Tiller­son’s rise boosted by savvy in Rus­sian oil

The Denver Post - - NEWS NATION & WORLD - By Joe Car­roll

chicago» For Rex Tiller­son, Rus­sia was the prov­ing ground that helped vault him to lead­er­ship of a com­pany whose an­nual sales dwarf the eco­nomic out­put of most na­tions.

Tiller­son, Exxon Mo­bil Corp.’s chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer since 2006, has emerged as Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s pick for sec­re­tary of state de­spite, or per­haps be­cause of, a long record of en­gage­ment with Amer­ica’s for­mer Cold War ad­ver­sary. In the late 1990s, when serv­ing as a vice pres­i­dent for Exxon’s Rus­sian unit, Tiller­son helped re­vive a $17 bil­lion oil de­vel­op­ment in a re­mote re­gion east of Moscow that had been stalled by bu­reau­cratic in­ac­tion for most of a decade.

The project, which tapped a clus­ter of oil dis­cov­er­ies be­neath the ice­choked seas off Rus­sia’s Far East, be­came a crown jewel in Exxon’s global port­fo­lio, pump­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of bar­rels of crude since the first wells came on­line in 2005. The achievement bur­nished a ré­sumé al­ready chock-full of suc­cesses help­ing di­rect Exxon’s for­ays in the Mid­dle East and South­east Asia.

“Rus­sia made his ca­reer,” Joseph Pratt, a Univer­sity of Hous­ton oil-in­dus­try his­to­rian, said in a 2015 in­ter­view. Tiller­son’s suc­cess in tur­bu­lent late ’90s Rus­sia “re­ally im­pressed” Exxon’s lead­er­ship team at cor­po­rate head­quar­ters in Irv­ing, Texas.

Tiller­son joined Exxon in 1975 af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Univer­sity of Texas with a civil en­gi­neer­ing de­gree. If con­firmed as sec­re­tary of state, he would be the first oil ex­ec­u­tive and only the sec­ond Texan to hold the of­fice. And it would hand top diplo­matic pow­ers to a man whose ties to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin go back to 1999. An of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment of his nom­i­na­tion is ex­pected to­day.

Exxon spokesman Alan Jef­fers de­clined to com­ment on Tiller­son or the com­pany’s suc­ces­sion plan, al­though the chief ex­ec­u­tive will hit Exxon’s manda­tory re­tire­ment age of 65 in March.

Exxon’s board pro­moted Tiller­son to pres­i­dent in 2004, sig­nal­ing he was in line to suc­ceed Lee Ray­mond as chair­man and CEO. Tiller­son was a sur­prise pick at the time, edg­ing out older ri­val Ed­ward Galante for the top job in an or­ga­ni­za­tion that puts a premium on ex­pe­ri­ence, said John Stuart, a for­mer vice chair­man of Guar­anty Bank in Dal­las and friend of sev­eral prom­i­nent Exxon ex­ec­u­tives. Tiller­son for­mally as­sumed the CEO role in Jan­uary 2006.

“Rex came out of nowhere in that or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Stuart said in 2006. “He was like a rocket.”

Tiller­son’s re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia evolved in the years fol­low­ing the Soviet Union’s col­lapse in 1991. It was a time when Exxon saw its ef­forts to ex­plore oil-rich zones in Rus­sia’s in­te­rior frus­trated by bu­reau­cratic hur­dles, in­clud­ing the in­abil­ity to gar­ner per­mits or drilling li­censes.

In re­sponse, in-coun­try ex­ec­u­tives in­clud­ing Tiller­son de­cided to pur­sue a “pe­riph­eral strat­egy” that fo­cused on projects on the na­tion’s edges, close to ports that could ex­port crude as soon as it was pumped out of the ground, ac­cord­ing to Pratt.

Rex Tiller­son, Exxon Mo­bil Corp.’s chair­man and CEO since 2006, is Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s pick for sec­re­tary of state. Evan Vucci, The Associated Press

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