In late 1998, Chesapeake Energy (CHK), an independent natural gas producer based in Oklahoma City, exemplified an industry in decline. The company’s stock price had fallen over two years from above $34 a share to 75¢. Its market value tumbled 93 percent, to $72 million. “They’re running up a down escalator,” Michael Spohn, an analyst at Petroleum Research Group, told Bloomberg News.

When Aubrey K. McClendon, Chesapeake’s chief executive officer and co-founder, announced he might sell the company, there was little interest. Falling gas prices had reduced the value of Chesapeake’s reserves from $2.1 billion to $661 million. “We’d had higher highs than others in the industry; then we had lower lows,” McClendon says with characteristic insouciance. “In this business, it’s good to have a short memory and thick skin.”