If you were expecting "Private Empire", the latest book by two time Pulitzer Prize winning author Steve Coll, to serve as a hit piece on Exxon Mobil (XOM) (and "big oil" in general) you'll be somewhat disappointed.
For anyone unfamiliar with his previous work, Steve Coll's earlier books include the highly recommended "Ghost Wars", arguably the definitive geopolitical account of the activities of the CIA and other national intelligence agencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan from the time of the Soviet invasion up to the eve of the 9-11. Ghost Wars won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for general non-fiction and was one of the books a newly elected President Barrack Obama was reported to be reading upon entering office.
Steve Coll describes in an interview with Charlie Rose what lead him to want to write Private Empire and how his original idea for the book was to tell a broader story about the oil industry in the style of Daniel Yergin's "The Prize". He soon realized, however, that he needed a central character and Exxon was for him the only logical choice.
Coll's portrait of Exxon begins in March 1989 with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, an event which made the company the most reviled in the United Sates. The book's timeline spans the subsequent transformation of the company, which was led by CEO Lee "Iron Ass" Raymond, up through its present day stewardship by current CEO Rex Tillerson.
Along the way we learn a great deal about Exxon, including its somewhat peculiar cult like corporate culture, its blockbuster merger with Mobil, its controversial stance and efforts on global warning, the access it enjoyed to political leaders such as Vice President Dick Cheney, its somewhat misleading approach to reporting oil reserves, and the company's record setting financial success. The book in fact makes for a compelling business case study and students of business history, strategy and management will find much of interest.
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