Exxon promotion signals refining boss may succeed CEO Rex Tillerson

Darren Woods will become president of Exxon Mobil on Jan. 1.
Darren Woods will become president of Exxon Mobil on Jan. 1.

Exxon Mobil’s selection of Darren Woods as its next president follows a string of oil companies turning to their refining divisions to find new leaders.

The announcement Friday puts Woods on a path to succeed Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson as leader of the world’s largest energy producer when he retires sometime between now and March 2017. It also signals an apparent end to the internal competition with production chief Jack Williams, a former head of XTO Energy, to replace Tillerson.

Woods, an electrical engineer by training who oversees Exxon’s sprawling global network of oil refineries and fuel terminals, joined Exxon in 1992 as an analys. He is following the same trajectory as Tillerson in being named president and promoted to director. At 50, Woods is the youngest member of the 13-person board.

Many observers had expected Exxon to favor Williams because he emerged from and runs the oil- and gas-producing business that generates almost 80 percent of the company’s profit. Williams ran XTO for three years following Exxon’s 2010 acquisition of the Fort Worth-based producer before returning to Exxon Mobil Production as executive vice president. Last year, he was elected a senior vice president.

“The days of strictly just looking at your biggest business unit and plucking the next CEO from that pool of executives is over,” said Brian Youngberg, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co. in St. Louis. “At Exxon, they look at who they think their best leader is, no matter what they operate.”

Woods, a native of Wichita, Kansas, worked his way up through the refining and chemicals businesses until his appointment to the management committee that oversees day-to-day operations in 2014 alongside Williams. His promotion to president was made by the board on Dec. 9 but not announced until Friday.

Exxon awarded Woods 26,400 restricted stock units on Wednesday, it disclosed in a filing. That award follows on the heels of 64,400 units in November, another filing shows. The units, which convert to shares, were worth a combined $6.75 million at Friday’s close.

Tillerson, 63, will reach Exxon’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in March 2017. For now, he remains CEO and chairman of the board, according to the statement. Tillerson has been CEO since January 2006.

Exxon follows big European rivals Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Total SA in tapping refining experts as their next leaders. Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden was director of downstream before his elevation in 2014; Total’s Patrick Pouyanne was plucked from the French company’s refining arm when longtime boss Christophe De Margerie was killed in a plane crash in Russia later that same year.