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Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power [Format Kindle]

Steve Coll
4.0 étoiles sur 5  Voir tous les commentaires (1 commentaire client)

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Descriptions du produit


A few days before the Exxon Valdez ran onto Bligh Reef, tens of thousands of Hungarians marched through Budapest. The demonstrators turned the commemoration of an 1848 uprising against Austrian rule into a revolt against Soviet-backed communism. “Resign!” they shouted outside downtown buildings housing Communist Party bureaucrats. “Freedom! . . . No more shall we be slaves!” They carried flags from Hungary’s pre-Communist era and demanded the withdrawal of Soviet military forces. “Ivan, Aren’t You Homesick?” and “Legal State, Not a Police State” declared their protest signs.

The defiant march added to the cracks spreading that spring through the structures of global politics. The Berlin Wall fell a few months later, in November. The Soviet Union fissured and then disappeared. Democratic and free-market revolutions and revivals swept through Central Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Ethnic, religious, and territorial conflicts, long subdued by the cold war, erupted one after another. The world was remade, tossed, liberated—and reopened for international business.

The Valdez wreck stunned Exxon and its rising leader, Lee Raymond. The disaster would change the corporation profoundly. Internal reforms imposed by Raymond in response to the accident would turn one of America’s oldest, most rigid corporations into an even harder, leaner place of rule books and fear-inspiring management techniques. At the same time, Raymond and the rest of Exxon’s leaders would gradually pass through the introspection triggered by the Valdez spill and seek out the oil and gas plays that opened so unexpectedly after 1989. An age of empire beckoned America and Exxon alike.

In a bracingly short time, Anglo-American optimism and idealism about free markets, foreign investment, and the rule of law found adherents in the most unlikely world capitals. Brand-new nations brimming with oil and gas and others previously closed to Western corporations hung out FOR LEASE signs to lure geologists from Houston and London: Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Angola, Qatar, and tiny Equatorial Guinea, on the West African coast, soon to market itself through its Washington lobbyists as the “Kuwait of Africa.” These post–cold war opportunities for American, British, French, and Italian oil companies could be ambiguous, risky, and sometimes fleeting. Resentful nationalism and suspicion of the United States and Europe persisted in many capitals of the new oil powers. State-owned petroleum companies from China, India, Brazil, and elsewhere were rising quickly as competitors. Exxon might be America’s largest and most powerful oil corporation, but it would require all the political influence, financial resources, dazzling technology, speed, and stamina that its leaders could muster to seize the lucrative oil deals made possible by communism’s fall and global capitalism’s revival.

The United States now stood unchallenged as a worldwide military power. Exxon’s empire would increasingly overlap with America’s, but the two were hardly contiguous. Pentagon policy, after the Soviet Union’s demise, sought to keep international sea-lanes free; to reduce the global danger of nuclear war, terrorism, and transnational crime; to manage or contain Russia and China; to secure Israel; and to foster, against long odds, a stable Middle East from which oil supplies vital for global economic growth could flow freely. Exxon benefited from the new markets and global commerce that American military hegemony now protected. Yet the corporation’s activity also complicated American foreign policy; Exxon’s far-flung interests were at times distinct from Washington’s. Lee Raymond would manage Exxon’s global position after 1989 as a confident sovereign, a peer of the White House’s rotating occupants. Raymond aligned Exxon with America, but he was not always in sync; he was more akin to the president of France or the chancellor of Germany. He did not manage the corporation as a subordinate instrument of American foreign policy; his was a private empire.

Exxon’s power within the United States derived from an independent, even rebellious lineage. The corporation had been hived off from John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly in 1911, after a bruising antitrust campaign led by economic reformers and populist politicians. The visceral hostility toward Washington sometimes eschewed by Exxon executives eight decades later suggested some of them had still not gotten over it.

Exxon’s size and the nature of its business model meant that it functioned as a corporate state within the American state. Like its forebearer, Standard, Exxon proved across decades that it was one of the most powerful businesses ever produced by American capitalism. From the 1950s through the end of the cold war, Exxon ranked year after year as one of the country’s very largest and most profitable corporations, always in the top five of the annual Fortune 500 lists. Its profit performance proved far more consistent and durable than that of other great corporate behemoths of America’s postwar boom, such as General Motors, United States Steel, and I.B.M. In 1959, Exxon ranked as the second-largest American corporation by revenue and profit; four decades later it was third. And more than any of its corporate peers, Exxon’s trajectory now pointed straight up. The corporation’s revenues would grow fourfold during the two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its profits would smash all American records.

As it expanded, Exxon refined its own foreign, security, and economic policies. In some of the faraway countries where it did business, because of the scale of its investments, Exxon’s sway over local politics and security was greater than that of the United States embassy. In impoverished African countries increasingly important to Exxon’s strategy, such as Chad, the weight of the corporation’s investments and the cash flow it shared with local governments overwhelmed the economy and became the central prize in violent local contests for power. In Moscow and Beijing, Exxon’s independent power and negotiating agenda competed with and sometimes attracted more attention than the démarches issued by American secretaries of state. Yet the corporation could also be insular and even passive in the faraway places where it acquired and produced oil and gas. It fenced off local operations and separated its workforce from upheaval outside its gates. If its oil fl owed and its contract terms remained intact, then Exxon often followed a directive of minimal interference in local politics, especially if those politics were controversial, as in the case of the African dictatorships with which the corporation partnered, or the countries, such as Indonesia and Venezuela, where civil conflict swirled around Exxon properties. In Washington, Exxon was a more confident and explicit political actor. The corporation’s lobbyists bent and shaped American foreign policy, as well as economic, climate, chemical, and environmental regulation. Exxon maintained all-weather alliances with sympathetic American politicians while calling as little attention to its influence as possible.

The cold war’s end signaled a coming era when nongovernmental actors—corporations, philanthropies, terrorist cells, and media networks— all gained relative power. Exxon’s size, insularity, and ideology made its position distinct. Unlike Walmart or Google (to name two other multinational corporations that would rise after 1989 to global influence), the object of Exxon’s business model lay buried beneath the earth. Exxon drilled holes in the ground and then operated its oil and gas wells for many years, and so its business imperatives were linked to the control of physical territory. Increasingly, the oil and gas Exxon produced was located in poor or unstable countries. Its treasure was subject to capture or political theft by coup makers or guerrilla movements, and so the corporation became involved in small wars and kidnapping rackets that many other international companies could gratefully avoid.

The time horizons for Exxon’s investments stretched out longer than those of almost any government it lobbied. “We see governments come and go,” Lee Raymond once remarked, an observation that was particularly true of Washington, with its constitutionally term-limited presidency. Exxon’s investments in a particular oil and gas field could be premised on a production life span of forty or more years. During that time, the United States might change its president and its foreign and energy policies at least half a dozen times. Overseas, a project’s host country might pass through multiple coups and political upheavals during the same four decades. It behooved Exxon to develop influence and lobbying strategies to manage or evade political volatility.

American spies and diplomats who occasionally migrated to work at Exxon discovered a corporate system of secrecy, nondisclosure agreements, and internal security that matched some of the most compartmented black boxes of the world’s intelligence agencies. The corporation’s information control systems guarded proprietary industrial data but also sought to protect its long-term strategic position by minimizing its visibility. Exxon’s executives deflected press coverage; they withheld cooperation from congressional investigators, if the letter of the law allowed; and they typically spoke in public by reading out sanitized, carefully edited speeches or PowerPoint slides. Their strategy worked: Exxon made a fetish of rules, but it rarely had to justify or explain publicly how it operated when the rules were gray.

As the Valdez wreck made obvious, Exxon’s massive daily operations—soon to produce 1.5 billion barrels of oil and gas pumped from the ground each year, and 50 billion gallons of gasoline sold worldwide—posed huge environmental risks. After the Valdez, Exxon would become again, as it had been in the first decades of Standard Oil’s existence, the most hated oil company in America.

When gasoline prices soared, American commuters felt powerless before its influence. In effect, Exxon was America’s energy policy. Certainly there was no governmental policy of comparable coherence. After fitful, failed efforts to wean itself from imported oil during the 1970s, the United States had evolved no effective government-led energy strategy. Its de facto policy was the operation of free markets amid a jumble of patchwork subsidies, contradictory rules, and weak regulatory agencies. The very weakness of policy favored Exxon. As the public’s frustration grew over rising pump prices and dependence on oil imports that transferred billions of dollars to hostile regimes overseas, Exxon became a natural lightning rod. The corporation managed this criticism with the same coolheaded patience and indifference that it employed to endure political risk in tinpot African dictatorships. Compromise was not the Exxon way.

Revue de presse

 “ExxonMobil has met its match in Coll, an elegant writer and dogged reporter… extraordinary… monumental.” --THE WASHINGTON POST

Fascinating… Private Empire is a book meticulously prepared as if for trial, a lawyerly accumulation of information that lets the facts speak for themselves… a compelling and elucidatory work.” --BLOOMBERG

Private Empire is meticulous, multi-angled and valuable… Mr. Coll’s prose sweeps the earth like an Imax camera.”
— Dwight Garner, THE NEW YORK TIMES

"ExxonMobil has cut a ruthless path through the Age of Oil. Yet intense secrecy has kept one of the world's largest companies a mystery, until now. Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power is a masterful study of Big Oil's biggest player… Coll's in-depth reporting, buttressed by his anecdotal prose, make Private Empire a must-read. Consider Private Empire a sequel of sorts to The Prize, Daniel Yergin's Pulitzer-winning history of the oil industry… Coll's portrait of ExxonMobil is both riveting and appalling… Yet Private Empire is not so much an indictment as a fascinating look into American business and politics. With each chapter as forceful as a New Yorker article, the book abounds in Dickensian characters.”

"Coll makes clear in his magisterial account that Exxon is mighty almost beyond imagining, producing more profit than any American company in the history of profit, the ultimate corporation in 'an era of corporate ascendancy.' This history of its last two decades is therefore a revealing history of our time, a chronicle of the intersection between energy and politics."

"Groundbreaking... Masterful as a corporate portrait, Private Empire gushes with narrative."

Détails sur le produit

  • Format : Format Kindle
  • Taille du fichier : 2107 KB
  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 700 pages
  • Pagination - ISBN de l'édition imprimée de référence : 1594203350
  • Editeur : Penguin Books; Édition : Reprint (1 mai 2012)
  • Vendu par : Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ASIN: B0064W5BPM
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  • Moyenne des commentaires client : 4.0 étoiles sur 5  Voir tous les commentaires (1 commentaire client)
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For a non-insider like me this book is really passionating and goes through a ton of details (the author must have been extremely well documented and have met a lot of people) while being very interesting to read. Once you start it you have a hard time to put it down. I recommend it! Like all the Steve Coll books I read...
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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 4.1 étoiles sur 5  146 commentaires
213 internautes sur 225 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 You can't put this book down - It just grabs YOU - 5 STARS !!!!! 2 mai 2012
Par Richard of Connecticut - Publié sur
As a reader you can never really explain it, but a truly great author can make anything come alive while others will put you to sleep. Steve Coll is a Pulitzer Prize winner author of Ghost Wars - the Secret History of the CIA, which is another book you just can't put down. Private Empire is special, and the title is so appropriate, a company that has been in business for over a 100 years. It has seen 19 American Presidents come and go, and yet it remains the dominant energy company in the world, and this book covers the whole story.

There is very little devoted to the early history of the company. As we all probably know John D. Rockefeller created the Standard Oil Trust and when it was broken up by the Trust Busters in the early 20th century, one of the spin-offs was the early ancestor to what is now Exxon which eventually combined with Mobil Oil to form ExxonMobil. Rockefeller controlled 14% of the American economy at one point, and oil has remained our dominant energy source ever since.

What a book, what a story for Exxon is the tale of 20th century America and our country's rise to both prominence and dominance in the world both politically and economically. A company so powerful that it considers itself in many ways a state within a state with an internal security force the equivalent of the Secret Service that guards our President. And why not, Exxon has recruited the best of the retired Secret Service agents to develop, install, and maintain a security shield around this company's behavior and its employees.

The book devotes a chapter to the kidnapping and death of Exxon executive Sidney Reso and how CEO Lee Raymond completely revamped the entire company to ensure that it would not happen again. You will learn about the finest private corporate jet fleet in America, and how the Board of Directors mandated that the CEO would never fly a commercial flight again.

It's absolutely absorbing to study in detail how the company after decades in New York moved its corporate headquarters to Dallas Texas and how the building was designed for secrecy with an inner sanctum within an inner sanctum. It was called the God Pod, and the building was called the Death Star after the Star Wars movies.

Lee Raymond proudly proclaims about his competitors, we are Oil - the rest of you are kids. Nothing is left to chance for the dominant oil company in the world. They don't run the company on emotions, they run it on science and principles as the book points out. It is the relentless pursuit of efficiency, another catchphrase employed by the author.


This tome is over 700 pages spread over 28 chapters with extensive use of footnotes. It is separated into two parts, the first 14 chapters or part I is The End of Easy Oil, while Part II is The Risk Cycle which covers 14 additional chapters.

To truly cover the history of Exxon from the beginning, you would need 1500 to 2000 pages, so the author decided to begin with the Exxon Valdez tragedy. In March of 1989, an Exxon oil tanker traveling through Prince Edward Sound went aground and created an environmental and public relations nightmare for Exxon. The story is covered in detail and the book clearly demonstrates how Lee Raymond who would become CEO in the future used the tragedy to essentially completely revamp Exxon's corporate structure and behavior.

The author also wisely decided to use Lee Raymond as the point man or cornerstone of this book. We see Exxon through Raymond's eyes, and as Raymond says in the book, we see governments come and go. This is an acknowledgment that Exxon thinks and plans for decades at a time, not years.


Yes, it is all here. If you are into business biographies, this one is tops. If you are into geopolitical power and how corporations interact with governments including their own government this book is an eye-opener. If you want to get a real feel for what it's like for tens of thousands of people to dedicate themselves to the optimal running of a corporation and very little else, this book may turn you on or turn you off.

Exxon is a demanding master for those who serve, and for those who serve willingly, it makes them rich, and materially they want for nothing. Yes the corporation will absorb your soul and ask everything of you. This is all the more interesting when you consider that all the top people in this company seem to be cut from the same cloth meaning the same religious belief systems, basically Southern colleges, and political beliefs - no left wing partisans need to submit a resume. You simply would not pass the background check.

This reader thought the two chapter headings that best describe the Exxon culture were Chapter 4 - Do you really want us as an enemy, and Chapter 17 I pray for Exxon. The best line in the book was a sentence where Exxon's attitude is described as F_ _ _ you - no apologies, oil is here to stay. This is truly a great read. You don't want to miss it, and you will understand much more about oil, lobbyists, how our government works, and energy that you could have ever possibly wanted to know. Get it today.

Richard Stoyeck
45 internautes sur 47 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 A Nuanced Look at ExxonMobil 13 mai 2012
Par las cosas - Publié sur
A Pulitzer Prize winning New Yorker author writes a vast book about the largest corporation in the United States. You can picture the book, you say. Long on research, including large numbers of interviews with people who refuse to be quoted by name? Yes. Engaging distillation of technical information into a readily understood summary? Yes. Characters and scenes drawn with a cinematic vividness? Yes. Revelations that require the reader to rethink his or her basic understanding of the book's subject? Well no.

I spent most of the book's 700 pages waiting for The Revelation. The Secret. The...well, anything. This is certainly more the fault of my expectations than any deficiency in the book. But it is odd that the author would have spent such a huge amount of time and energy writing such a detailed book about two decades of ExxonMobil corporate history without a central theme. Maybe I have simply read too many books about the oil industry and spend too much of life reading business newspapers and magazines, but the general tale told in this book is very well known. What is less well known is the details of the various strands of the story, and those strands are told with exquisite detail, well supported by copious footnotes, even though many (most?) of the cited interviews fail to name the individuals cited.

The book starts crisply with a factual description of the hours leading to the Exxon Valdez disaster and ends two decades later with BP's Deepwater Horizon fiasco. In between we are given an inside look at the corporate culture and operating environment of ExxonMobil. The book consists almost entirely of dozens of intimate scenes. Retreats where Exxon executives uneasily spend days with environmentalists, descriptions of the compounds in Chad where ExxonMobil contractors and employees are barricaded behind thick walls as government security forces ward off locals wanting everything from jobs to equipment to kidnapping.

The author accomplishes several feats in this book, among those are his ability to stitch together disparate scenes to create a three-dimensional view of the world in which Exxon operates, and to coherently present the issues and personalities in all of their complexities.

While Exxon has three divisions: chemicals, upstream (oil and gas exploration and production) and downstream (refining and the gasoline station companies), the real money, the high returns are in the upstream division. Increasingly, new oil and gas reserves available for "ownership" by private companies like ExxonMobil, are in difficult places. Geologically difficult in places such as the Arctic and politically difficult in places such as Chad and Nigeria. Each of these difficulties is explained by giving us a detailed picture of the people, issues and places in which Exxon has been maneuvering over the last 20 years.

But the real triumph of this book is in the endless subtlety of the issues and people presented. Take Chad for example. Human rights and development advocates have argued for some time that it is inappropriate for a company to simply negotiate for the ownership of a country's natural resources with the ruler of that country. The result is often a country that decades later is in worse shape economically than before the contract was signed. A few individuals surrounding the ruler become obscenely wealthy, but that wealth does nothing for the country as a while. ExxonMobil was old school in this and many other matters. Executives were certain that by universally applying a rigorously developed set of rules set down in binders developed over years in the company's Texas headquarters that problems could be reduced to a minimum. It complied with applicable US and foreign laws, but refused to involve itself in the countries or communities where it did business. It paid government agencies to provide security for its facilities and personnel, but was not particularly concerned about how these forces protected these assets. This rigidity did not necessarily serve the company well, and when it negotiated a large contract with Chad it took a completely new route and required that all revenues be under the control of the World Bank, supposedly assuring that the funds would aid the country as a while, not just the ruling elite. This was not easy to negotiate for ExxonMobil, and the author gives us enough detail to see the interests of the various parties, and the effort required by ExxonMobil to accomplish this more "enlightened" approach to resource contracts. But this experiment failed, failed rather miserably, and you get a sense of why ExxonMobil preferred to keep things simple. Use a single model and keep to it.

The nuances of the book are most clearly at play when the author describes Lee Raymond, the Chairman during most of the time covered by the book. Conservative, short-tempered and unable to suffer fools without disdain, he was notoriously opposed to the very idea that climate change existed, let alone that it was a problem. But the author clearly respects the attention to detail and integrity of Mr. Raymond, and his nuanced and detailed portrayal of him echoes his portrayal of the company. If you are interested in an inside look at the world in which ExxonMobil has operated since the Valdez disaster, this is the book. If, on the other hand, you are looking for an expose, a smoking gun, you will need to keep looking.
62 internautes sur 69 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Well Written, Very Interesting 3 mai 2012
Par P. Woodland - Publié sur
This was a door stopper of a book. I haven't had a real hefty book for a bit and it was a real delight to sit and hold a real solid book again. And what a book it was. Starting with the the Exxon Valdez spill and book-ending with the Deepwater Horizon disaster Private Empire details the arrogance that is ExxonMobil.

Mr. Coll's writing style is easy even when explaining oil extraction methods or the geopolitics of oil and natural gas rights. It reads almost like a suspense novel except that it's all true. And that is what makes it so scary. I found myself turning page after page reeling at my naivete. I think I want to go back to being uninformed. It's a happier state of mind.

Mr. Coll's research for the book was quite extensive and the book is heavily footnoted. He conducted over 400 interviews with people great and small and he weaves what they shared together with facts gathered from all over the world to take the reader on a ride from oil fields to the offices of political power in this country and beyond. It was utterly fascinating to get a peak inside the Borg like culture of Exxon. Tow the company line or find another job.

I have not enjoyed a non fiction book this much in a long, long time. I just wish I wasn't so surprised at what I learned.
75 internautes sur 95 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Gossip rather than facts 2 juin 2012
Par R.T.H.J. Hospers - Publié sur
As described by more positive reviews, this book offers an entertaining read of different recent historical aspects of XOM. Those readers however who, like myself, are familiar with the oil industry, may be annoyed with the quite anecdotal nature of the whole book and it's lack of real substance. The author is clearly not an industry expert, rather more like a 'celebrity news' reporter.

To me the book lacks a central thesis that is founded on a structered story line. Instead interesting anecdotes are described and not always as complete as I would have liked to see them. The different aspects are in themselves entertaining to read, e.g. Exxon Valdez, kidnappings etc., but don't really tell you anything about XOM's inner workings, other than that it is a large company in an interesting industry working in interesting geographical locations; something everybody probably already understands. To me it was as if the author had uncovered a Wikileaks file on XOM and compounded some stories 'uncovering' XOM's seemingly dark motives.
Similar to Wikileaks though you may conclude that XOM is run with intelligence and common sense and yes, due to the nature of it's business, is sometimes confronted with interesting and challenging situations.

I would compare reading this book to reading celebrity gossip. If you're more interested in a factually astute book I would recommend The Prize by Daniel Yergin on the history of the oil industry in general and it's significant impact on politics and history - also very entertaining to read by the way. Or if you would prefer another, but better hero-cult book, read Paul Hendrix's biography on Henri Deterding, Royal Dutch Shell's founding father and a more entertaining read even than this book that will truly show some of the interconnections between Big Oil and politics.

This also brings me to my final point of criticism, XOM is regularly compared to some of it's competitors to make it look omnipotent also from a historical perspective. Often however Royal Dutch Shell, XOM's lifetime global rival, is omitted. This makes for an incomplete and misleading picture, as up to Exxon's takeover of Mobil in 1999, Shell has generally been the world's leading oil company. This again says something about how accurate and balanced this book is. In fairness though I would like to add that the author does state on more than one occasion that XOM's Ceo Raymond admired/respected Shell the most bar his own company.

Also a number of the 'figures & facts' are flawed up to the point that even a layman could and certainly the author should have detected their inacurracy. To the layman these inaccuracies will probably not be off-putting, but to me it reflects on the factual quality of the book.

I did enjoy reading the book, but since I was ultimately more interested in facts than anecdotal gossip: 2 stars.
7 internautes sur 8 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Oil: its importance and its problems 16 août 2012
Par Paul F. Ross - Publié sur
Review of Coll's Private empire by Paul F. Ross

Exxon was the venue for an important part of this reader's career, so discovering Coll's history in the bookstore on one of my recent visits, and seeing that it covered recent years ( Exxon Valdez 1989 - Deepwater Horizon 2010 ), won my immediate interest, purchase, and early reading. ExxonMobil is a private empire, its annual revenues exceeding the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of many nations. It is in

Coll, Steve Private empire: ExxonMobil and American power 2012, The Penguin Press, New York NY, xvi + 685 pages

the oil business, worldwide. Coll helps the reader see the oil business although the view is largely through the eyes of the ExxonMobil chief executive officer (CEO). Opening with the grounding and oil spill of the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and closing with the oil spill following the well blowout beneath BP's Deepwater Horizon in 2010, Coll captures the ebb and flow of oil nationalism, the politics of dealing with nations sitting on oil reserves, growing environmental awareness, risk management, changing oil drilling and oil transport technologies, changing energy markets, and the personalities accompanying changes in corporate leadership. ExxonMobil is one of the world's large oil companies, rivaled by Shell and BP among the investor-owned variety and by nationalized companies in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia, Nigeria, and other locations (Iran, Qatar, Dubai, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, etc.). Coll maintains a degree of objectivity. His account is worth the read.

The world's energy needs and the world's energy supply are the backdrops for this history. They provide the circumstances, the conditions, driving searches for energy resources, research, and costs. The balance between needs and availability cannot be overemphasized with respect to their importance. Oil, coal, and gas have been the major fuels in recent history. Environmental awareness has drawn attention to all three with emphasis on coal and harmful effects from its combustion. Oil spills used by Coll to bookend his history are headline-winning, harmful, yet - avoidable though they can be and must become - are a small part of the total environmental harm produced by the human need for fuel. The Dutch disease - the economic distortion and misuse of economic opportunities, is prominent in this history as countries, nationalizing their oil wealth - fails to use the oil resources being "produced" for "all the people" to whom this wealth, the land and its resources, "belong." The national-level economic problems following bursts of economic good fortune (bubbles, etc.), known as the Dutch disease, happen too often despite efforts to hold it in check. See in particular ExxonMobil's effort in Chad, in cooperation with the World Bank, reported in this history. See also the story of Venezuela's use of its oil wealth. The ExxonMobil role in these stories, and its own race for survival in the competitive world of capitalism as it seeks to replace the oil (and now gas) resources used each year with newly discovered-acquired resources equaling those used in order to preserve and protect its own survival and its shareholders' interests, is its own Till Eulenspiegel-like tale.

Joining Exxon (then Standard Oil Company [New Jersey]) in 1959, my wife and I soon attended the 75th anniversary celebration of the company's founding at a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan along with many hundreds of others, our children in the care of a baby sitter for the evening and we wondering what we had done to earn this opportunity. After five years in Exxon's world headquarters in Rockefeller Center where some exciting research work was happening, I getting to be a part of it, I accepted an assignment with Imperial Oil in Canada, an affiliate of Exxon both then and now, and enjoyed more exciting work there before returning to the US and, soon, employment with the management consulting firm of Arthur D. Little Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sitting in the weekly meeting of departmental leaders in Exxon's Employee Relations Department in Manhattan and hearing the business items reported around the table ... from the oil fields in Venezuela, a refinery in Texas, a headquarters office in London, Aramco offices in Saudi Arabia, and from Toronto in Canada ... introduced this neophyte to business as it was being conducted throughout most of the world. In 1959 I was excited because I was joining an energy company, leaving the insurance industry, and energy surely was more important in this world than was insurance. I soon discovered that "Jersey" was not an energy company in its own perception. It was an oil company. Each day, commuting two hours each way from home in Connecticut, I sometimes shared my seat on the train with Mobil staff members. In the half century since then, Exxon and Mobil merged, have their world headquarters now in Irving, Texas, and, as Coll's history reports, ExxonMobil is still an oil company.

My career having focused on how teams function and how individuals and teams achieve their best performance, Coll's history, in my view, has the typical shortcomings of biographies and histories as customarily done. The author chooses a topic, a hero, a theme, and the whole is woven around that central core. We readers expect that focus. That's why we're reading the author's work. But my career and scientific underpinnings teach me that, while individuals clearly matter, it is the performance of the team, the organization, that determines organizational outcomes, business results. Coll's history covers the leadership of Lee Raymond and Rex Tillerson as Exxon's recent CEOs and, reading the story, one has the impression that everything that is ExxonMobil is represented by the thoughts and actions of these two in turn, Tillerson somewhat different from Raymond, but these two being, in the historian's perception, the whole of ExxonMobil. That is like saying Churchill was all of England during WWII and Lincoln was all of America during the American Civil War. It is nonsense. Leaders are important but, in the larger scheme of things, they contribute only a bit, sometimes a rather small bit, to the organizational outcomes and the march of events. Outside forces (the growing environmental interest in climate change and its causes) and surprises (e.g. BP's poor management and equipment failure in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon event; the banking industry's errors and the economic collapse of 2007-2009) have their effects. Outside effects are charted clearly enough by Coll, but the author's perception remains the perception of not just the oil industry or of shareholders and investors but of Raymond and Tillerson. ExxonMobil runs on scientific knowhow and careful management, yet ExxonMobil's scientific strength appears in this account only when the head of its engineering company in New Jersey is kidnapped and murdered. Unhappily, Coll gives science and technology nothing more than newspaper-headline-like insight and attention.

Further, in an industry necessarily watching its numbers, Coll's history has no tables and graphs, only a few maps. Its citations are of a kind only a journalist could tolerate, occasionally simply wrong. The "indefatigable" author as seen by The Economist's reviewer was less than thorough and does not meet this reviewer's, perhaps unrealistic, standards of reporting and citation accuracy. Coll was charmed by ExxonMobil's PowerPoint presentations used in the company's lobbying efforts ... certainly likely to be authoritative but not necessarily encompassing a broad spectrum of points of view.

Still, Coll's history is worth the read. I personally suspect that the oil industry's perception of the future world demands for energy, and the likely sources for that energy, are closer to the truth of what will actually happen than the enthusiasts for solar, wind, nuclear, hydrogen, and energy-conservation wish to think. ExxonMobil's relationships with the many different political settings in which it does, and must do, business is a stark reminder of the political environment of our world, a long distance from the rule of law intended in the embodiment of the United Nations. I am extraordinarily happy to have dodged, through no real wisdom of mine, a career that would have had to face these political realities in business meeting after business meeting. Even good intentions by ExxonMobil (in Chad) collapse in the face of a tradition of autocratic rule and an uneducated workforce kept that way by not providing education. Yes, the variance in socio-economic standards (the distance between rich and poor) is growing, and that's because it is considerably to the advantage of the rich to keep it that way. Even a world's-giant oil company looks like a reed of grass in the wind under these circumstances.

Having just completed my read, The Economist published a review of the book, its author describing the contents of Coll's book with few, although admiring ("Mr. Coll's indefatigable reporting produces many surprising details ..."), evaluative statements. It, too, is useful when considering whether your time in reading Coll's history is likely to be well spent.

Bellevue, Washington
15 August 2012, 16 August 2012


Coll, Steve Private empire: ExxonMobil and American power 2012, The Penguin Press, New York NY

The Economist, "ExxonMobil oozing success," 11-17 August 2012, p 73

Copyright © 2012 by Paul F. Ross All rights reserved.
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