Putting down roots

A career in the oil exploration business took Luke Corbett all over the world, but at home he’s known as Mr. Oklahoma

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Luke Corbett. Photo by Kelly Simmons

When Luke Corbett left UGA in 1970 he knew he wasn’t going home to Pearson.

The tiny south Georgia town, with fewer than 2,000 residents, had little to offer other than farming. Corbett (BS ’70) hoped to put his math degree to work as a geophysicist.

“I learned early on if you have options and opportunity you can have a lot of fun in your life,” Corbett says.

He has had a lot of all three in his 30-year career.

In 2006, Corbett retired as CEO and chairman of Kerr-McGee Corporation, a worldwide oil and gas exploration and production company that he led to record earnings. When the company was acquired that year by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Corbett had been at its helm for more than 10 years. He remains a member of the board of Anadarko and OGE Energy Corporation.

Becoming the head of one of the world’s top oil companies was not what Corbett expected when he left Georgia after graduation. Engaged to Becky Rountree (BS ’72), a St. Simons native he met during a math study session, Corbett’s first job was as an engineering assistant for Western Electric, which would later become Lucent Technology.

“I hated it,” Corbett recalls of the job that required countless hours at a desk.

With the Vietnam War in full swing, and holding a low draft number, Corbett decided he would join the Marine Air Corps Reserves. But before he signed up, he got a call from Pan American Petroleum. They were looking for a geophysicist for the New Orleans office. His interview—coincidentally with a fellow Georgian who grew up just eight miles from Corbett’s hometown—resulted in a job offer. “That was an eye-opener to a guy from Pearson, Ga.,” he says of New Orleans. He stayed with the company 11 years, becoming one of four regional head geophysicists in the country.

That was the starting point for a series of jobs that had Corbett climbing the corporate ladder and moving throughout the mid- and southwest. Between 1970 and 1985, when Corbett joined Kerr-McGee, he and Becky lived in New Orleans, Tulsa, Chicago and Houston, with Corbett holding management and vice president level jobs, and traveling throughout the U.S and world.

They were settled in Houston, living with their two children in suburban Woodlands, for five years when it become evident to Corbett that they would have to move again. The company he worked for, Aminoil, was being sold.

“I had always told Becky, regardless of where we are don’t put roots down, we may have to go again,” he says. “They had put roots down in Woodlands.”

When a job as a geophysicist came through with Kerr-McGee, the family moved again, this time to Oklahoma City.

“In business, you reach different levels, you set different goals,” he says. “I knew I wanted to be in some higher level of management.”

Carrie, then 9, and Brad, 5, were easily bribed.

“If you’ll go and try to be happy I’ll buy a home with a pool,” Corbet says he promised. “We were leaving Houston with everybody crying. I’m feeling like the biggest jerk in the world. Becky didn’t speak to me for a year.”

But soon they began putting down roots in Oklahoma, becoming active in civic and sporting events. Corbett was appointed to the Oklahoma State Board of Education and was active in trying to improve K-12 education in that state. 

The Georgia grads adopted Oklahoma University and bought a sky suite for home football games. Now a devoted Sooner fan, Becky has the front door of their house wreathed in red and black decorations and small OU flags.

Corbett moved up the ladder quickly at Kerr-McGee, becoming president and CEO in 1995, and chairman and CEO in 1999 after Kerr-McGee’s merger with Oryx Energy Company in 1999. The company that had $3.6 billion in assets when Corbett arrived had $18 billion when he retired in 2006.

In 2007, Corbett and partners purchased a game ranch in South Africa. An avid hunter—heads and skins of big game fill his two-story home office—he travels frequently to the 75,000 acre ranch “eZulu,” which means “African Heaven” in Xhosa, the dominant tribe in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

“I lived the American dream,” he says. “I’ve experienced the good times, the bad times and the ugly times. It’s all about your faith and your family and your friends.”