Under the Radar

The unassuming Frank Hill closes multimillion-dollar deals and has helped bring the NBA to OKC … twice 

Published in 2009 Oklahoma Super Lawyers — November 2009

When the Oklahoma City Thunder took to the court in Ford Center for its opening game on the night of October 29, 2008, nearly 19,000 enthusiastic basketball fans packed the arena to welcome their team to its new home. Few among those spectators would have recognized the name of Frank D. Hill, who was seated among them. Fewer still would have realized the vital role that Hill, as counsel for the team, played in helping to bring NBA basketball to Oklahoma City.

Which is just fine for a man who prefers to fly under the radar.

During the previous three years, the metamorphosis of the Seattle SuperSonics into the Oklahoma City Thunder had come through an exhausting, intensely publicized struggle. As Thunder chairman and co-owner Clay Bennett is quick to note, “The NBA is a highly dynamic, very competitive enterprise.” And throughout the involved legal process of turning Oklahoma City’s hoop dreams into reality, Bennett says, Frank Hill was in the thick of it all, bringing “good judgment, sound reason and a thoughtful approach to the issues.”

But that wasn’t Hill’s first foray into the legal mechanics of professional basketball. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Frank and fellow McAfee & Taft attorney Rick Riggs were hired by the NBA to assist the league in negotiating the terms for moving the New Orleans Hornets to Oklahoma City for two seasons while the team’s home city struggled to get back on its feet. In many ways, the process served as training wheels for the firm to represent a permanent NBA franchise.

Just blocks from the arena, Hill’s sunny office in Leadership Square is remarkably unostentatious for a man who has worked on some of the most important, headline-grabbing business deals in the state. The furnishings are largely buried beneath hedgerows of paperwork, with a liberal salting of cherished family photos and assorted sports-related memorabilia. But sports are only one corner of his world—a world that he likes to keep low-key. At a recent interview, almost the first words out of his mouth were, “The limelight is not where I like to be.”

Even so, in the conference rooms of entrepreneurs across the state and beyond, Hill could not be more high-profile.

In an age when major deals are cut by skilled teams rather than individuals, Hill, a shareholder at his firm, is a recognized leader. For the SuperSonics/Thunder transactions alone, the team—co-led by attorney Martin Stringer—included  Jim Webb (litigation), Rick Riggs (real property), Cheryl Vinall Denney (corporate), Mike Lauderdale (employment matters) and many others.

Perhaps the most high-profile example of his work is still in the making: Devon Energy Corporation’s new world headquarters is set to begin construction in the fall of 2009. The 54-story, million-square-foot high-rise will change the face of downtown Oklahoma City. As lead outside counsel, Hill’s fingerprints—invisible to the general public—are all over the convoluted array of real estate transactions that are bringing the project to fruition.

J. Larry Nichols, chairman and CEO of Devon, calls Hill “critical” to clearing the way for the mammoth construction project. “This endeavor is a hugely complicated process because of the incredible number of governmental entities that are involved.” Nichols, an attorney himself, refers to Hill as “a lawyer’s lawyer.”

Indeed, Hill’s reputation has been built upon a broad foundation of complicated deals, for which he seems to have a singular talent. “He keeps 50 balls in the air all the time, and catches every one of them,” says attorney John Michael Williams, of Williams, Box, Forshee & Bullard. As outside counsel for economic development for Oklahoma City, Williams has worked extensively with Hill on the Devon Energy Tower transaction and numerous other projects. “The transactions that Frank works on—they close,” he says.

Those transactions include a multi-phase development by MROTC Development Partners of an aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul technology center adjacent to Tinker Air Force Base.  (The Boeing Company anchors the first phase.) Hill also was involved in the acquisition of property by the OU Foundation that led to the construction of the National Weather Center in Norman. And just last summer, he worked with Marshall County to establish a $300 million-plus tax increment finance district to facilitate development at Lake Texoma State Park by Pointe Vista Development, which plans to replace the old lodge and other facilities with a regional destination resort, convention center and planned residential community.

As principal outside counsel for the University of Oklahoma Foundation, Hill was a key player in the purchase of a BP Amoco Oil Company research center that was transformed into the OU Tulsa campus. OU President David Boren’s appreciation of that effort is evident: “Frank Hill’s legal expertise has been of immeasurable value to the University’s outreach mission,” Boren says. “His assistance in acquiring what is now known as the OU-Tulsa Schusterman Center helped pave the way to enhance OU’s presence in Tulsa and to expand educational, research and patient care programs in northeastern Oklahoma.”

The stressful atmosphere of major deal-cutting is not for the faint of heart. Under the strain, tempers have been known to flare as emotions run high. Table-pounding can ensue. But that isn’t Hill’s style. Clay Bennett uses words such as “effective” and “respected” to describe him.

Martin Stringer agrees.

Before joining McAfee & Taft four years ago, Stringer worked on the other side of the table from Hill on many occasions. While promoting the interests of opposing clients, Stringer says, “we always were able to reach an accommodation, which I believe benefited both sides. Frank comes from the school that if one side gets too good a deal, it will end up being a bad deal. I think Frank’s ability to assess what is a fair deal between two parties is unique.”

As a facilitator of major transactions, Hill honed his skills at McAfee & Taft, which he joined in the 1970s well before the firm had grown to be Oklahoma’s largest.  He was recruited by the late Stewart Mark and Gary Fuller.  It’s been a good fit. “We have great clients, extremely talented lawyers and a Wall Street practice right here in Oklahoma City,” he points out. And unlike many places, “this firm isn’t built on internal competition. So I work with some of my best friends.”

But success in his chosen field has never been enough for Hill. As Stringer says, “Frank has embraced the notion that what you take out of life, you’ve got to put back in.”

Initially involved with the Oklahoma City Museum of Art during its construction, Hill is now chairman of its board of trustees (his wife, Bette Jo, is a docent).  “He has an amazing legal mind,” says the museum’s president and CEO Glen Gentele. That acumen often comes wrapped in an often-exercised sense of humor, which from all accounts can range from self-effacing to wickedly dark (the latter sometimes having to do with Oklahoma’s infamous intra-state football rivalry).

When he isn’t running, skiing, fly-fishing or traveling the world, Hill is also a trustee of Casady School; benefactor fellow and former trustee of the Oklahoma Bar Foundation; trustee and former president of the Bizzell Library Society of the University of Oklahoma; and a former director of the Last Frontier Council of Boy Scouts of America—to name but a few. For these and other contributions, Hill was a recipient of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Outstanding Service to the Public Award in 2007.

But perhaps his most arduous civic contribution is deeply rooted in a horrific killing ground.

Following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Hill was among a core group of individuals who were instrumental in fulfilling the city’s collective vision of the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Hill himself had come disturbingly close to being a victim of the bombing on that sunny April morning in 1995 as he drove into downtown Oklahoma City. He had just crossed North Broadway at 6th Street when the blast, about a block and a half away, lifted his car off the pavement and blew off its mirrors.

As chairman of the board of trustees of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation in 2005, he presided over the National Week of Hope commemorating the 10th anniversary of the bombing, standing shoulder to shoulder with state and national leaders. And he was closely involved in creating the memorial’s coveted Reflections of Hope Award.

“Frank embodies the true spirit of an Oklahoman,” says Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation. “He’s generous. He’s very dedicated to making sure that the right things happen to the right people. I think his Oklahoma roots have given him an enormous pride in this state. He’s always trying to make tomorrow better than today.”

While still flying under the radar.

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