Rawleigh Warner, the Mobil Oil Corp. chairman and chief executive officer who took corporate image-management to a new level through company sponsorship of “Masterpiece Theater” on public television and paid opinion pieces that appeared in U.S. newspapers, has died. He was 92.
He died June 26 at his home in Hobe Sound, Florida, his daughter, Suzanne Parsons, said yesterday in an interview. The cause was complications from the progressive muscle disease known as inclusion body myositis.
As chairman and CEO from 1969 to 1986, and president from 1965 to 1969, the finance-minded Warner led Mobil, then based in New York, as it overtook rivals to become second in sales behind Exxon Corp., years before the two companies merged. He had a hand in all facets of Mobil’s operations, from oil production around the world to its logo and cultural sponsorships.
With his successor as president, William P. Tavoulareas, Warner made Mobil a leading recipient of crude oil from Saudi Arabia while also increasing production in North America through the purchases of domestic reserves, according to the New York Times obituary of Tavoulareas in 1996. (In 1979, Warner took home $4.3 million and Tavoulareas $2.3 million, and were among just 33 U.S. executives who earned more than $1 million, according to Time magazine.)
Warner was credited with instilling an emphasis on asset management and financial stewardship, which weren’t then typical of oil companies. According to his family, he considered his chief legacy to have been developing young executives for corporate leadership positions.
In 1966, early in Warner’s tenure as president, Mobil revised its logo, removing the red Pegasus featured for 35 years in favor of the word “Mobil” in blue lettering except for the letter O, in red.
In the 1970s, under Warner and his vice president for public affairs, Herb Schmertz, Mobil began sponsoring “Masterpiece Theatre” on PBS, a relationship that ran to 2004.
In 1970, after the New York Times opened its op-ed page to paid advertising, Warner directed Schmertz to give Mobil a voice in public affairs through what became known as advocacy advertising. By 1975, according to a Times story, Mobil’s op-ed ads were appearing every week in the Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.
Mobil’s high profile reflected its chairman’s belief that big business needed to stand up to criticism, Newsweek reported in 1976.
“My worry is that I don’t see many other people responding as we have,” Warner said, according to Newsweek. “I think it’s wrong for business to hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over.”
Not every element of Warner’s growth strategy was a success. In 1985, one year before he stepped down at age 65, Mobil shed money-losing retailer Montgomery Ward, which it had acquired nine years earlier.
Following his retirement in 1986, Warner served on the board of American Express Co. and started the ultimately successful effort to oust James Robinson III as chief executive.
In December 1999, Exxon bought Mobil for $85.2 billion in stock in what was then the biggest takeover. The merger formed Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM), today the world’s largest company by market value.
Warner was “thrilled” by the merger, his daughter said.
Rawleigh Warner Jr. was born on Feb. 13, 1921, in Chicago to Rawleigh Warner Sr., who was chairman of Pure Oil Co., and the former Dorothy Haskins. He grew up in the Chicago suburbs of Evanston and Winnetka, and attended Lake Forest Academy.
Then, following in his father’s footsteps, he enrolled in the Lawrenceville School and graduated in 1943 from Princeton University, both in New Jersey.
He entered the U.S. Army and served in field artillery with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, attained the rank of captain and was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, according to a death notice in the New York Times.
In 1946, the year of his discharge from the service, he married the former Mary Ann de Clairmont. They raised their family in New Canaan, Connecticut, in a house designed for them by modernist architect John Johansen that is cited on the website of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Also in 1946, he co-founded an investment firm, Warner Bard & Co., with another Princeton graduate, Ralph Bard. Looking for a new line of work two years later, he ruled out joining his father at Pure Oil because of a concern about the appearance of nepotism, he explained to the New York Times in 1965.
His father did advise him that Conoco -- the Continental Oil Co. -- was building a financial staff, the Times said, and Warner joined the Houston-based company as assistant to the treasurer in 1948.
As Warner told the story, his wife withered in the Texas heat and went through a whole packet of tissues during one dinner party about five years after they moved to Houston. Another guest at that dinner, George Holton, chairman of Socony -- the Standard Oil Co. of New York, one of the successors to the broken-up Standard Oil -- noticed her struggles and thought her husband might welcome a chance to relocate.
“I always attribute the fact that I joined Socony to a package of Kleenex,” Warner said, according to the Times.
Warner joined Socony -- then known as Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. -- in 1953 as an assistant to the financial vice president of a unit based in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He was transferred to the parent company as manager of its economics department, according to the Times.
He managed Socony’s Middle East department and was named a regional vice president of Mobil International Oil Co., another Socony division.
He became president of the renamed Socony Mobil Oil Co. in 1965. It became Mobil a year later.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Warner’s survivors include a second daughter, Alison Pyne; four grandchildren, Rebecca Parsons Bartels, Amalia Pyne Sykes, Rawleigh Warner Pyne and Emily Parsons Talamo; and four great grandsons. He also is survived by two sisters, Dorothy Sills and Suzanne Kenly.
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