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Thierry Desmarest

In the decades following World War II, Big Oil was a mostly Anglo-Saxon affair. Until France's Thierry Desmarest came along, that is. Just three-and-a-half years after taking the helm of Paris-based Total in 1995, the soft-spoken but steely 55-year-old showed empire-building flair with his deft $12 billion acquisition of Belgian energy group PetroFina. Desmarest's biggest coup followed months later: his takeover in early 2000 of once-larger French oil rival Elf Aquitaine.

The moves make TotalFinaElf, with $101 billion in sales, the No. 1 oil refiner and distributor in Europe. In terms of production, the company is tops in Africa and No. 2 in the strategic Middle East, where it is stirring controversy with plans for investing in Iran and Iraq. Indeed, if the sanctions against Iraq are eased, Total could be the biggest winner in that piece of the oil patch. Investors are cheering: The company's shares have soared by more than 300% since Desmarest took over. Be on the watch for more audacious moves from this empire builder.

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