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Clash With Corporate Culture
Ended Heir’s King Ranch Reign

By Mary Lee Grant
Corpus Christi Caller-Times

KINGSVILLE, Texas —(AP)— Stephen J. "Tio" Kleberg patterned himself after his heroes, the men who taught him to ride and rope.

"All I ever dreamed about was being a cowboy," Kleberg said. For most little boys, it would have been a far-fetched fantasy. For Kleberg, an heir to what was then the world's largest ranch and the fortune in minerals that lay beneath it, it was a modest ambition.

He learned to ride a horse at age four. At 10 he was roping cattle. He learned how to treat rattlesnake bites, work leather and mend fences. At 31, he was running the largest ranch in the world.

Tio Kleberg grew up to be just what he dreamed of — a cowboy. "He is brave. Once we were roping wild steers and a steer came straight at him," King Ranch cowboy Alberto "Lolo" Trevino remembered. "He was on a good mare, so he was able to sidestep, and he just roped that steer."

Kleberg also became a businessman in the modern sense. He has been known to track commodity prices on his computer and carry a cellular phone on horseback. He invested millions of dollars to bring the latest technological advances in genetics and agriculture to the King Ranch.

While his knowledge and technical skills are cutting edge, they did not equip him to sidestep trouble inside a climate-controlled corporate high-rise as readily as he did the advancing steer.

Friends call Tio Kleberg the last of the great South Texas patrons — in many ways little different from his father or great-great-grandfather. That proved his undoing in a corporate world that now can count the King Ranch among its assets.

Since 1853, when his great-great-grandfather Richard King carved a kingdom out of some of the most unpromising land in the American West, the King Ranch's ranching operations had been run by a family member.

From 1977 until April, that family member was Tio Kleberg. Now, two corporate officials are overseeing ranch operations — Paul Jenho, an outside executive brought in to head the livestock and ranch operations in Kingsville, and Robert J. Underbrink, a Riviera native who was formerly manager of King Ranch-Florida's citrus operations and now heads the farming operations in Belle Glade, Fla.

They were appointed by Jack Hunt, president of King Ranch Inc., the Houston executive who demanded and obtained Kleberg's resignation.

"I was completely surprised," Kleberg, 52, said. "I never thought this could have happened."

For generations, it couldn't have.

The bold, colorful characters who have controlled the 825,000 acres south of the Nueces River are as much a part of Tio Kleberg's heritage as the land. When Richard King needed cowboys to work the ranch, he brought the entire population of a Mexican village, Cruillas, to the ranch. They have stayed for generations, and their descendants, called Kinenos — King's Men — still live on the ranch.

When King's widow, Tio's great-great-grandmother Henrietta, wanted to create a town, she carved Kingsville out of her ranch.

When his uncle Bob Kleberg Jr. wanted a breed of cattle to survive the harsh conditions of South Texas, he studied genetics and created a new breed, the Santa Gertrudis.

In a family where audacity is second nature, Tio Kleberg was true to his heritage. He took control of the King Ranch's domestic ranching operations at age 31 and soon became legendary in his own right. With his bushy handlebar moustache, piercing blue eyes and his trademark unlit Henry Clay cigar which he jabs in the air emphatically when making a point, he makes an unforgettable impression.

He made a reputation as an accomplished cattleman and judge of horses. He developed the ranch's Quarterhorses, breeding the famed cutting horses Mr. San Peppy and Little San Peppy. He started a 60,000-acre farming operation, a startling break with tradition.

He opened the ranch to hunters and developed a wildlife conservation program. He created a new breed of cattle, the Santa Cruz. He started a tourism program for the ranch. But as he pursued the improvement and perpetuation of the ranch with an independent spirit that would do a cowboy proud, a corporate culture was developing within the organization.

As he grew older, the ranch's leadership became less and less a family matter. In the 1970s and 1980s the ranch corporation was run by a committee of family members headed by Jim Clement, a Princeton-educated businessman who had married into the family. In the late 1980s, the family made perhaps its most significant break with the past, voting to bring in executives from outside the family to lead the company and to serve on the board.

By the late 1980s, Tio Kleberg was the only family member living on the ranch. His cousins, B.K. Johnson and Bobby Shelton, had made bids to take over the ranch in 1974 after Bob Kleberg died, but Clement was chosen instead. Johnson sold out for $90 million and Shelton sold out for a combination of land and other assets.

Now the chairman of the board of directors is Abraham Zaleznik, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and a psychoanalyst. The president of the company is Jack Hunt, trained at Harvard Business School, who works out of the King Ranch corporate headquarters in Houston. Hunt had been head of a ranching operation in California and had studied agribusiness in business school.

The qualities in Tio Kleberg that the Kinenos revered may have led to his downfall with Hunt.

"I am very direct," he said. "I don't have difficulty making a decision. I can be very strong-willed and very demanding. In this business you have to make some decisions knowing they will probably be wrong.

"But someone has to call the shots. You have to go forward. You have to, by God, make a decision and do something." He said he understood better than Hunt what it is like to ranch in South Texas.

"I know what it is like to work in 110 degree weather when the cattle are tired and it is hot as hell and you can't get it done," Kleberg said. "If I come up and see men sitting under a tree at 4 p.m., I don't ask them what the hell they are doing. There are some things you can't learn from a book."

His differences with Hunt finally came to a head over an incident that seems minor in retrospect. Hunt asked Kleberg to look into whether the farming and ranching operations should be separated and that he head only the ranching operations, Kleberg said. Kleberg went to Florida to talk with the man who would head the farming operations and decided the time wasn't right.

"He was raising a young family and he would have to be traveling a lot," Kleberg said. " I came back to Hunt and told him I didn't think it was a good idea. I didn't realize he was giving me a directive. I thought he wanted my opinion.

"It would have been a lot easier to just say yes," Kleberg said. "But probably we would have disagreed at some point. We had had some conflicts. I'm a firm believer that when you work for someone, you should follow what they want you to do. If you don't agree with the way things are going, you need to be somewhere else."

Shortly after that, Hunt called him to a meeting in Houston and asked for his resignation.

"I told him ‘OK,’" Kleberg said.

Kleberg said that if the confrontation hadn't been over the farming operation, it would have been something else. The very directness that made Kleberg a leader in the ranching world sometimes hurt him within the corporation. Kleberg remembers when a prominent shareholder was staying at the King Ranch Main House and complained that the sun was too bright in the early morning and the peacocks disturbed his sleep.

"I told him he needed to get his ass out of bed," Kleberg recounted with a chuckle. "I told him this was a ranch, and he didn't need to be sleeping late."

It was something his famous uncle, Bob Kleberg, might have done. The nickname "Tio," Spanish for uncle, was bestowed by Kinenos who said they thought he was growing up to be like his Uncle Bob. Bob Kleberg was known for following his instincts, doing as he pleased and taking a no-nonsense attitude. He made the King Ranch the largest in the world with properties in South America, Europe and Australia. He raised the Thoroughbred Assault, which won the Triple Crown in 1946.

When he was advised by a writer to get out of Venezuela in the 1960s because terrorists were trying to overthrow the government, he asked, "You ever run away from anything?"

"Nothing that I can remember," the man answered.

"Neither have I," Kleberg said, hanging his cowboy hat on a rack at the Venezuelan ranch office and adding, "I'll need this when I come back."

Tio Kleberg's heritage didn't always serve him well. Times had changed.

"From my Uncle Bob I learned to make no excuses and just tell it like it is," Tio Kleberg said.

"In some ways he was very much like Bob Kleberg," said Bruce Cheeseman, archivist for the King Ranch for 10 years.

"I think it's a family trait. They're all like that. They are very blunt and honest and opinionated.

"Tio wasn't very corporate. Tio never suffered fools gladly. He was always direct and honest. He wasn't playing little corporate political games. He didn't choose to schmooze. As an employee, if you screwed up, you got chewed out, and if you did well, you got a pat on the back. There were no hidden agendas.

"He's never been one for a lot of small talk. In my experience, if a meeting lasted more than 30 minutes, that was too long for him. He had a way of letting you know if he thought you were being long-winded. He would stare across the table with those blue eyes as if to say there was no need to be wasting his or your time."

Some found him too blunt, Cheeseman said.

"I've seen him in corporate meetings where people asked him what he thought about something, and if he thought it was a stupid question, he wasn't above saying, ‘That was a stupid question.’

"These MBAs that are running the ranch now use a lot of business-speak. Tio talked plain English."

Kleberg was appointed to the ranch's board of directors after he resigned, and for eight years will be allowed to lease his current residence on the ranch.

In a recent telephone interview, Hunt said he doesn't think it is necessary to have a family member heading part of the ranch's operations.

"The nature of our business requires a change," Hunt said. Having Kleberg on the board will still give the corporation access to his knowledge, Hunt added. He said he had no past conflicts with Kleberg.

"I don't know what he's referring to," Hunt said. "In any management or business, people have different ideas. I don't know if it is fair to characterize it as conflicts."

But Cheeseman said he thinks Tio Kleberg lost his job in part because he questioned Hunt.

"No one really likes their directives and ideas questioned," Cheeseman said. "I don't mean constructive criticism, but in the sense of, ‘What the hell are we doing this for?’ Tio really questioned his leadership and abilities. Jack Hunt didn't take kindly to it."

Before Hunt took over as president, corporate management deferred to Tio Kleberg on local matters, Cheeseman said.

"But from the moment Jack Hunt took over, they didn't defer to Tio on anything," Cheeseman said.

Kleberg said he feels no bitterness about the turn of events. "I'm in a good place with it," Kleberg said. "I wouldn't have designed it that way.

"In some ways I feel relief. I was liking my job less and less. Before, I was spending 80 percent of my time outdoors, and lately it has been more like 20 percent."

Sitting in his living room with its view of the open ranchland, his chaps hanging on the wall, Kleberg said that his love of the land is something that can never be taken from him. His sharp blue eyes filled with sadness as he spoke of the loss of his legacy and his concern for employees. But he spoke just as often with enthusiasm and confidence in the future.

When he gathered his employees to tell them he had been asked to resign, he told them in Spanish, "They can take my body, but they can't take my soul."

"My heart and my soul are with this land and with these people," he said.

Among those people is Alberto "Lolo" Trevino, 68, a retired fourth-generation King Ranch cowboy who remembers the boy who looked up to Kinenos with respect and admiration. "He is a cowboy, just like anybody else," Trevino said.

"I remember him from a little boy. We had to teach him everything, and now he is teaching people. We could only talk to him in Spanish, so he would learn."

His training by the Kinenos is one of the most cherished parts of Kleberg's upbringing.

"Spanish was my first language," said Kleberg, who also became fluent in Portuguese through his work with the ranch's Brazilian operations.

"I had two mentors who were about my father's age," he said. "One taught me sense of duty and obligation, that if you started a task, you finished it. They wouldn't bring me home early if I was tired just because I was the boss's son.

"From the other I learned how to be light in life, to be a practical joker, not to take life so seriously. I'm an eternal optimist."

The value of a close relationship with the Kinenos was something he learned from his father, Dick Kleberg.

"He was fair, and he wasn't tough. People say it is important to be tough and fair, but he was very caring. He taught me the importance of seeing that the people were taken care of properly."

Noelia Torrez, whose father worked for 50 years as a butler at the Main House, said Tio and Janell Kleberg are always there to help employees who need them.

"They are paying my college tuition," she said. "They have done so much. There are 15 in my family, and the Klebergs are taking care of everything."

Cheeseman said Kleberg is the last and best vestige of the old South Texas patron system.

"I think he represented the best in terms of taking care of people," Cheeseman said. "No worker couldn't sit down in his office and say, ‘Boss, I need help.’ Tio wouldn't say, ‘No, you didn't make an appointment.’ He was on call 24 hours a day. He never had an unlisted number.

"Those people on the ranch look to him for leadership and direction. Those people were part of his life. I don't think any corporate suit in Houston has a clue as to what that means."

Kleberg said his immediate plans are to stay on the ranch and to become more involved in community activities in Kingsville. But he doesn't know what the future will hold.

"I had a friend who was in a similar situation and he told me to just take a year and see what happens," he said. "I think that was good advice. I have been so focused on work that I haven't really looked around at all that was around me. I am just going to take a year and be open to what develops."

His only immediate plans are to attend all nine of his son Jay's football games at Williams College.

"We are going to spend a lot of the fall in New England, going to games and then taking trips to look at the leaves and visit friends," he said.

He said the loss of his job has made him more aware of life's essentials.

"That is health, friends, family and faith," he said. "Those are the cornerstones. The events and experiences of your life are just filler. And I have had some great experiences. I have intelligent children, I have a beautiful wife. I want to spend more time with them."

He said his faith has helped survive the loss of a job and of a legacy.

"Having faith in a higher power is very important. It has helped me get through the darker times in these past months. I don't believe you have to go to church. God's world is right out there," he said, gesturing to the pasture outside his house.

He said that each morning he drinks coffee and reads Scripture while preparing for his day, a practice he has followed for 20 years.

"I try to let God guide me because I know that in the course of the day, I'm going to want to do it my way, and will screw it up," Kleberg said.

Kleberg said he will make himself available to those who will run the ranch in the future.

"If people have questions or need help, they can come to me," he said. "That is one good thing about being on the board, and about living here."

But he says that he won't be working cattle or participating in roundups — the work he loved most. "That's not my place anymore," he said. "I could, as a shareholder and a board member. But it's kind of a love-hate relationship. I love the people, but if I work here, who would I be helping?"

Only if Hunt is removed as president would Kleberg consider returning to his former job, he said.

Kleberg said he thinks that stockholders have enough feeling for the King Ranch in South Texas not to sell it off anytime soon, but that he isn't sure how long the piece of land he has devoted his life to will remain intact.

Cheeseman isn't so sure.

"I have this terrible feeling in my stomach and heart and head, that it has all been diminished. It's another investment, it's another return; vis a vis Tio Kleberg — he's expendable. He is one of the most honest men I have ever known. He is a straight shooter. In this complicated world, honesty can get you in trouble."

Kleberg said he is sad that his children can't look forward to the possibility of succeeding him. His son, Chris, will go to Brazil this month to head up the ranch's operations there, a decision made before Kleberg resigned.

"No, it's over," he said, his voice suddenly brusque.

"It's the end of an era. History will say how it turned out."

The King Ranch without the Klebergs will be hard to imagine, said Trevino, the Kineno.

"It will be very strange to be on a roundup to look behind us and to look in front of us and our friend is not there."




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