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As a reader you can never really explain it, but a truly great author can make anything come alive while others will put you to sleep. Steve Coll is a Pulitzer Prize winner author of Ghost Wars - the Secret History of the CIA, which is another book you just can't put down. Private Empire is special, and the title is so appropriate, a company that has been in business for over a 100 years. It has seen 19 American Presidents come and go, and yet it remains the dominant energy company in the world, and this book covers the whole story.

There is very little devoted to the early history of the company. As we all probably know John D. Rockefeller created the Standard Oil Trust and when it was broken up by the Trust Busters in the early 20th century, one of the spin-offs was the early ancestor to what is now Exxon which eventually combined with Mobil Oil to form ExxonMobil. Rockefeller controlled 14% of the American economy at one point, and oil has remained our dominant energy source ever since.

What a book, what a story for Exxon is the tale of 20th century America and our country's rise to both prominence and dominance in the world both politically and economically. A company so powerful that it considers itself in many ways a state within a state with an internal security force the equivalent of the Secret Service that guards our President. And why not, Exxon has recruited the best of the retired Secret Service agents to develop, install, and maintain a security shield around this company's behavior and its employees.

The book devotes a chapter to the kidnapping and death of Exxon executive Sidney Reso and how CEO Lee Raymond completely revamped the entire company to ensure that it would not happen again. You will learn about the finest private corporate jet fleet in America, and how the Board of Directors mandated that the CEO would never fly a commercial flight again.

It's absolutely absorbing to study in detail how the company after decades in New York moved its corporate headquarters to Dallas Texas and how the building was designed for secrecy with an inner sanctum within an inner sanctum. It was called the God Pod, and the building was called the Death Star after the Star Wars movies.

Lee Raymond proudly proclaims about his competitors, we are Oil - the rest of you are kids. Nothing is left to chance for the dominant oil company in the world. They don't run the company on emotions, they run it on science and principles as the book points out. It is the relentless pursuit of efficiency, another catchphrase employed by the author.


This tome is over 700 pages spread over 28 chapters with extensive use of footnotes. It is separated into two parts, the first 14 chapters or part I is The End of Easy Oil, while Part II is The Risk Cycle which covers 14 additional chapters.

To truly cover the history of Exxon from the beginning, you would need 1500 to 2000 pages, so the author decided to begin with the Exxon Valdez tragedy. In March of 1989, an Exxon oil tanker traveling through Prince Edward Sound went aground and created an environmental and public relations nightmare for Exxon. The story is covered in detail and the book clearly demonstrates how Lee Raymond who would become CEO in the future used the tragedy to essentially completely revamp Exxon's corporate structure and behavior.

The author also wisely decided to use Lee Raymond as the point man or cornerstone of this book. We see Exxon through Raymond's eyes, and as Raymond says in the book, we see governments come and go. This is an acknowledgment that Exxon thinks and plans for decades at a time, not years.


Yes, it is all here. If you are into business biographies, this one is tops. If you are into geopolitical power and how corporations interact with governments including their own government this book is an eye-opener. If you want to get a real feel for what it's like for tens of thousands of people to dedicate themselves to the optimal running of a corporation and very little else, this book may turn you on or turn you off.

Exxon is a demanding master for those who serve, and for those who serve willingly, it makes them rich, and materially they want for nothing. Yes the corporation will absorb your soul and ask everything of you. This is all the more interesting when you consider that all the top people in this company seem to be cut from the same cloth meaning the same religious belief systems, basically Southern colleges, and political beliefs - no left wing partisans need to submit a resume. You simply would not pass the background check.

This reader thought the two chapter headings that best describe the Exxon culture were Chapter 4 - Do you really want us as an enemy, and Chapter 17 I pray for Exxon. The best line in the book was a sentence where Exxon's attitude is described as F_ _ _ you - no apologies, oil is here to stay. This is truly a great read. You don't want to miss it, and you will understand much more about oil, lobbyists, how our government works, and energy that you could have ever possibly wanted to know. Get it today.

Richard Stoyeck
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on May 12, 2012
A Pulitzer Prize winning New Yorker author writes a vast book about the largest corporation in the United States. You can picture the book, you say. Long on research, including large numbers of interviews with people who refuse to be quoted by name? Yes. Engaging distillation of technical information into a readily understood summary? Yes. Characters and scenes drawn with a cinematic vividness? Yes. Revelations that require the reader to rethink his or her basic understanding of the book's subject? Well no.

I spent most of the book's 700 pages waiting for The Revelation. The Secret. The...well, anything. This is certainly more the fault of my expectations than any deficiency in the book. But it is odd that the author would have spent such a huge amount of time and energy writing such a detailed book about two decades of ExxonMobil corporate history without a central theme. Maybe I have simply read too many books about the oil industry and spend too much of life reading business newspapers and magazines, but the general tale told in this book is very well known. What is less well known is the details of the various strands of the story, and those strands are told with exquisite detail, well supported by copious footnotes, even though many (most?) of the cited interviews fail to name the individuals cited.

The book starts crisply with a factual description of the hours leading to the Exxon Valdez disaster and ends two decades later with BP's Deepwater Horizon fiasco. In between we are given an inside look at the corporate culture and operating environment of ExxonMobil. The book consists almost entirely of dozens of intimate scenes. Retreats where Exxon executives uneasily spend days with environmentalists, descriptions of the compounds in Chad where ExxonMobil contractors and employees are barricaded behind thick walls as government security forces ward off locals wanting everything from jobs to equipment to kidnapping.

The author accomplishes several feats in this book, among those are his ability to stitch together disparate scenes to create a three-dimensional view of the world in which Exxon operates, and to coherently present the issues and personalities in all of their complexities.

While Exxon has three divisions: chemicals, upstream (oil and gas exploration and production) and downstream (refining and the gasoline station companies), the real money, the high returns are in the upstream division. Increasingly, new oil and gas reserves available for "ownership" by private companies like ExxonMobil, are in difficult places. Geologically difficult in places such as the Arctic and politically difficult in places such as Chad and Nigeria. Each of these difficulties is explained by giving us a detailed picture of the people, issues and places in which Exxon has been maneuvering over the last 20 years.

But the real triumph of this book is in the endless subtlety of the issues and people presented. Take Chad for example. Human rights and development advocates have argued for some time that it is inappropriate for a company to simply negotiate for the ownership of a country's natural resources with the ruler of that country. The result is often a country that decades later is in worse shape economically than before the contract was signed. A few individuals surrounding the ruler become obscenely wealthy, but that wealth does nothing for the country as a while. ExxonMobil was old school in this and many other matters. Executives were certain that by universally applying a rigorously developed set of rules set down in binders developed over years in the company's Texas headquarters that problems could be reduced to a minimum. It complied with applicable US and foreign laws, but refused to involve itself in the countries or communities where it did business. It paid government agencies to provide security for its facilities and personnel, but was not particularly concerned about how these forces protected these assets. This rigidity did not necessarily serve the company well, and when it negotiated a large contract with Chad it took a completely new route and required that all revenues be under the control of the World Bank, supposedly assuring that the funds would aid the country as a while, not just the ruling elite. This was not easy to negotiate for ExxonMobil, and the author gives us enough detail to see the interests of the various parties, and the effort required by ExxonMobil to accomplish this more "enlightened" approach to resource contracts. But this experiment failed, failed rather miserably, and you get a sense of why ExxonMobil preferred to keep things simple. Use a single model and keep to it.

The nuances of the book are most clearly at play when the author describes Lee Raymond, the Chairman during most of the time covered by the book. Conservative, short-tempered and unable to suffer fools without disdain, he was notoriously opposed to the very idea that climate change existed, let alone that it was a problem. But the author clearly respects the attention to detail and integrity of Mr. Raymond, and his nuanced and detailed portrayal of him echoes his portrayal of the company. If you are interested in an inside look at the world in which ExxonMobil has operated since the Valdez disaster, this is the book. If, on the other hand, you are looking for an expose, a smoking gun, you will need to keep looking.
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on May 3, 2012
This was a door stopper of a book. I haven't had a real hefty book for a bit and it was a real delight to sit and hold a real solid book again. And what a book it was. Starting with the the Exxon Valdez spill and book-ending with the Deepwater Horizon disaster Private Empire details the arrogance that is ExxonMobil.

Mr. Coll's writing style is easy even when explaining oil extraction methods or the geopolitics of oil and natural gas rights. It reads almost like a suspense novel except that it's all true. And that is what makes it so scary. I found myself turning page after page reeling at my naivete. I think I want to go back to being uninformed. It's a happier state of mind.

Mr. Coll's research for the book was quite extensive and the book is heavily footnoted. He conducted over 400 interviews with people great and small and he weaves what they shared together with facts gathered from all over the world to take the reader on a ride from oil fields to the offices of political power in this country and beyond. It was utterly fascinating to get a peak inside the Borg like culture of Exxon. Tow the company line or find another job.

I have not enjoyed a non fiction book this much in a long, long time. I just wish I wasn't so surprised at what I learned.
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on July 16, 2012
I think when I purchased this I was expecting a content similar in style to "The Prize" ,which was a fantastic read and I was terribly wrong and had to grind my way through , finally leaving it hugely disappointed. For such a fascinating subject I found the book to be unnecessarily repetitive with the endless comments about "Bookable Reserves" and hints but no real substance to many of the comments about the corporation's relationship to government. Almost every chapter begins with an inticing storyline which somehow manages to peter out as underlying detail is missed or simply implied but never followed up. The section on Exxon Chemicals is too brief and probably superflous to the rest of the book. The exception to the negative comment is to be found in the detail of the post-Mobil acquisition and the contrasting style of the Mobil worldwide operations, would have appreciated much more information and informed comment.

ExxonMobil is undoubtedly a corporation to be admired and vilified but the book fails to really commit the reader instead it rather numbed me.Both Raymond and Tilleson, bearing in mind the scale of the operation they ran and the results ExxonMobil consistently produced, must be larger than life characters but this fails to come across and there is an incredible lack of detail about any of the key subordinates who drove the corporation forward. Maybe they are just "men in suits" managing endless Powerpoint presentations but that is difficult to believe.

Should be read but do not expect any real insight.
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on August 17, 2012
As a consultant to many world-wide governments (excluding Venezuela) negotiating oil exploration agreements with international oil companies, I formed the firm opinion that ExxonMobil's representatives were always the smartest and best prepared of the many industry officials I met across the table. And they maintained very consistent and clear positions on key issues.

Steven Coll's broad description of ExxonMobil is entirely consistent with my own experience, and also accurate in those situations where I had personal knowledge of the events he describes.

So: "Smart, Tough, Powerful but Ethical" may be the reality but this must come as a disappointment to those readers who expected and hoped that Coll would expose unsavory deals, corruption or other evils. Even in his "Cash Waterfall" chapter (and the correct term is "cash flow" before distortion through translation from English to Spanish and back to English), he accurately describes a tricky but totally warranted maneuver with Hugo Chavez's government.

What is best in this book, however, is the neutral posture Coll adopts throughout; only the facts and opinions expressed by the author's sources but not judgmental on his part.

My reluctance to give 5 Stars is simply that the author missed describing some events I think are very interesting.
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VINE VOICEon May 15, 2013
I decided to read this book because I am considering working in the oil industry and it was one of four books, including The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power,The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, and Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future that were recommended to me by someone working in the oil industry. My father started with The Prize and says it is excellent, so I will be reading that next.
I wish I could offer as positive review of Private Empire. I am continually frustrated by this book because the incidents related follow no sensible order. It's not chronological. It's not topical. We visit ExxonMobil in Indonesia, leave the story part way through and come back to it chapters later. The lack of cohesion is the one of the most serious issues with this book.
The other is the drive by the author to be sensationalist. I was a Environmental Contractor that had ExxonMobil as a client at one point. When I read the account of the MD gasoline spill midway through the book, I was shocked and frustrated by the author's treatment of the spill and his emphasis strictly on the fraud case. I think Exxon learned from the Valdez incident, because when I worked with them I found them to be profoundly by the book. Where other clients fought me about every penny spent on remediation, ExxonMobil gave me whatever I needed to get the job done right the first time. There is real value to the environment, people, and wildlife that comes from rapid spill response. So while I think there are plenty of things that Coll could reasonably crucify ExxonMobil for, I do not think his treatment of environmental issues, with the exception of climate change, post-Valdez are entirely fair based.
I do think there is legitimate reason to vilify ExxonMobil for it's stance on climate change and it's slow evolution toward what the scientific community has known for most of my lifetime. The long term ramifications of this decision are vast, and will affect us all.
This book is fascinating, despite it's disorganization. For that reason, it is worth wading through it. But, I am not sure it is the most accurate view of the inner workings of ExxonMobil. This needs to be taken into account as one reads the book. If it relied more heavily on a chronological factual approach, I think Coll could have made a convincing and perhaps damning case against not just ExxonMobil, but the worldwide love affair with fossil fuels.
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on August 15, 2012
Review of Coll's Private empire by Paul F. Ross

Exxon was the venue for an important part of this reader's career, so discovering Coll's history in the bookstore on one of my recent visits, and seeing that it covered recent years ( Exxon Valdez 1989 - Deepwater Horizon 2010 ), won my immediate interest, purchase, and early reading. ExxonMobil is a private empire, its annual revenues exceeding the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of many nations. It is in

Coll, Steve Private empire: ExxonMobil and American power 2012, The Penguin Press, New York NY, xvi + 685 pages

the oil business, worldwide. Coll helps the reader see the oil business although the view is largely through the eyes of the ExxonMobil chief executive officer (CEO). Opening with the grounding and oil spill of the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and closing with the oil spill following the well blowout beneath BP's Deepwater Horizon in 2010, Coll captures the ebb and flow of oil nationalism, the politics of dealing with nations sitting on oil reserves, growing environmental awareness, risk management, changing oil drilling and oil transport technologies, changing energy markets, and the personalities accompanying changes in corporate leadership. ExxonMobil is one of the world's large oil companies, rivaled by Shell and BP among the investor-owned variety and by nationalized companies in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia, Nigeria, and other locations (Iran, Qatar, Dubai, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, etc.). Coll maintains a degree of objectivity. His account is worth the read.

The world's energy needs and the world's energy supply are the backdrops for this history. They provide the circumstances, the conditions, driving searches for energy resources, research, and costs. The balance between needs and availability cannot be overemphasized with respect to their importance. Oil, coal, and gas have been the major fuels in recent history. Environmental awareness has drawn attention to all three with emphasis on coal and harmful effects from its combustion. Oil spills used by Coll to bookend his history are headline-winning, harmful, yet - avoidable though they can be and must become - are a small part of the total environmental harm produced by the human need for fuel. The Dutch disease - the economic distortion and misuse of economic opportunities, is prominent in this history as countries, nationalizing their oil wealth - fails to use the oil resources being "produced" for "all the people" to whom this wealth, the land and its resources, "belong." The national-level economic problems following bursts of economic good fortune (bubbles, etc.), known as the Dutch disease, happen too often despite efforts to hold it in check. See in particular ExxonMobil's effort in Chad, in cooperation with the World Bank, reported in this history. See also the story of Venezuela's use of its oil wealth. The ExxonMobil role in these stories, and its own race for survival in the competitive world of capitalism as it seeks to replace the oil (and now gas) resources used each year with newly discovered-acquired resources equaling those used in order to preserve and protect its own survival and its shareholders' interests, is its own Till Eulenspiegel-like tale.

Joining Exxon (then Standard Oil Company [New Jersey]) in 1959, my wife and I soon attended the 75th anniversary celebration of the company's founding at a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan along with many hundreds of others, our children in the care of a baby sitter for the evening and we wondering what we had done to earn this opportunity. After five years in Exxon's world headquarters in Rockefeller Center where some exciting research work was happening, I getting to be a part of it, I accepted an assignment with Imperial Oil in Canada, an affiliate of Exxon both then and now, and enjoyed more exciting work there before returning to the US and, soon, employment with the management consulting firm of Arthur D. Little Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sitting in the weekly meeting of departmental leaders in Exxon's Employee Relations Department in Manhattan and hearing the business items reported around the table ... from the oil fields in Venezuela, a refinery in Texas, a headquarters office in London, Aramco offices in Saudi Arabia, and from Toronto in Canada ... introduced this neophyte to business as it was being conducted throughout most of the world. In 1959 I was excited because I was joining an energy company, leaving the insurance industry, and energy surely was more important in this world than was insurance. I soon discovered that "Jersey" was not an energy company in its own perception. It was an oil company. Each day, commuting two hours each way from home in Connecticut, I sometimes shared my seat on the train with Mobil staff members. In the half century since then, Exxon and Mobil merged, have their world headquarters now in Irving, Texas, and, as Coll's history reports, ExxonMobil is still an oil company.

My career having focused on how teams function and how individuals and teams achieve their best performance, Coll's history, in my view, has the typical shortcomings of biographies and histories as customarily done. The author chooses a topic, a hero, a theme, and the whole is woven around that central core. We readers expect that focus. That's why we're reading the author's work. But my career and scientific underpinnings teach me that, while individuals clearly matter, it is the performance of the team, the organization, that determines organizational outcomes, business results. Coll's history covers the leadership of Lee Raymond and Rex Tillerson as Exxon's recent CEOs and, reading the story, one has the impression that everything that is ExxonMobil is represented by the thoughts and actions of these two in turn, Tillerson somewhat different from Raymond, but these two being, in the historian's perception, the whole of ExxonMobil. That is like saying Churchill was all of England during WWII and Lincoln was all of America during the American Civil War. It is nonsense. Leaders are important but, in the larger scheme of things, they contribute only a bit, sometimes a rather small bit, to the organizational outcomes and the march of events. Outside forces (the growing environmental interest in climate change and its causes) and surprises (e.g. BP's poor management and equipment failure in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon event; the banking industry's errors and the economic collapse of 2007-2009) have their effects. Outside effects are charted clearly enough by Coll, but the author's perception remains the perception of not just the oil industry or of shareholders and investors but of Raymond and Tillerson. ExxonMobil runs on scientific knowhow and careful management, yet ExxonMobil's scientific strength appears in this account only when the head of its engineering company in New Jersey is kidnapped and murdered. Unhappily, Coll gives science and technology nothing more than newspaper-headline-like insight and attention.

Further, in an industry necessarily watching its numbers, Coll's history has no tables and graphs, only a few maps. Its citations are of a kind only a journalist could tolerate, occasionally simply wrong. The "indefatigable" author as seen by The Economist's reviewer was less than thorough and does not meet this reviewer's, perhaps unrealistic, standards of reporting and citation accuracy. Coll was charmed by ExxonMobil's PowerPoint presentations used in the company's lobbying efforts ... certainly likely to be authoritative but not necessarily encompassing a broad spectrum of points of view.

Still, Coll's history is worth the read. I personally suspect that the oil industry's perception of the future world demands for energy, and the likely sources for that energy, are closer to the truth of what will actually happen than the enthusiasts for solar, wind, nuclear, hydrogen, and energy-conservation wish to think. ExxonMobil's relationships with the many different political settings in which it does, and must do, business is a stark reminder of the political environment of our world, a long distance from the rule of law intended in the embodiment of the United Nations. I am extraordinarily happy to have dodged, through no real wisdom of mine, a career that would have had to face these political realities in business meeting after business meeting. Even good intentions by ExxonMobil (in Chad) collapse in the face of a tradition of autocratic rule and an uneducated workforce kept that way by not providing education. Yes, the variance in socio-economic standards (the distance between rich and poor) is growing, and that's because it is considerably to the advantage of the rich to keep it that way. Even a world's-giant oil company looks like a reed of grass in the wind under these circumstances.

Having just completed my read, The Economist published a review of the book, its author describing the contents of Coll's book with few, although admiring ("Mr. Coll's indefatigable reporting produces many surprising details ..."), evaluative statements. It, too, is useful when considering whether your time in reading Coll's history is likely to be well spent.

Bellevue, Washington
15 August 2012, 16 August 2012


Coll, Steve Private empire: ExxonMobil and American power 2012, The Penguin Press, New York NY

The Economist, "ExxonMobil oozing success," 11-17 August 2012, p 73

Copyright © 2012 by Paul F. Ross All rights reserved.
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on April 29, 2013
This was tough to read. As a historical tome it was excellent but it was tough reading. A bit too much detail within the chapters. It could have been written as a historical novel but was more like an encyclopedia.
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on December 7, 2014
This is a fascinating, educational book that provides glimpses into selected notable episodes during a 21-year period in the life of oil giant Exxon Mobil Corporation, starting with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1989 and ending with BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The book provides insights into the company's corporate culture; some of the company's executives and other employees; the company's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; some of the entities it interacts with at home and abroad; the nature of those interactions; and the macroenvironmental forces it must contend with.

The book's eye-catching title is what drew me to the book in the first place, but before I was even halfway through the book it was clear that the title was wildly inaccurate and probably just was marketing overreach by the publisher or the author in an effort to drum up sales. Far from its being an empire -- even metaphorically -- Exxon Mobil, as portrayed in the book, is a battle-hardened survivor, a company that continually must fight or adapt, as appropriate, to remain a successful undertaking and a successful steward of its shareholders' capital.

This book would make for great supplementary reading in a business school course on strategic management.
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on June 23, 2012
Steven Coll weaves a tale that should by all accounts be dry and boring. Stretching from the Exxon Valdez disaster to the blowout of the Deepwater Horizon, he tells a tale of corporate governance, mergers, financial wizardry, lobbying, and a culture that wants to reduce risk to a minuscule level. And he does it all in a way that will have you unable put down the book.

Private Empire is not a story about ExxonMobile, in that the book does not address the early history of either company in detail. There is a rough summary regarding the Standard Oil Trusts, but the story is told from the time of Raymond Lee and the Exxon Valdez spill forward, when Exxon grows into the modern behemoth that gives the book its title. The mergers of Exxon and Mobil, and ExxonMobil and XTO, are discussed in detail. While it was probably not his intent, he makes it sound like a job at the modern corporation would be a great get in the process.

The book delves into topics such as corporate governance, how the board of directors of the modern company operates (or does not), and goes in depth into the areas of the world where oil majors find themselves hunting for carbon wealth. The value of "bookable reserves," and how they impact the modern oil market are parsed, and how exactly the american energy economy works is laid bare.

Overall, if you are looking for a book that both tells a compelling success story of an american corporation, but will also educate you on what such success costs and can mean, then this is the book for you.
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