McClendon’s American Energy says it will continue operations

American Energy Partners, the firm created by Aubrey McClendon, said it would continue its work despite its founder’s death in a car crash Wednesday.

“While all of the employees at AELP are deeply saddened by this tragic event, we are firm in our conviction that Aubrey would want us to persevere and continue his extraordinary legacy of innovation and creativity,” the Oklahoma City-based company said in a statement on its website Thursday.

McClendon, former chief executive officer at Chesapeake Energy Corp., died after the SUV he was driving slammed into an Oklahoma City bridge embankment a day after he was charged with rigging bids during his time at Chesapeake. His loss fueled speculation about American Energy Partners, the company he started with private-equity investments after he was fired from Chesapeake in 2013.

One of the venture’s biggest financial backers, The Energy & Minerals Group, was moving to cut ties with McClendon even before the grand jury indictment this week, a person familiar with the matter said Wednesday.

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McClendon had raised $14 billion from Energy & Minerals, First Reserve Corp. and others and hired more than 450 people, according to American Energy Partners’ website. The business, for which he served as chairman and CEO, created several limited liability corporations to extract oil and natural gas from shale rocks, the technique known as fracking that had helped Chesapeake’s market value soar to more than $35 billion.

Without its principal owner and chief fundraiser, American Energy Partners’ survival “looks difficult,” Marcus Rowland, McClendon’s long-time friend and a former chief financial officer at Chesapeake, said in a phone interview. “AEP and Aubrey are synonymous in my mind and in most people’s minds.”

In the statement, three American Energy Partners executives said they would continue despite the “tremendous void” left by their former boss, who was 56.

“One of Aubrey’s many skills was recruiting, motivating and retaining the industry’s strongest talent and each of the businesses that Aubrey created with EMG is led by a dedicated management team that is positioned for success in the years to come,” executives including Chief Financial Officer Scott Mueller said in the statement.

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McClendon was indicted by a federal grand jury on March 1, accused of working with another company to depress the price of drilling rights in Oklahoma. Prior to his death, he said he would fight the charges. None of the allegations involved his time at American Energy Partners.

The Energy & Minerals Group, a Houston-based private-equity firm led by John Raymond, was working on a plan to be completely independent of McClendon by the end of the month, and as of Feb. 26 the shale pioneer no longer had a leadership role at any of the companies created by the firm and American Energy, according to the person familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private investments.

McClendon’s role at American Energy began to change in January 2015, when a lieutenant became CEO of one of the units, American Energy Appalachia Holdings. Before his death, McClendon had agreed not to seek a board seat on any of the ventures he’d formed with Energy & Minerals, including Ascent Resources, Traverse Midstream Partners and four other companies, the person said. The timing of those moves was not based on the indictment, that person added.

McClendon had no management role in companies that First Reserve Corp., another private-equity backer, had invested in, according to another person familiar with the matter.

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In a statement Thursday, Energy & Minerals Group praised McClendon.

“Aubrey’s extraordinary talent and leadership in forming and ultimately guiding each business and management team to independence with such success and scale is unprecedented,” CEO John Raymond said. “We will greatly miss his perspective.”

McClendon had sought to recreate his Chesapeake magic through American Energy Partners, a closely held entity based near the seat of his former empire in northeast Oklahoma City. Yet market values plunged as the industry’s success in producing shale gas led to a glut of the fuel. Undaunted, the new venture amassed drilling rights on hundreds of thousands of acres, including positions as far flung as Australia and Argentina.

McClendon signed a deal in January to start oil and gas development in Argentina’s Vaca Muerta shale resource. As part of that agreement, the company is obliged to raise 72 percent of the initial $447 million cost before June 2018, according to a person familiar with the deal who asked not to be identified because the terms are confidential.

The collapse in commodity prices darkened the outlook for McClendon to pay returns to his investors. Bonds sold by some American Energy entities have plunged to about 15 cents on the dollar, according to Trace, the bond-price reporting system of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

One of several units formed as part of the venture, American Energy – Permian Basin, lured junk-bond investors in November with one of the highest yields in the U.S. market last year. The unit sold $530 million of notes at par to yield 13 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s $30 million less than the bond sale it attempted in October as investors demanded yields exceeding 10 percent from the struggling oil and gas producer.

The companies spun off from American Energy Partners will probably survive while the fate of other, less mature ventures will depend on their individual circumstances, said Rowland, who left Chesapeake in 2010 and went on to found IOG Capital, a Dallas-based energy investment firm.

“He was a great hirer of high-quality people,” Rowland said. “I’m sure all of those people are wondering now what comes next.”

Pablo Gonzalez contributed.