Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power Hardcover – May 1 2012
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A 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
One of Financial Times' Best Books of 2012
“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.”
“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.”
--San Francisco Chronicle
"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."
--Bill McKibben, New York Review of Books
About the Author
Steve Coll is most recently the author of the New York Times bestseller The Bin Ladens. He is the president of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute headquartered in Washington, D.C., and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Previously heworked for twenty years at The Washington Post, where he received a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1990. He is the author of six other books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller Ghost Wars.
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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.
COMPOSITION of the Book
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.
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.
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.
Thanks in advance.
ExxonMobil is undoubtedly a corporation to be admired and vilified but the book fails to really commit the reader instead it rather numbed me.Both Raymond and Tilleson, bearing in mind the scale of the operation they ran and the results ExxonMobil consistently produced, must be larger than life characters but this fails to come across and there is an incredible lack of detail about any of the key subordinates who drove the corporation forward. Maybe they are just "men in suits" managing endless Powerpoint presentations but that is difficult to believe.
Should be read but do not expect any real insight.
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