A Giant tale of rise and ruin - East Valley Tribune: Business

A Giant tale of rise and ruin

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Posted: Sunday, April 1, 2007 7:31 am | Updated: 6:54 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Jim Acridge angrily, proudly, sadly told the story of his rise as an oil baron and fall into bankruptcy.

He hissed out names of those he believes wronged him, recalled with pleasure his creation of Giant Industries and ownership of Rawhide Western Town and Steakhouse, and mournfully detailed the pains and indignities inflicted upon his family and himself. There are many pains and indignities, too, inevitable when his current debt stands at $5 million, plus interest.

On the cusp of his 67th birthday, Acridge still carried himself with the intensity and direct manner that built an empire.

That empire — with its gas stations, refineries, commercial property, a concert hall and famed theme park — is gone; Friday marked the fifth anniversary of his firing as Giant’s president and CEO.

Also lost is Acridge’s faith in his fellow man.

“What I feel most of all is, how crummy people are,” Acridge said. “I’m ashamed to say that, but I’m disappointed in people.”

Acridge lobbed accusations against conniving business partners, fairweather friends and the corrupt bankruptcy court system. In leveling charges, he used words like “putrid,” “pathetic” and “absolutely ridiculous.” He called a current Giant executive “a snake” and an attorney he fired was “a buffoon.” The entire experience, he said, was like “being raped.”

His bitterness isn’t returned.

Vince Ontiveros, Rawhide vice president under Acridge, said he wrote off $3,000 borrowed by his former employer. It was a loan that upset Acridge because he said Ontiveros asked for a signed note and interest payments, when he earlier had loaned Ontiveros $25,000 interest-free.

“Jim is Jim, and you can’t let how he feels about things get in the way of reality – and the reality is Jim was good to a whole bunch of people, me included,” Ontiveros said.

Added attorney Tom Littler, who once represented Acridge and Rawhide: “I liked Jim. If I saw him today, I’d buy him dinner or a drink. He was a very nice guy. I loved working with him — except he was having difficulties with the demands of multiple bankruptcies.”

Suicide, as a way out, has crept into Acridge’s mind more than once, he admitted.

“I’ve never been a quitter,” Acridge said. “If you ask me how I built the company I built, it’s because I never gave up on stuff if I believe in it.

“But there is a point where you can’t knock down the wall beating your head against it, and I’m finding that out.”

GIANT RISING

A fall is impossible without a rise.

His story began in 1965, at a Phoenix gas station. Acridge, then 25, had been leasing a smaller Richfield Oil filling station in the Valley for four years — but the business at 16th Street and Broadway Road was his alone. Acridge named it Giant.

More stations followed, and Acridge established himself as a trendsetter. He built selfservice facilities where soothing music played over speaker systems. By 1973, Giant had expanded to include 12 self-serve stations and was pumping more than a million gallons of gasoline per month.

A severe oil crisis began late that year, exacerbating Giant’s existing problems with its fuel supplier. But Acridge had a solution: to ensure a steady flow of gas, Giant built an oil refinery in New Mexico.

As years passed, market pressures forced Giant to close many Valley stations and focus on its rural facilities. But Acridge’s innovations continued: He built small convenience stores into Giant’s stations and opened a huge truck stop near Gallup, N.M.

In 1989, Acridge took Giant public. That same year, the company moved into a new headquarters building in Scottsdale.

By the late 1990s, Giant was a petroleum power in the Southwest and Acridge was at the pinnacle of his career.

BOARD ACTS

On March 29, 2002, Acridge and his wife’s family were vacationing at his Mexico home. But instead of enjoying Good Friday with relatives, Acridge was on a conference call with Giant’s board of directors as they decided whether he would be furloughed or fired.

“It was like you and your wife call your 8-year-old son in, sit him down and talk like he’s not there. ‘You think we should give him a spanking? You think we should ground him for a month?’” Acridge said.

Acridge’s trouble began in 1998, when a merger with a refining company went sour and the oil market headed south. Giant’s stock lost more than half its value in a five-month span — and would stay down for the next five years.

That year also saw Acridge make a business decision that, for better and worse, exposed him to the public: he bought Rawhide, Scottsdale’s faux-Wild West town. To help with financing, he asked Giant for a $4 million loan.

“The oil business is a tough business, but this was fun,” Acridge said. “It was something that gave you pleasure.”

Acridge proudly spoke of the improvements he made at Rawhide and his treatment of employees. But “fun” didn’t always translate into “easy.”

He quickly tired of tour buses dropping off loads of passengers for two-hour visits, and then driving those same people to other restaurants for dinner. So in 2000, Rawhide began charging admission.

“They were taking advantage of all the things we offered for free, and that wasn’t right,” Acridge said. “I had this philosophy that anything that was free would be treated like it didn’t have any value.”

There also was a run-in with the city over an 80-foot carnival ride built without the proper permits. The city took Rawhide to court and the ride was dismantled after a month.

Ontiveros remembered that incident as typical of Acridge’s managerial style: “He didn’t get permission for it and he got nailed. Jim just said, ‘Build it.’”

“The thing that finally buried me was 9/11,” Acridge said. “We had 185 booked and deposited groups, and they canceled.”

In the days before that fateful Good Friday phone call, Acridge knew something was up. Yet it was only during the conference call that he realized Giant was letting him go.

“They finally said to me, ‘Do you have anything to say?’” Acridge recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I got a lot to say.’”

Acridge was fired that night. Within two weeks, Giant’s stock was trading at a price not seen since 1998.

He now thinks former associates, men he hired, had conspired to oust him so they could take over.

Giant officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

LIQUIDATION

“I should’ve never gone into bankruptcy,” Acridge lamented. It’s one of his many regrets over the last five years.

Acridge insisted he had assets worth more than enough to pay off all his creditors. When they were sold off, why were they undervalued? he demanded to know.

“I’m telling you, there’s some money under the table,” Acridge said.

He gave the example of 24 gold-plated ivory-handled revolvers he commissioned in honor of the Arizona Rangers — had the judge ordered the gunsmith to finish the set as Acridge had paid for, the collection would’ve been worth far more than it was appraised.

“Bankruptcy court also protects creditors; it’s not just debtor-oriented,” Littler said. “That’s where he had problems.”

Acridge tried rallying, going back to his roots in 2004 with a single Phoenix gas station. But it was undercapitalized and closed after a year.

Currently, he works as a consultant for U-Haul International.

Ontiveros expressed no doubt his former boss possesses the fortitude necessary to get back on his feet. But he wondered if Acridge could adapt to today’s business climate.

“It’s not 1969 anymore,” Ontiveros said. “There are certain rules you have to go by, and Jim didn’t feel he had to go by the rules.”

Acridge has fallen far from his days as a giant. He said he’s sold his clothes, lives in a “shoebox,” is separated from his wife.

Acridge gave one more example that must be the bitterest of ironies: He’s more than once found himself so poor he couldn’t afford to fill his car with gas.

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