense of his philanthropy by observing the awards and monuments that carry his name.
He has a State Leadership Award signed by Gov. George Sinner. He was named Landman of the Year in 1986 by the American Association of Professional Landmen. The track and soccer complex at BSC is named Bavendick Field. The Bavendick Stateroom is being constructed at the BSC National Energy Center of Excellence. And he’s been inducted into both the Bismarck High School and Century High School halls of fame – he laughs about the honor from Century because he graduated from BHS.
“I maybe half deserved this one,” he said, referring to the BHS Hall of Fame plaque.
As much as Bavendick enjoyed making money, there’s no doubt that he’s having more fun giving it away. One of his biggest thrills is contributing to student scholarships.
“I’m doing what I want to do, just enjoying life,” he said. “I don’t know 99 percent of the recipients – never met them, never will meet them. But I know it’s enhancing their lives and allowing them to focus on their education. So it makes me feel good to see that other people can benefit.”
Jim Haussler, athletic director for Bismarck Public Schools, said Bavendick is always willing to support local athletics and never misses a track meet. The way Bavendick sees it, that kind of community involvement is natural, Haussler said.
“It’s striking to most people, to about everybody except Frank,” Haussler said. “To Frank, it’s just the way it’s supposed to be.”
-Matt Bunk is publisher of the Great Plains Examiner.