“Exxon’s attitude toward the other majors has always been, ‘We are Oil—the rest of you are kids,’” a competing executive told Coll. During the discussion that followed BP’s disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, Tillerson openly criticized BP and said that ExxonMobil would never have made the mistakes BP made. Speaking at a private dinner with editors and writers at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, DC, he said that although BP had fine engineers, the company failed to emphasize safety or individual accountability, as Exxon had done after the Valdez spill in Prince William Sound. “They’ve always been an outlier,” said Tillerson. “We work with them all over the world and we’ve seen this.” (Soon after, writes Coll, “a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline dumped about a million gallons of oil in coastal areas of Nigeria, soiling shorelines dotted by impoverished seaside villages.”)
Unsurprisingly, Coll found that executives at other oil companies regard the executives at ExxonMobil as ruthless, self-isolating, and inscrutable, but also as priggish Presbyterian deacons who proselytized the Sunday school creed Rockefeller had lived by: “We don’t smoke; we don’t chew; we don’t hang with those who do.”
Coll found out firsthand how ExxonMobil guards its privacy. The company authorized eight executives to provide background interviews, which were “helpful but limited.” None of these executives agreed to be quoted by name. Tillerson, the CEO, flatly refused to be interviewed, and ExxonMobil “was the only party of the dozens reached during the fact-checking process that declined to participate.” Fortunately for Coll, he had resources such as court transcripts, Freedom of Information Act requests, and State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.
Coll gives a grudging nod to the business acumen of the company he depicts—just as Ida Tarbell did before him. The penultimate chapter in Tarbell’s book is titled “The Legitimate Greatness of the Standard Oil Company,” and in it she states that “this huge bulk, blackened by commercial sin, has always been strong in all great business qualities—in energy, in intelligence, in dauntlessness. It has always been rich in youth as well as greed, in brains as well as unscrupulousness.”
Coll similarly reports, “Around an industry conference table, Exxon’s delegation usually dominated. ‘You don’t really like them, but you respect them a lot because you know they are really smart,’ said a competing executive.”
In the conclusion of her book, Tarbell faults Standard Oil on ethical grounds, decrying people who justify the “force and fraud” employed by Rockefeller by saying, “It’s just business.” No such lament comes from Steve Coll, who concludes that ExxonMobil’s ascendancy reflects “in part the growing relative power of corporations in the American political and economic system.” He notes that corporate profits in 2011 “made up a larger share of American national income, when compared to workers’ wages and small business income, than at any time since 1929 when such statistics were first recorded.” And he points out that ExxonMobil, which is big enough to have “its own foreign, security, and economic policies,” still has its triple-A credit rating, which the federal government has lost. A private empire indeed.
- Milton Moskowitz is a member of the editorial board of Business and Society Review and codeveloper (with Robert Levering) of Fortune magazine’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” survey. He is the author of seven books, including The Executive’s Almanac: A Diverse Portfolio of Eclectic Business Trivia (Quirk Books, 2006).