Down to Earth With: Bruce Benson

by Terri Cook
Friday, December 19, 2014

In a remarkable career spanning nearly 50 years, Bruce Benson has held just two jobs. In 1965, a year after earning his bachelor’s degree in geology, he founded the Benson Mineral Group, an oil and gas exploration and production company that he has owned and chaired ever since. From this foundation, Benson’s business interests have spread into salvaging, banking, mortgage servicing, cable television, geothermal power, real estate and even pizza.

Benson’s civic involvement has varied just as widely, ranging from politics to education to the arts. In 1990, the U.S. Senate confirmed him as a public member of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has served four times as the Chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, and he campaigned as the Republican nominee for governor in 1994.

But the only other job Benson lists on his résumé is one he has proudly held since 2008: president of the University of Colorado (CU), where he oversees four campuses that enroll 66,000 students and operate on an annual budget exceeding $2.9 billion.

Prior to pursuing his interests professionally, Benson began an undergraduate career at Cornell University, but left Ithaca after his first year to work in the oilfields of Wyoming. After briefly returning to Cornell, he then transferred to CU, where he finished his undergraduate degree and began a master’s program in geology, which he did not finish after founding his company. Benson is known for his generous support of many causes, including the university, where his donations — coupled with the fact that he never turns in expense reports — more than cancel out his salary.

Benson recently spoke with EARTH contributor Terri Cook about what drew him to geology, how his perspective as a geologist influences his decisions, and how he has dealt with state budget cuts.

TC: When did you decide to become a geologist?

BB: I went out and worked in the oil industry for a couple of years. I learned about geology by talking with the well site geologist. I got fascinated with all these little chips coming out of the ground, and he’s telling me [what they mean]. I decided I’d be a geologist, a petroleum engineer, or a businessman in the oil and gas industry. I just fell in love with the business.

TC: How did you end up at CU?

BB: Cornell is very prestigious, and I had one madder-than-hell father. He said, “You’re leaving an Ivy League school to go to a little public university?” I told him that Cornell didn’t teach what I wanted. They didn’t teach oil and gas geology.

TC: Did you work on your first drilling rig to pay for tuition?

BB: No, that was to live. When I left [Cornell], my dad was … fuming. I had an old car, and it blew up outside Sioux City, Iowa. I’m an old mechanic. My dad told me when I was 12 years old if I wanted to learn how to drive, I could buy a 1928 Model A Ford and once I could get it to run, I could learn how to drive. I had to get the car to run. So when my car blew up in Iowa, I got out my tools and dropped the pan and saw “ooh, that’s over.” I … put my thumb out and ended up in Casper.

I couldn’t get on a rig right away, so I dug ditches on a construction site, then I built Quonset huts, then I cut timber, and I finally got a job on a rig. Of course, everybody was laughing about this college boy from back East, but I fooled them, because in a year and a half I got a drilling job — in charge of the whole rig, and I was 22 years old.

TC: What happened with your master’s degree?

BB: I’d done the qualifiers, all the course work, and the comprehensives. I was going to do a thesis [project based] in Wyoming where I had worked on the drilling rigs. Then the guy I started roughnecking for in 1958 called one day from Kansas and told me I ought to do my thesis down there. So I changed my thesis, and I started doing the geology. I decided I knew which way the oil sands were running. All the old-timers down there were always guessing … they didn’t realize there were three different sands that we were working with. So I sorted that out and decided I ought to start drilling oil wells [instead of finishing my degree].

TC: What did it take to start your business?

BB: I had some borrowed money and some saved money, and I bought a little $6,000 rig and started drilling. When I thought I’d found where to drill for oil, I didn’t know how to lease. Somebody told me, “Here’s a Form 88. You go to the farmer, ask him to sign it, and give him a dollar for 160 acres.” Not a dollar an acre, a dollar for 7/8 lease. Before I started drilling, I went to the courthouse, where the registrar of deeds showed me how to check the records.

I built up to become one of the biggest drilling contractors in Kansas. And then I got in the salvage business [for oil wells]. I was a “junkie.” I started with … a government job. I think I got two or three hundred wells on that bid. And I got to keep all the equipment that I took off the wells. So we’d haul all this stuff into the yard, and people would come and buy this or that, and at the end of the day, I’d have a pile of money from the junk we were selling.

TC: Looking back on your career, did you have any major decisions that influenced your life trajectory?

BB: I say this in my graduation speeches: “Don’t miss an opportunity because it doesn’t fit into your plan for your life.” The only plan I had was to build up enough oil production that I could be in the oil business. And I got that done pretty quickly, so I just kept going. I believe you take advantage of the opportunities as they come along. You don’t know what those opportunities are going to be, but be open-minded and flexible.

When I was a teaching assistant in the geology department, I told my classes, “I’m not worried about how much geology you learn, but I’m really worried about whether you learn how to think.” That’s the beauty of geology. You have to add a lot of stuff together for a conclusion. [That ability] will serve you well in life. I never dreamt I’d run for governor. I never dreamt I’d be in this job.

TC: Why did you decide to lead CU?

BB: It’s the challenge. I get great satisfaction crossing things off of lists. It’s the accomplishments. It’s the challenge of fixing things, of making them right. That’s what I like in life. Doesn’t matter what the challenge is. …

Take the Denver, Colorado Springs and Boulder campuses. We have charts that show tuition and fees, added together with state support, per student, and you know where we are in the country? We’re last! … In seven to nine years, there’s going to be no money for higher education. Our budget is $2.9 billion, and we get $142 million [from the legislature for this year].

TC: How are you making up the difference?

BB: There are many efficiencies and new revenue sources we have put in place. One example is the Senate bill allowing us to take the international students out of our nonresident mix, replace them with [out-of-state students], and then increase our international students from 4 percent to 12 percent [which raises $80 million]. That’s how we run the place. And having international students is really important if you’re going to be an international university. If you’re to do economic development, you’d better understand the culture of China and England and France.

TC: Do you hope to leave a mark by being a university president?

BB: I hope I have already. The stuff we’ve accomplished in the last few years — it’s a pretty damn good list. I think we’re making a mark every day. I wouldn’t do the job if I couldn’t [leave a mark].

TC: You recently wrote about how much your graduate advisor, geologist Bruce Curtis, influenced you. As president, do you play a role in establishing a climate where mentoring can flourish?

BB: We have such great faculty members. I don’t think I have to go out and tell somebody to mentor more. That’s just part of [the job of faculty]. I still remember all of my professors … they were all mentors. Curtis was my main one because he was a subsurface petroleum geologist. But all of them were great guys.

TC: What is your perspective on the future sources of energy in this country?

BB: We have to do everything possible. The energy market is very complex. Renewables — solar, wind, others — will come through one of these days, but it’s going to take a long time. We need to exploit all the oil and gas sources we have.

TC: How has your training in geology influenced your approach to the diverse positions you’ve held and the decisions you’ve made?

BB: There’s something in geology called uniformitarianism: The present is the key to the past. In geology you have to add pieces together. So it is a thinking science, and if you’re going to be successful in running a business, or a university, you’ve got to think. And something else I really believe in is hindsight. I’ve got a list of 30 or 40 businesses I’ve done. There are only a couple of failures. I look back at them and ask, what’s the common thread? What makes this work?

TC: Which experiences best prepared you for running a university?

BB: Having to fight the battle to start an oil company with little money is probably about as tough a thing as you can do, and that’s how I started. We were probably bankrupt the first eight years, I just wouldn’t tell anybody.

Running this university is really fascinating. You talk about tuition and transportation one day, and you talk about hospitals and redevelopment another day. And you talk about how to fund the place so we can keep it going.

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