Exxon Names Refining Boss as Heir Apparent to CEO Rex Tillerson

  • Darren Woods' promotion to president signals succession
  • Woods had been competing with production chief Jack Williams

Exxon Mobil Corp. promoted Darren Woods to president, putting him on a path to succeed Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson as leader of the world’s largest energy producer by market value.

The elevation of Woods, who oversees Exxon’s sprawling global network of oil refineries and fuel terminals, signals an apparent end to the internal competition with production chief Jack Williams to replace Tillerson upon retirement some time between now and March 2017. The promotions were announced in a statement Friday by the Irving, Texas-based company.

Woods, an electrical engineer by training who joined Exxon in 1992 as an analyst, is following the same trajectory as Tillerson in being named president and promoted to director. At 50, he 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.

“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.

Stock Awards

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 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.

Woods was not available for an interview, according to Alan Jeffers, a spokesman for Exxon.

Refining Precedents

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.

“Investors really don’t care about this because nothing fundamentally is going to change based on who is the next CEO,” said Pavel Molchanov, an analyst at Raymond James Financial Inc. “With Exxon, all the executives are lifers who are steeped in the company culture. You don’t rise to the higher levels by rocking the boat so the next person to be put in charge isn’t going to be rocking the boat.”

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