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ConocoPhillips: The Making Of An Oil Major

Jim Mulva's boldness put the energy company in the top tier. And his big bets haven't stopped

If you asked Central Casting for an oil company CEO, you would not get James J. Mulva. He's a mild-mannered, soft-spoken number cruncher who started his career in the Phillips Petroleum Co. treasury office. In an industry filled with hard-nosed petroleum engineers, Mulva comes across as way too low-key to be the boss of ConocoPhillips (COP ), the No. 3 American major, behind Exxon Mobil (XOM ) and Chevron (CVX ).

But his actions paint a portrait that's more Mr. T than Mr. Rogers. As chief executive officer of the sleepy Bartlesville (Okla.)-based Phillips, Mulva conceived the bold $16 billion deal that created ConocoPhillips in 2002 and vaulted it into the league of energy giants so large they're called supermajors. Now he's shaping up as an aggressive risk-taker willing to place multibillion-dollar bets in the most volatile places on earth. All of the industry's big players are swimming in cash, but Mulva is plowing some 70% of the company's expected cash flow back into the business, compared with 60% at Chevron Corp. and 35% at Exxon Mobil Corp.. "We're aggressive about where we want to be five years from now," Mulva said to analysts on Nov. 16.