Written by ENTREPRENEURS, as reprinted in The Des Moines Register—
Frank and L.E. Phillips struck it rich– not from Iowa’s cornfields, but from the oil fields of Oklahoma.
Entrepreneurs– The brothers worked well together as business partners, with Frank’s business acumen complementing L.E.’s organizational skills. While Frank, the president of Phillips Petroleum, was outgoing and assured, L.E., the vice president, shunned the spotlight. The brothers, who were descendants of Capt. Miles Standish, made efforts to find oil in southern Iowa, but were unsuccessful. Frank was fascinated with aviation and established one of the first corporate aviation departments in the nation.
They founded the Phillips Petroleum Co.– Phillips 66. Frank was the visionary who blazed the trail. He was born Nov. 28, 1873, in Scotia, Neb., but came to Iowa before he was a year old. His parents, Lewis Phillips, a farmer and magistrate, and his wife, Lucinda Josephine (called Josie), were driven out of Nebraska by a horde of grasshoppers. The scourge prompted them to load up their daughters and infant son in a covered wagon and return to their roots in Iowa, settling not in Mitchellville this time, but on a 40-acre farm near Conway, in the Bedford area.
Lee Eldas -who always was called by his initials, L.E. -was born on the family farm Aug. 8, 1876. Frank attended local schools and worked hard on the farm, but when he was 14, he visited Creston and noticed that the barbers wore flashy striped pants. He became a barber’s apprentice so he could wear such pants and within eight years owned the six-chair Creston barbershop. Soon he owned all three barbershops in town. “I was the best damned barber in Iowa,” Frank later boasted. In 1897, with business success, he married the girl of his dreams, Jane Gibson, the daughter of a banker, who saw his son-in-law’s potential and invited him to join him in business, selling bonds.
In 1903, when Frank heard about the oil boom in Oklahoma, which was then called Indian Territory, he decided to go. Settling in the tent city of Bartlesville, he founded a bank, started drilling for oil and had a gusher in 1904. He sent for brother L.E., who had been a schoolteacher, insurance salesman and coal dealer in Creston, as well as a coal-mine operator near Oskaloosa without much success.
But by 1915, Frank and L.E., who then were in business with younger brother Waite, decided banking was more lucrative than oil and sold most of their oil holdings. When World War I sent oil prices soaring, they reversed their decision. “Hell,” said Frank, “we’re not bankers; we’re oil men!” Waite went his own successful way after a falling out with older brother Frank. Frank and L.E. created the Lewcinda Oil Co. (named for their parents), had another gusher and founded the Phillips Petroleum Co. in 1917. At one point, the two brothers drilled 81 straight gushers.
A decade after they founded Phillips Petroleum, the company was a $143 million venture, producing 23 million barrels of oil a year and branching out into refineries and new products. In 1927 came the first of 1,700 filling stations across the country, all designed like small cottages so they would blend in residential neighborhoods. While the Depression delivered a blow, the brothers settled their differences with Waite and developed a joint venture with his Independent Oil & Gas Co. in 1930.
Frank, who traveled extensively, had primary residences in Bartlesville and in New York City, where he had a long-term lease on the top floor of the Ambassador Hotel. Near Bartlesville he also had his 17,000-acre ranch “Woolaroc.”
The name was a combination of “woods-lake-rocks.” The brothers returned to Iowa frequently to visit their mother, who lived in Gravity, a sister, Jennie Coan, who lived in Des Moines, and other relatives. In 1934, Frank arrived for a Des Moines visit in his private Rock Island Railroad car; the next year he was back in his new $80,000 Boeing “club” plane. In 1943 he described himself as “just a country boy from Creston, Iowa, who once pulled all the cockleburs in Union County.”
In 1947, Frank was in Des Moines to receive the 33rd degree of the Masonic Lodge at the Scottish Rite Consistory, his original Masonic lodge. “I regard Iowa as my home state,” he said.
“I owe a great deal to the people of Iowa.”
Visiting Iowa in 1929, L.E. said he was a graduate of “McGuffey’s Institute of Learning,” referring to the popular text used in grammar schools. And in 1939, he was back to enjoy his first Iowa State Fair, saying that he had been too poor as a boy to attend. He was particularly interested in Poland China hogs, which he raised on a model farm near Bartlesville.
L.E., who retired from the company in 1934, died at Bartlesville in April 1944 at age 67, a year after suffering a stroke. “Uncle Frank,” as he was affectionately known, resigned as president in 1937 and stepped down as chairman of the board in 1944. In 1950, he was spending the summer with friends in Atlantic City, N.J., when he was stricken with a gallbladder ailment and died Aug. 23, at age 76, with an estate valued at only $8 million because he had already distributed millions of dollars to charities.
Frank and Jane had one son, John Gibson Phillips, but in 1918 became guardians of two orphaned sisters. In 1902, L.E. married Leonora Carr of Bedford. They had two sons, Lee Eldas Jr. and Phillip Rex.