Shelf Life

The private empire of ExxonMobil

Jeremy Hobson May 1, 2012

Jeremy Hobson: The largest company in the world by revenue brought in almost $500 billion last year. It’s on track to do even better this year. This company spends more money lobbying lawmakers in Washington than any other company, and yet few Americans know all that much about what goes on behind the company’s closed doors. I’m talking about the oil giant ExxonMobil.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steve Coll has just written an extensive profile of the company called “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.” It comes out today and Steve Coll joins us now from Washington. Good morning.

Steve Coll: Good morning.

Hobson: Well I want to start with a quote in your book from the former CEO of Exxon, Lee Raymond, who said: “I’m not a U.S. company, and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.” What did he mean by that?

Coll: He’s headquartered in the United States, but most of his employees live elsewhere, work elsewhere — and quite a lot of the profits that ExxonMobil makes are generated overseas and are difficult to repatriate. So they really see themselves as a global entity, sovereign and organized on behalf of their shareholders without reference to the government of the country where they happened to be headquartered.

Hobson: But do they see themselves as representing American values overseas?

Coll: They do. The rule of law: American business practice is best practice — yes, I think in that respect they do. But not equating themselves with interests of the United States government and the countries where they work.

Hobson: Let’s talk about climate change. ExxonMobil, as you write, fought hard against the science of climate change under Lee Raymond — even hiring its own scientists when it didn’t really like what other scientists were concluding.

Coll: Yeah, and they funded a lot of the most aggressive groups that were engaged in communication campaigns to challenge what was the emerging science at the U.N. and elsewhere in those years, right through the first Bush term and up until about 2006. Then Lee Raymond retired and his successor has said that he felt like ExxonMobil had a problem when he came in about its communication and its attitude towards public policy matters of this type, and that he set out at least to review it without radically changing it. And he did change their position about climate gradually over the next three or four years.

Hobson: You say, ‘review without radically changing.’ Where do they stand now?

Coll: First of all, they advocate a price on carbon-based fuels, which is unprecedented in their history. They are less certain about what the science actually shows. They remain a little more agnostic than I think most mainstream scientists are about the role of human industrial activity in warming, but they basically say, look, we recognize the risks are serious and the science is suggesting that they remain serious.

Hobson: Finally, Exxon is in a battle right now with Apple to be the biggest company in the U.S. by market capitalization. Reading this book about the leadership at Exxon and reading the Steve Jobs biography, you see two totally different management styles. How do you make sense of that?

Coll: I mean, I had the same reaction. I read the Jobs biography, it was quite wonderful. And you say, what kind of a country produces as its No. 1 and 2 largest corporations — Apple, on the one hand, then ExxonMobil on the other? They’re different businesses of course, but the leadership styles really couldn’t be more different. And they do reflect two sides of the American system — one, very disciplined engineering and kind of management focus, that’s Exxon; and the other, very innovation-focused and creative in California, which is what Apple’s story is about.

Hobson: But they’re two very ruthless leaders, in a way.

Coll: And they have in common an emphasis on closed systems. I mean, one of the striking things about Apple and the Steve Jobs leadership style was that he did not open windows or a lot of outside compromises and partnerships. He did it his way, and that he very much had in common with ExxonMobil.

Hobson: Steve Coll is the author of “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.” Steve Coll, thanks so much.

Coll: Pleasure to talk to you.

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