A fundamental knowledge of golf is generally accepted as required knowledge in the business world. In the Lone Star State, though, it’s wise to know the in’s and out’s of a Remington as well as a Big Bertha.
Contracts are negotiated and mergers contemplated in the gleaming skyscrapers of Houston and Dallas, but the handshake often comes hundreds of miles away in the country, devoid of anything but a duck blind.
It can be more important than an MBA from the right school. In Texas, the hunting trip is the deal-closing equivalent of a few hours on the fairway.
It was at such occasion that Vice President Dick Cheney, a guest at the 50,000-acre Armstrong ranch, when he accidentally shot Harry Whittington, a 78-year-old hunting companion while on a weekend quail hunt. Whittington, an Austin attorney, was recovering Monday and described in "very stable" condition.
Ranch lease better than any country club membership
“It’s just a big part of the Southern culture,” says Alex Brennan-Martin, owner of Brennan’s restaurant in Houston. “You cover a tremendous range of topics with someone walking in the quail field or riding on the back of a truck. You can really get to know someone, and that’s valuable in business.”
It exists in other states, particularly in the South, but has been perfected deep in the heart of Texas, where a thousand-acre ranch is modest and a hunting lease — often passed down from generation to generation — can be a bigger prize than the most expensive country club membership.
And like a country club, they don't come cheap. The largest ranches are as plush as exclusive resorts, with private airstrips and luxury accommodations. Staffers outfit guests with guns and gear, drive the Range Rover and, later, serve a gourmet meal.
Cheney was the guest of Katharine Armstrong, the daughter of Tobin Armstrong, a politically connected rancher who has been a guest at the White House and spent 48 years as director of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. He died in October. Cheney was among the dignitaries who attended his funeral.
Armstrong said Cheney is a longtime friend who comes to the ranch to hunt about once a year.
Offers insight into personality
Whether it’s quail or deer or dove, many Texans believe the hunt is how business is done because it provides one-on-one contact in a relaxed environment and, like golf, is an opportunity to nurture relationships.
“You can compress about six months to a year of knowing someone in a business environment in about 24 to 48 hours on a hunting trip,” says Houston mortgage banker Robert Wagnon.
“Typically, on a hunt, I get to see someone after they eat, before they go to bed. I see them interact with colleagues and support people and with a dog. That’s valuable insight into their personalities,” says Wagnon.
“I frequently take clients on hunting trips,” says Bill Swisher, a securities industry executive in Dallas. “I can learn a great deal about an individual while hunting.”
Swisher says he can glean much of someone’s character by watching to see if he shoots game on the ground instead of in the air, giving it a sporting chance. “I can learn about a client’s ethics by watching how he handles shooting over a limit or not.”
And hunting is not just for the ‘good ole boys’
Brokerages, law firms and oil companies entertain clients on hunting trips or offer them to employees in reward for service. Some view them as integral to corporate life as board meetings, annual reviews and holiday parties.
It extends beyond the boardroom. A Texas art museum raises funds during an annual his-and-hers sporting clay competition. A Houston hostess routinely invites guests to her family’s hunting lodge — a three hours’ drive and what the ladies say feels like a million miles from the daily dish of carpools and after-school activities.
“It’s hard to get away to see your friends, so I use the lodge as a chance to get everyone together and do something I love,” says Fay Kirby, a mother of three who’s been hunting since she was eight.
“It’s just what we do in this part of the country,” says restaurateur Brennan-Martin, who hunts several times a year.
“Bottom line, I believe Texans like the competition of hunting and making a good shot,” says Bill Swisher, “just like in golf.”