Rockefeller kin take Exxon Mobil fight public

April 30, 2008 10:28:18 AM PDT
Members of the Rockefeller family took a fight with Exxon Mobil Corp. public Wednesday, challenging the oil giant spawned by their namesake to split the roles of chairman and CEO and focus more on renewable energy. The family members, who describe themselves as the company's longest continuous shareholders, said they are concerned that Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil is too focused on short-term gains from soaring oil prices and should do more to invest in cleaner technology for the future. Separating the leadership roles, they argue, would better position the company for challenges to come.

"They are fighting the last war and they're not seeing they're facing a new war," said Peter O'Neill, who heads the Rockefeller Family committee dealing with Exxon Mobil and is the great-great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller.

O'Neill said he had the support of more than 80 percent of family members over the age of 21. Family representatives said they were not sure how much of the company they own collectively, but that it represented a significant holding. Mutual funds and other institutional investors, not individuals, are the company's top shareholders.

"We feel tied very closely to this company, and that's why we feel so passionately about them becoming the best company they can be," said Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, an economist and family member who briefed reporters.

Exxon Mobil was formed by the combination of two offspring of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust. It is now the world's largest publicly traded oil company.

Members of the Rockefeller family are sponsoring four proxy resolutions that raise concerns about the company's leadership under Chairman and Chief Executive Rex Tillerson. They said they have spent years behind the scenes prodding the company to change its approach to the energy business.

Exxon Mobil spokesman Gantt Walton said the company has met with members of the Rockefeller family on multiple occasions and "respects the rights of all shareholders to make their views known," but that it does not comment on details of meetings with shareholders.

Rockefeller family members that have filed or co-filed shareholder resolutions own a total of about 332,000 shares, Walton said. As of the end of last year, Exxon Mobil had 5.4 billion shares outstanding.

"While the Rockefeller family is well known, they are shareholders like any of the other 2.5 million shareholders," he said.

The family and its allies decided to take their case public, they said, because they believe future energy will come from sources other than oil and natural gas, and say the company needs to move more quickly into sustainable technology to secure its long-term viability.

"We all know the saying: The bigger they are, the harder they fall," said Connecticut State Treasurer Denise L. Nappier, who oversees a pension fund that holds $300 million in Exxon Mobil stock - its largest single equity investment - and spoke alongside the Rockefellers. "We are trying to keep a giant - and it truly is a giant in the oil and gas industry - from falling."

A shareholder vote on a slate of proposals by the Rockefellers and others is scheduled for May 28. Exxon Mobil's board is recommending shareholders vote against the proposal to split the role of chairman and CEO.

Anthony Sabino, a corporate attorney and professor of law and business at St. John's University, said calls to separate the two roles have been growing across a number of industries. While the Rockefellers themselves have limited power to sway the vote on any one proposal, he said they may nonetheless carry weight with shareholders.

"Their very recognizable celebrity name will add luster to what the other institutional investors - mutual funds, pension funds - have been saying, that 'hey, it's time to do this," he said.

The calls for reform came one day before Exxon Mobil was expected to report first-quarter earnings of more than $11 billion, according to a survey of analysts by Thomson Financial. Thanks to rapidly rising oil prices, that is considerably more than the company earned a year earlier, and could even top Exxon Mobil's own record for the biggest quarterly profit in U.S. history.

Light, sweet crude for June delivery rose to a record $119.93 a barrel this week and the national average price of a gallon of regular gas rose a cent to a record $3.617 Wednesday.

Exxon Mobil shares rose $1 to $92.79 in midday trading. The stock is up more than 63 percent since Tillerson became CEO on Jan. 1, 2006. The broad S&P 500 index gained 11.4 percent over the same period.