Hellen Reasoner got her first big break in 1972, putting together a land project in North Texas.
She had been doing the paperwork that landmen handle for years, but she was still officially a legal secretary in Wichita Falls, and as a single mother with four kids, the chance to make more money sounded pretty good.
Convinced she was ready by Tom Hutchison, the geologist and independent oilman who hired her for the job, Reasoner sent five men to start leasing mineral rights in Haskell County.
But when she pulled into Haskell County to join her crew, the motel desk clerk refused to tell her what rooms they had booked.
The sexual revolution had not yet reached that corner of the state, nor had the idea that women could hold positions previously held only by men.
Getting the job done
Reasoner, however, had a job to do.
“I recognized their pickups and started knocking on doors,” she said.
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Landmen negotiate with landowners to create the leases that allow oil and gas companies to work on private land. And as the title suggests, it long was a man’s world, although Marty Schardt, executive vice president of the American Association of Professional Landmen, said the name really is a shorthand job description for “land manager.”
The semantics didn’t matter to Reasoner, now Hellen Reasoner Hutchison. She married Tom Hutchison in 1975.
“I wanted to be called a landman,” she said. “It’s what I am.”
About a third of the members of the American Association of Professional Landmen are women, and Schardt said the numbers are growing, but Hutchison said she was the first when she joined in 1973.
By the time the organization named her Landman of the Year in 1997, Hutchison and her husband had moved to Houston, where she still maintains an office.
“She ran in a man’s profession when women weren’t there,” said Jerry Ritter, a landman at Cobra Oil and Gas in Wichita Falls, who worked for Hutchison off and on.
“If you were a good-looking woman like Hellen, you definitely had a leg up,” Ritter said. “But even if you were a lady, you still had to know what you were doing.”
Now, at 78 and battling the bad knees that are a legacy of years on her feet in courthouse clerks’ offices, Hutchison thinks about how the job has been changed by technology, and what has remained the same.
“You still have to go out and deal with people, that personal contact,” she said.
“It was hard work, but I miss it.”
‘The lady from Texas’
If she ever wants to know what’s happening in the field, however, she doesn’t have to look far.
Her sons, a former daughter-in-law and a granddaughter all followed her into the business.
“Some people say, ‘What’s a landman?’” said granddaughter Rachel Reasoner, 27, who entered the field in 2011.”I never had that question because I grew up with my whole family being one.”
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Even now, relatively few women in the business run their own firms, but Hutchison did from the start.
“It was new to the oil and gas business world, but I think the farmers trusted women more than they did men,” she said. “I’ve been in a lot of situations where they’d say, I think we’ll go with the lady.”
And she said women are good at thinking outside the box.
She was working in Nebraska in 1980, and land was leasing for $1 an acre.
She didn’t want to pay more, but she wanted to stand out.
“I thought, why not offer cash?”
As in dollar bills.
The local bank initially balked but Hutchison said she eventually convinced officials there to order the additional cash, and her crew prepared to hand out $1 bills as the leases were signed.
“People said, We’re going with the lady from Texas who is paying in dollar bills.”
She didn’t win them all, of course.
There was the landowner who signed with another company after asking Hutchison to attend church with his family for three weeks in a row. To make it worse, he used Hutchison’s lease.
Others simply said “no.”
“That’s business,” Hutchison said.
Growing up in Burkburnett, north of Wichita Falls near the Oklahoma border, she said becoming a landman was a logical move.
“That was the original boomtown,” she said.
She began working for a law firm in Wichita Falls after graduating from high school in 1951, and soon was handling much of the paperwork that leasing entailed.
Two decades later, divorced and ready for a challenge, she entered the field in earnest.
A few other women were doing the same.
Joan Burk, now retired and living in Houston, became a landman around 1970 and joined the American Association of Professional Landmen soon after Hutchison.
The women’s paths crossed at professional meetings and parties, but they never worked together. Hutchison had her own businesses and worked with her husband at his. Tom Hutchison died in 1998.
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Burk and her husband, landman Bryan Burk, also ran a company together, Burk Properties, but she said she never thought of herself as breaking the glass ceiling.
In fact, when she joined the Dallas landmen’s organization, Burk would wait until after the cocktail hour before arriving for the meetings.
“I just wanted to be inconspicuous and accepted,” she said.
Hutchison advised the women who worked for her to skip cocktail hours, too. “It just didn’t look good,” she said.
That wasn’t her style.
She hired her own crews, cut her own deals, even flew her own planes.
“She’s a fiery blonde,” Ritter said. “She went to Conoco, to Phillips, to the big companies and said, ‘I’m your man.’”
That was before the 2002 merger of Conoco and Phillips Petroleum, when Hutchison and other independent landmen looked to the big oil companies for in-house work when leasing was slow.
She and Hutchison married in 1975 during a rare break from work; they immediately headed for different areas of Oklahoma to continue working, meeting on weekends.
“At our house, work came first,” she said. “It was lots of fun.”
In the early days, Hutchison said, she put her younger children in the back of her station wagon as she drove through Texas and Oklahoma on hot summer days, checking on her crews and talking with landowners.
So it was little surprise that her three sons, as well as Tom’s son from his first marriage, ended up as landmen. “They grew up in it, and it was all they knew,” she said.
Her oldest son, Rick L. Reasoner, started as a roughneck after graduating from high school in 1971.
“Tom said, ‘You ought to try the land business,’” he said. “‘It’s a lot easier, and probably better money.’”
Rick Reasoner did, ultimately working all over the United States before retiring and passing the torch to his daughter.
Rachel Reasoner lives in Wichita Falls, and even 13 years after Hellen Hutchison left town, people haven’t forgotten.
“The first project I had, I was doing some mapping, and her name was all over the map,” Rachel Reasoner said.
That seemed fitting. “She’s a very smart, very strong-willed, ambitious businessperson. She gets what she wants.”
What Hutchison wants, at least sometimes, is to still be in the thick of things, in the country’s hottest shale plays.
She’s not, although she hasn’t completely retired.
“I still have a few people that call me,” she said. “I don’t take any big lease plays anymore.”
She pauses for a minute, lost in thought.
“I’d like to, though.”