ExxonMobil CEO Stands Strong

At the annual shareholders' meeting, Rex Tillerson holds off a Rockefeller-family effort to appoint an independent chairman

DALLAS—ExxonMobil (XOM) Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson neatly beat back a highly promoted effort by the company's founding family to weaken his power at the May 28 annual shareholders' meeting.

Shareholders heard Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, a great-grandaughter of John D. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil—the mother of present-day major oil companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron (CVX)—advocate the appointment of an independent chairman. When votes were counted, 39.5% of ExxonMobil's shareholders supported her. That is a bit less than the 40% who backed the same resolution last year, when there was no such public Rockefeller family action.

In contrast to the hulabaloo surrounding the revolt by the Rockefellers and some 20 institutional investors, there were no fireworks at the gathering itself. A small, quiet group of protestors milled outside, most of them supporting environmental concerns. In all, shareholders offered up 17 proposals to the gathering, most of them suggesting company directors did not listen well enough to outside voices. The board of directors recommended that all be defeated, and all were.

No Hiding from Gas and Oil

Within the symphony hall chosen for the event, questioners were polite to Tillerson, at times almost reverential. ExxonMobil's return on capital last year was 32%, nearly half again that of its competitors.

Tillerson delivered a robust defense of company management, in particular its go-slow approach toward investment in renewable fuels. He said the outlook is, even decades from now, that 60% of the world's energy is still going to come from oil and natural gas.

"Whether you like it or not, you can run but you can't hide—that's what you are going to be using 25 to 30 years from now," Tillerson said.

Will Keep Working on Communication

The outcome was an anticlimax to a weeks-long public relations effort by Goodwin, an economics professor at Tufts University, to rally ExxonMobil shareholders around, among other things, the idea of shifting the company's focus more toward the development of renewable energy. The company got the shareholders to defeat all four resolutions advocated by Goodwin.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Tillerson did not gloat, but rather noted there was "fairly strong" support for Goodwin's resolution on splitting the company's top two jobs. The message, he suggested, was not that his position should be weakened, but the company needed to do a better job of communicating its position to the public, to shareholders, and to the U.S. government. "We have to keep working at that," he said.

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