ExxonMobil's Safety Obsession: Inside the Mind of an Oil Giant

Exxon Mobile
Exxon Mobile

ExxonMobil (XOM) is an easy company to hate.

As the world's largest publicly traded oil and gas company, it's hard not to blame it for the pain we experience at the pump -- particularly when you consider how much money it makes. If it were a country, its 2011 revenues of $486 billion would have placed it 20th in terms of GDP, ahead of Poland, Sweden, and Argentina, just to name a few.

Yet, like the bully who mistreated you in primary school, ExxonMobil is widely misunderstood. While many of its unsavory habits are common knowledge, it also has a naive and sensitive side. You just have to get to know the company to understand where it's coming from.

Extreme Events, Extreme Reactions

Aside from the founding of giant Standard Oil in 1870 and its court-mandated breakup 40 years later -- which created the offspring that would become both Exxon and Mobil -- there are two events in ExxonMobil's history that shape its present condition more than anything.

The first was the crash of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989. And the second was the 1992 kidnapping and killing of Sidney Reso, then-vice president of international operations for Exxon.

These two events affected Exxon's internal machinations more than most outsiders ever knew -- until now.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steve Coll gives us a glimpse into the energy giant's reaction to these events in his recent book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.

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Time Out for a Safety Minute!

The Exxon Valdez incident ignited a fervent obsession with safety and risk, Coll reports. So focused on safety is the company now that every meeting at every office begins with a "safety minute."

During this "safety minute," a randomly chosen employee speaks about one safety issue or another -- no matter how minuscule. Some examples: the failure to turn off a coffeepot in the employee break room, or the unusually high incidence rate of paper cuts among the office staff.

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Additionally, employees are required to back their cars into parking spaces, a measure meant to speed up evacuations in case of emergency. Even employees conduct at home is eligible for scrutiny. The proper way to use a ladder when cleaning gutters might be discussed, or the dangers of getting too much sun on a beach vacation.

The incident involving Reso spurred an equally intense fixation on the security of the company's senior executives.

Anyone who ascends to the top of ExxonMobil's corporate hierarchy now enjoys a personal protection regime similar to that of an American presidential candidate or holder of high national office. Its chief executive officer is prohibited from flying commercial, and is obligated instead to choose among the company's multiple luxurious jets for both personal and professional travel.


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While ExxonMobil makes for a perfect corporate villain, who would have guessed that a swashbuckling energy giant would be obsessed with things such as sunburns, paper cuts, and coffeepots? Perhaps it's true that we shouldn't judge a book, or in this case an oil company, by its cover.

Motley Fool contributor John Maxfield does not have a financial interest in any oil companies, including ExxonMobil.