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DENVER — Rich Kinder was a rising star at Enron Corp. until his informal agreement with college buddy and company chairman Ken Lay to become chief executive fell apart in 1996.

Lay instead named Jeff Skilling to the No. 2 position at Enron. Kinder resigned from the Houston-based energy company.

Today, Lay and Skilling face lengthy prison terms after their recent fraud and conspiracy convictions. Kinder, 61, faces the prospect of taking his Kinder Morgan Inc. private in a $22 billion buyout that would be the largest management-led buyout in history.

"Rich Kinder is a disciplined and thoughtful businessman who has demonstrated time and again that he has a lot of insight into energy markets," said Marc Smith, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.

Even before he left Enron, Kinder's fondness for the lowtech energy-pipeline business took him in a different direction from Enron's growing enchantment with fast-paced energy trading.

It was that infatuation with pipelines that led Kinder to merge with Lakewood-based KN Energy in 1999, a deal that launched Kinder Morgan into national prominence.

Rich Kinder "is a firm believer in the strategy of using hard assets — pipelines and terminals — to build a company. We don't have a trading entity," said Kinder Morgan spokesman Rick Rainey.

Kinder's $100-a-share offer for Kinder Morgan Inc. includes other members of the company's management, plus private-equity investors Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, American International Group, the Carlyle Group and Riverstone Holdings.

Kinder Morgan shares climbed 19 percent to $100.37 Tuesday on the New York Stock Exchange and were as high as $103. Analysts said some investors may be betting Kinder Morgan's board will seek a higher bid from the investor group.

"I think it's almost a certainty that there will be a higher bid from the existing group," said Robert Weible, a partner at Baker & Hostetler LLP. "In the typical going-private transaction, the first bid is almost never as good as it gets." "It may be a little more difficult for a competing group to lodge a bid that would take the company, although not impossible, because existing management has perhaps as much as 20 percent of this company as it stands," Weible said.

Citing the increase in debt envisioned in the buyout, Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investors Service said Tuesday that they might cut their ratings on existing Kinder Morgan Inc. debt below investment grade.

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