NEW YORK - Lee Raymond (Biography), the tough-talking chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp. who built the Texas oil producer into the world's most valuable company, on Thursday said he would retire at the end of the year.
Exxon President Rex Tillerson, Raymond's longtime heir apparent and 30 year company veteran, is expected to be elected by Exxon's board as its next leader, the company said.
The announcement ends years of speculation over when the 66 year-old Raymond -- feared and admired within corporate America but loathed by environmentalists -- would hand over the reins. Raymond himself has always been tight-lipped on the issue, publicly dressing down anyone who dared ask when he might leave.
"You either retire or die and I'd just as soon not die," Raymond said when asked about his future plans at the Reuters Energy Summit in June, his most recent public interview.
Analysts say Raymond's departure after 12 years at the helm will have little noticeable impact on Exxon's operations.
Under Raymond, Exxon stubbornly stuck to a long-term strategy that emphasized disciplined investment and ignored oil price swings -- an approach Tillerson is not expected to stray from. Indeed, analysts have compared Exxon's efficiency to that of a Swiss watch or the U.S. Marine Corps.
"They worked together very closely for years," said James Halloran, analyst with National City Wealth Management Services. "The basic day-to-day tools and the basic approach shouldn't change at all."
To be sure, Tillerson's manner is expected to be less combative than Raymond's, whose abrasive wit spared few who challenged him, be it reporters, analysts or activists.
But most of all, Raymond was known for steering Exxon through bouts of frenzied oil prices and subsequent collapses in his 42-year tenure, turning the Irving, Texas, company into one of the world's most consistently profitable companies.
"Lee Raymond really set the standard for other CEOs in the industry," said Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Fadel Gheit. "Everybody else copied Lee Raymond, but you can't duplicate what he's done."
He also presided over one of the few successful mega-mergers in corporate history -- and the largest in the energy sector -- by buying Mobil Corp. for $82 billion in 1999 to create the world's largest publicly traded oil company.
"He did a tremendous job at Exxon Mobil, making the Mobil acquisition when oil was $10 a barrel as opposed to all these other executives now making all their acquisitions when oil is at $55," said Craig Hodges, fund manager at Hodges Capital Management, which owns Exxon Mobil shares.
Hailed within corporate America, Raymond found little love from environmental activists. They portrayed him as a villainous chieftain in charge of a company that profited from high gas prices and endangered the environment with its stance on global warming and the Valdez oil spill off Alaska.
"You couldn't imagine anyone worse on the issue of climate change than Lee Raymond, so there's really nowhere to go but up with his successor," said Andrew Logan, oil program manager at CERES, a coalition of large investors and environmentalists.
On Wall Street, however, Raymond's stature is at its peak, as his focus on discipline and soaring oil prices fill up Exxon's coffers with cash.
After reporting more than $25 billion in annual profit last year, Exxon recently grabbed the mantle of the world's largest company by market value from General Electric Co. As of Thursday, Exxon was worth $376 billion, ahead of GE's $361 billion.
The company said neither it nor Tillerson would comment beyond the statement. It was not immediately clear what size exit package Raymond would get.
Exxon shares closed down 48 cents, or nearly 1 percent, to $58.52 on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock has seen good times under Raymond's reign -- in the last 10 years, since Aug. 4, 1995, Exxon shares have risen 232 percent, compared with a 204 percent rise over the same period for the S&P Integrated Oil and Gas Index.
(By Deepa Babington/Source: AP)