Originally published in The Sunday Business Post, December 18, 2016
Name: Rex W. Tillerson
Role: Chairman and chief executive, ExxonMobil
Appearance: bespectacled, bejoweled, dark of brow
Newsworthiness: in a single tweet last Tuesday, US president-elect Donald J. Trump declared Tillerson his nominee for Secretary of State
By Siobhán Brett
“Nobody tells those guys what to do.”
In 2001, these were the words of George W. Bush, then-president of the United States, about the multibillion-dollar Texas-based oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil.
Today, from time to time, Bush hangs out with one of “those guys”, Rex Tillerson, a neighbour of his in Dallas. Tillerson, an Exxon lifer who has spent the last 10 years in charge of the world’s fifth-largest company by market capitalisation, will be, short of an uncommon upset, America’s next Secretary of State.
“I hope it was meant in a positive way,” Tillerson said of Bush’s remark, once he had stopped chuckling at it, during a 2013 television interview. “I hope people do not see us as being indifferent to national interest. I think our company, our employees, we’re all very patriotic about our country,” he said.
The Bush line was published in Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, a 2012 book by journalist and academic, Steve Coll. Tillerson did not agree to an interview with Coll (who conducted some 400 for it), and added in 2013 that a “limited amount of discretionary time to read” had kept him from the title.
In the same TV interview, Tillerson, smiling, said he had heard that people think Exxon has something like its own state department. “I will tell you, it’s not that organized,” he said.
But ExxonMobil has been organized enough to deal effectively with more than 40 resource-rich countries worldwide. Countries like Russia, Iraq, Chad, and Libya (Tillerson in the past deemed Muammar Gaddafi “pretty rational”), hiring diplomats, intelligence analysts, and spies in the process.
Tillerson has spoken casually about looking at heads of state “eyeball to eyeball”, seeking personal commitments “that they will stand behind their side of the bargain”.
His experience places him in a curious position. To work at such a level, at such a company, for such a time, is to become expert at diplomacy of a kind, to practice a form of politics (private, with one object).
Negotiation over physical territory has been repeatedly required of Tillerson: regionally, nationally and internationally. His pronouncements on everything from the future of fossil fuels, or the price of oil per barrel, to national energy policy, to the death of the former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, or the Keystone pipeline, or the idiosyncrasies of carbon tax, have been hungrily sought — and deemed newsworthy — for years.
Tillerson is as articulate as you might imagine, and persuasive, to a point. He is fluent in jargon and corporate-speak, but appears comfortable in the realm of mathematical modeling, data, variables, systems, and “every scientist I know…”.
Steve Coll, writing for The New Yorker last week, said that Tillerson’s appointment to Secretary of State would “confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources”.
Socioeconomics and geopolitics aren’t going to be new for Tillerson. Influence in Washington is not going to be new. And influence further afield is not going to be new, either.
Don’t mess with Texas
Tillerson was involved in a number of clubs and societies while at the University of Texas, Austin, including the marching band and a chapter of a nationwide fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega.
1975 was a good year to graduate as a civil engineer: Tillerson has said he had 17 job offers upon leaving UT. He eventually took the one from Exxon, and was 23 when he joined as a production engineer.
By 1989, had been appointed general manager of Exxon’s “central” US production division, a remit that took in the states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and, of course, his native Texas. Within three years, he held an advisory role a the corporation, and seven further took him to executive vice president. He joined the board five years after that, in 2004, at the age of 51. In 2006, Tillerson became chief executive of ExxonMobil.
The Economist expressed some wariness at his elevation. The Texan was to succeed Lee Raymond, “the most successful oilman in a century”, by the publication’s telling. The report teased out Exxon’s startling performance during Raymond’s tenure — a 350 per cent increase in its market cap, to $360 billon, a 156 per cent increase in sales, to $300 billion — and rushed to enumerate the entrenched corporate virtues that would “outlive” Raymond, no matter what.
Bullish observers suggested that Exxon was in such good shape, so ably built and fortified, that Tillerson couldn’t really undo it. “He has it easy,” one analyst told the paper. Whether that was true or not, Tillerson has more or less acquitted himself in the job.
This year, which now looks to have been his last, was anomalistic in its difficulty. Falling oil prices drive Exxon’s profits down to the lowest level since 2002. Exxon was downgraded by Standard & Poor’s, losing a status that was not far off a century old.
The company’s AGM in Dallas this past summer was picketed by environmentalists urging for divestments and conservatism in drilling. At the meeting, Tillerson made some gentle, meaning-lite allusions to climate change. “We believe addressing the risk of climate change is a global issue”, he said, asking: “how can we use these energy sources in a less impactful way?”
Exxon shareholders voted against four separate initiatives to address climate change that day (including the addition of a climate expert to the board, and a policy to avoid two-degree Celsius warming).
Tillerson, wearing a gold tie, with a silver coffee pot resting by his right elbow, told those assembled: “You can’t just turn off the taps.”
He took a salary of $27.3 million in 2015. In last week’s press release, Trump called him “the embodiment of the American dream”.
Stars and stripes
His parents’ names are Patty Sue and Bobby Joe. Tillerson and his wife live on a horse farm, breeding, racing, and training horses in their spare time. They also have a cattle ranch, which is where he has said he likes to relax.
Tillerson is the ex-national president of the Boy Scouts of America, and remains fanatical about the scout movement. On November 2 this year, less than one week before the presidential election, he told a congregation of scout and scout organizers that he carried with him, everywhere he went, every day, a copy of the “Scout Vesper”.
He recited the first guiding verse fondly, with none of the attendant self-awareness of a man who might shortly get picked as Secretary of State:
“Softly falls the light of day, as our campfire fades away. Silently each scout should ask, have I done my daily task? Have I kept my honor bright? Can I, guiltless, sleep tonight? Have I done, and have I dared, everything to be prepared?”
In an excitable interview posted to YouTube three years ago by the World Scouting Foundation, Tillerson makes big use of big hands and double-jointed thumbs: on one hand, on the other, on one hand, on the other. The clip introduces scouting as “the world’s greatest leadership development program”, adding the original French, for ballast: Foundation du Scoutisme Mondial.
Reached last week, the interviewer, Danish businessman Lars Kolind, said: "Every time a Scout is chosen for high office, I know the person will represent sound values and I have confidence in him or her." He gave the names of other former scouts: Ban Ki Moon, Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, Madeline Albright and his own prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen.
With a boy scout’s craving for stricture and authority, Tillerson praises in the interview the Exxon standards of business conduct, extols “the values of honesty and integrity”, particularly in decision-making, where they become, he alleges “behaviors”.
“So many failures we have witnessed in the past 10 to 15 years, in business and in government, many of which are people compromising their value system for some business objective, or some political objective. And the outcome is never good.”
Tillerson found a natural home at Exxon, a rigidly codified and uniform place where, into the 1970s, company meetings were said to begin with a prayer.
His red-state, conservative, all-American facets are arguably leavened by a litany of more serious, dry commitments, the genre of which tend to accompany a megalith chief executive of a decade’s standing: institutes, societies, councils, centers, committees, academies, funds.
But of this long and boring list, one accolade on the resumé stands out, singularly and starkly. “In 2013, he was awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation.”
Tillerson was singled out for the state declaration (conceived of by Boris Yeltsin in 1994, when he was still president) in 2013. The award has been given to a scant number of recognizable names: the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, a Russophile, in 2010, the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in 2007. Similar executive orders have been extended to actor Gerard Depardieu and director Steven Seagal.
At a Q&A at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in February of this year, Tillerson said that “whether it’s Russia, or Yemen, or the Middle East”, he made sure that host countries, resource-owners, understood that he was not the US government, that whatever exertion of his company’s considerable power was in no way governmental.
“I am an American company, and I will be bound by the laws of the United States and other countries, and I’m going to follow those laws. But I’m not here to represent the United States’ government’s interest. I’m not here to defend it, nor am I here to criticize it. That’s not what I do. I’m a businessman.
“And you would be surprised how many times I’ve had to have that conversation with heads of state, who want to say to me: look, I know you can have some influence on the president — I need you to go back and tell him this.”
A little laughter rolled around the room. Tillerson continued, solemnly. “And there’s only two occasions where I did that because,” he raised a palm to the air, “it was a matter of national security, and they did not know how to get a message to the White House. So I did it.”
Politico earlier this week examined a change in Tillerson’s attitude to Russia. The man who eight years ago lamented the government’s disrespect for the rule of law while on stage at the St Petersburg Economic Forum, is no longer likely to rail in the same way, or at all.
It’s not, according to Politico staff writer Julia Ioffe, that matters have improved, for they have disimproved, nor that Tillerson is “now ubiquitously identified in the press as being personally close to Putin”. It is because of a business dependence on the relationship.
In 2011, Tillerson brokered a multibillion-dollar deal with Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, allowing Exxon access to the undetermined but very vast oil and gas wealth of the Russian arctic shelf, in exchange for some technological muscle.
Since, Exxon has continued dealmaking with Rosneft, expanding its offshore drilling, extending to shale oil exploration and involvement in a liquefied natural gas plant in the Russian Far East. But White House sanctions would scupper Tillerson’s plans. Billions of dollars continue to be at stake.
His relationship with Putin, more than 15 years in maturation, was described by Tillerson himself as “very close” in the February appearance, in which he sounded quite like Trump.
“I don’t agree with everything he’s doing. I don’t agree with everything a lot of leaders are doing. But he understands that I am a businessman, and I have invested, and our company has invested a lot of money in Russia, very successfully.”
Tillerson said he was “a little nervous” when he first visited again once the sanctions were in place. But the very first question they asked him, he told gathered students, with warm, wide-eyed appreciation, was whether he was okay. The second question they asked was whether the US government was going after Tillerson, somehow, for doing business with Russia.