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Charlie Penner

Charlie Penner

Photographer: Mark Elzey for Bloomberg Businessweek

Charlie Penner, the Investor Reshaping Exxon From the Inside

In May the tiny investment fund Penner worked for, Engine No. 1, landed three independent directors on the board of Exxon Mobil, one of the most stunning upsets for a shareholder vote.

The idea that turned Penner into one of Big Oil’s most effective gadflies crystallized for him during a runner’s high. He was crossing the Manhattan Bridge when he stopped to dictate his thoughts into his iPhone: Maybe Exxon believed it unrealistic that electric vehicles, renewable energy, and improved energy efficiency would threaten growth in the fossil fuel business. “But we think it equally unrealistic to expect humanity to wipe itself out without at least attempting major shifts,” Penner said.

A year and a half later, those ideas culminated in the election of the new board members, over the objections of Exxon management. Pushing those candidates was part of Penner’s broader aim: to get Exxon to treat climate change as a threat not only to the planet but also to its bottom line. As a shareholder in Exxon, Engine No. 1 argued that a fresh set of directors could help the company find alternatives to its heavy investment in fossil fuel production and increase its share price in the process.