John D. Rockefeller's heirs urge Exxon Mobil to play nicer.

Commentary about business and finance.
April 30 2008 5:31 PM

There Will Be Blood Orange Juice

John D. Rockefeller's heirs urge Exxon Mobil to play nicer.

John D. Rockefeller. Click image to expand.
John D. Rockefeller

This morning, an unusual breakfast press conference was staged in midtown Manhattan.

The place: The Estrela Room on the penthouse level of the Parker-Meridien hotel.
The spread: Excellent. Carafes of fruit juices and flaky croissants.
The vibe: Gently throbbing Euro-pop background music.
The speakers: Neva Rockefeller Goodwin and Peter O'Neill, members of the Rockefeller family who are pushing for changes in corporate governance at Exxon Mobil, the descendant of the Standard Oil company created by John D. Rockefeller.

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No family in American history has possessed more wealth, or been more conflicted about the obligations and benefits it bestows, than the Rockefellers, who are now enjoying their sixth generation of good fortune. And the mixture of modesty, politesse, and concern for the world that has characterized the Rockefeller brand for more than a century was on full display.

The Rockefeller family members were far less slick and comfortable at the podium than the executive (Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund) and  politician (Connecticut Treasurer Denise Nappier) who accompanied them. Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, a daughter of David Rockefeller and hence great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, is a Tufts University economist who elides the Rockefeller out of her professional name. She sported a blue sweater, glasses, and an unfussy mane of graying hair. Peter O'Neill, a great-great-grandson of the original, had a pen protruding from his shirt pocket. These are people who were bred not to raise their voices too forcefully in public or to brandish the family name as a weapon. Their modest delivery makes self-important pronouncements seem nonthreatening. Sample line: "As the oldest continuous shareholders of the Exxon Mobil corporation, we almost define the long-term investors," said Neva Rockefeller Goodwin. "My great-grandfather revolutionized the oil industry over a century ago."

The Rockefellers made a point of repeatedly complimenting the hired help on jobs well-done. "It's not about [Exxon Mobil CEO] Rex Tillerson," said Peter O'Neill. "He's an amazing oil and gas manager." Management, he continued, is "very good about planning these big projects and implementing them, and they should be applauded for it." But while the Rockefellers very much appreciate the $40 billion in profits Exxon Mobil earned last year, the family notes that there are "serious disjunctions that we perceive between Exxon's short-term actions and the long-term health of both this company and the economy."

The 66 adult descendants of John D. Rockefeller  who signed on to this initiative (84 percent of the total) are worried: Competitors have been more aggressive on renewables and alternative energy; having the same person hold the job of chief executive officer and chairman of the board contributes to an insular culture and a lack of critical and imaginative thinking; the company isn't thinking outside the barrel to deal with climate change or prepare for regulatory changes. And so they have reluctantly decided to call publicly for shareholder votes on a resolution to separate the posts of chairman and chief executive officer, and on a resolution to have Exxon Mobil convene a task force to examine the company's assumptions about growth markets and the consequences of global climate change on poor economies.

The scions of a fortune created in the 19th century want the company to embrace the 21st century. They'd like Exxon Mobil to be an agent of change, not an obstacle to it. In boosting investments in renewables and focusing on climate change, Exxon Mobil wouldn't be succumbing to the sort of mushy, feel-good impulses that emanate from the Rockefeller Foundation, Goodwin and O'Neill argued. Rather, it would be going back to the future. The company needs to "reconnect with the forward-looking and entrepreneurial vision of my great-grandfather." After all, kerosene was the "alternative energy of its day."

Good points all, and well-delivered. But the Rockefellers, of all families, should know that Exxon Mobil is unlikely to have much success ushering in a new energy paradigm that will change the world for the better. Virtually all the good works conducted by John D. Rockefeller, and by his descendants, have been done by the nonprofit foundations and philanthropic institutions he created, not by the efficiency-seeking, for-profit machine he built. What's more, a company that depends on an established technology rarely has the incentives or ability to lead a shift to the technology that will upend the old way. The oil industry was created by a dry-goods merchant in Cleveland, not by whale-oil harvesters in New England.

In his engaging memoir, David Rockefeller notes that modesty and a relentless focus on behaving appropriately were significant—at times overwhelming—parts of the Rockefeller inheritance. And those were on full display here. When asked how many shares of Exxon Mobil the family held, Neva Rockefeller Goodwin said she had no idea. And I left with the sense that in the Rockefellers' eyes, Exxon Mobil's management is as much guilty of poor manners as it is of poor corporate governance. When Rex Tillerson was tapped as the new CEO, about two-thirds of the adult Rockefeller family members wrote him a letter, which welcomed him and asked for a meeting with him and the board. "He was not responsive to that," Neva Rockefeller Goodwin said. At another point, David Rockefeller brought his daughter to lunch with Tillerson and outgoing CEO Lee Raymond. "But I was told I had to behave myself and not say much," she said. Since then, the board and Tillerson have brushed off family requests to engage on these issues. "The responses were written by representatives of management" rather than by Tillerson himself. Which leads me to think that Exxon Mobil, while it has genius engineers and managers, must have some pretty thickheaded investor-relations staffers. If you're going to kiss off the Rockefellers, don't have a lackey do it.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

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