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’s chairman and chief executive officer since 2006, was selected by President-elect Donald Trump’s 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 ice-choked 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 on-line 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,” said Joseph Pratt, a University of Houston oil-industry historian, in a 2015 interview. Tillerson’s success in turbulent late-’90s Russia “really impressed” Exxon’s leadership team at corporate headquarters in Irving.
Tillerson joined Exxon in 1975 after graduating from the University of Texas with a civil engineering degree. If named as secretary of state, he would be the first oil executive and only the second Texan to hold the office.
Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers declined to comment on Tillerson’s candidacy or the company’s succession plan, although the chief executive will hit Exxon’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in March. Exxon Mobil owns XTO Energy in Fort Worth.
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 a 2006 interview. “He was like a rocket.”
Tillerson had caught the eye of senior managers grooming future leaders as early as 1992, when he was summoned to Exxon’s corporate headquarters to vet new oil-production proposals for the management committee of senior vice presidents that oversee day-to-day operations along with the chief executive officer.
That was followed by a two-year assignment to Yemen, where he renegotiated a natural gas concession, and then a stint handling international gas sales in Thailand and elsewhere.
“He had handled himself well in a series of nations characterized by high political risks,” Pratt and Hale wrote in their book.