Christophe de Margerie, Chief Executive Officer, Total
The Way Ahead Interview invites senior figures who shape the exploration and production (E&P) industry to share their wisdom, experience, and knowledge with the young professional community. Each interview is an open conversation that explores the career, advice, and vision of a successful individual. For this interview, we travel to Total E&P headquarters in Paris for a conversation with Christophe de Margerie, Total chief executive officer, in which he discusses his career and growth as he has moved through the organization. Of particular interest are his comments on how Total combines “old school” and “new school” thinking in the complex E&P environment of the 21st century.—John Donachie, TWA Interview Editor
What was your first job, and what were your impressions of the oil and gas industry when you started working?
When I joined Total in October 1974, the industry was in mid-crisis, and people considered it the end of the era. I didn’t know this at the time. I had dreamt of being a Formula 1 driver! Oil prices had increased four-fold, companies were being nationalized, and there was fighting between producing and consuming countries and within OPEC. Indeed, when I arrived, one senior oil attorney asked me why I didn’t join a “good company? You should have chosen a banana company instead.” Total was not at the best time in its history.
My first job was in the Corporate Finance division. At the time, Total had a very good 6-month training period, during which we were exposed to all parts of the division. Given the prevailing environment, one of my first projects was a study of the history of oil prices in the Middle East, looking at the events that had impacted the price of the barrel over time.
This experience has given me a relaxed perspective and a certain relativity about today’s “cost nationalism.” The ’70s were different, and things have changed. In relative terms, oil prices were higher then, and today because we are more efficient in our use of energy, “high” oil prices are less detrimental to the global economy.
What is certain now is that we need to reach out to producing countries and to arrive at agreements and access to reserves through negotiation. It cannot be achieved by force one way or another.
How do you think this industry stacks up against alternatives, and why should a young professional pursue it?
For the sense of adventure! We are exploring the world for the energy of the future. Energy is fundamental for the welfare of human beings, and it always will be. Few other industries offer such a mix of dealing with nature with all its diversity, cutting-edge technology, huge economic impact, and the opportunity to experience different cultures the world over. This means that there is a huge range of opportunities available throughout a career in a company like Total. Boldness, pragmatism, intellectual challenge, and creativity—they are all there. The great oil and gas adventure continues!
What are the most memorable experiences in your career?
I have had a tremendous life, though not always easy, and it’s not possible or even relevant to give one or even 10 or 20 experiences. All are important, both the good and the bad. The main thing is that I have been fortunate enough to be there when things are happening, whether it’s agreeing to a complex financing deal in Argentina or inaugurating the North Sea Alwyn field, 25 years ago this year. However, 14 February 2007, when I became chief executive officer (CEO) of Total, will always hold special significance for me. My driving force is always to work for the good of the company. But the climax of my career hasn’t happened yet and won’t until I finish in this job and look back. And that’s a long way off, I hope!
Who has helped you the most in your career, and what lessons did you learn from your mentors? Would you name one or two persons who have been most influential for you?
I do not see myself as being readily influenced. Every day I get information, ideas, and understanding through contact with all the people I meet. Every person I meet is an opportunity to learn about them, our performance, the environment, both the good and the bad. I am fed by my contacts even if they may not know it.
Speaking of individuals, Total’s previous CEOs, Thierry Desmarest and Serge Tchuruk, have been influential in my life, not just in giving me the chances I have had but in educating me for my job.
The “school of life” has given me my major lessons. I have had the great luck to travel and to see how things work in our different subsidiaries in different environments and cultures all over the world. My early jobs in group finance were particularly valuable in this. They allowed me to work within the system but also gave overview and perspective from the outside on our activities and how things work. I learned about the world, the Total Group, the importance of finance in the world of exploration and production, and also about people. My most important learning? You are never good by yourself. We must always work together, take advantage of our synergies, and add our forces.
This issue of The Way Ahead is focused on the balance of “old school” knowledge and experience with “new school” learning and ideas. What advice can you offer young professionals on how to accommodate both schools of thought in their developing careers?
When I think of “old school,” what comes to mind is the old environment. “New school” is the environment we have lived in now for 18 months (i.e., total change). The only way to be successful is to accept that change is happening and be able to move from the old to new. The context we are in now is fundamentally different, and if we only think in the old ways, we will surely fail.
It is still good to know about the past, as it helps explain why we have to change, but we cannot rely on the old cycles or models that describe the past. What is important is to know and understand what is going on right now. Young people are part of this new environment; they are part of the here and now and part of this big change. It is through them that we can understand how it works and be successful in it.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
After fighting to get a project off the ground, I get enormous pleasure from seeing it finally inaugurated. The signing date is important, but not as extraordinary as seeing the thing actually built. It makes the days and nights of difficult negotiation really worthwhile—now it really exists. I have had the real pleasure of seeing the work through to inauguration of some truly amazing projects such as South Pars in Iran, Elgin-Franklin in the North Sea, and Girassol and Dalia in deepwater offshore Angola. There is a real frisson on that first day. But you know that it is not just the big boss who has this pleasure. All contributors can share this frisson too!
You have been with Total for your entire professional career. Do you think that a career with one organization is viable in today’s market, and what advantages do you think a sustained career with one company has given you?
It is difficult to know and predict what career you will have in a company as large as Total. The scope for different careers is huge, and I have been privileged to have many careers without changing companies. It is about being able to attract the opportunities.
We live in a dynamic, rapidly changing world; the company I know today is a very different place from the one I joined. And one thing is certain: It will be different again in 2020. This capacity to evolve, the huge diversity of jobs, technology challenges, the range of countries where we operate, and our responsibilities to stakeholders mean that the opportunities are limited only by your flexibility and ability to adapt.
Is it viable? Yes. Indeed, it could be an advantage. Having a deep basic knowledge of the company—the family chromosome—and the networks means that people can move around and take advantage of the vast range of opportunities that are available without having to relearn about a whole new company. That mutual support and solidarity also equips us to take on the biggest projects, the most challenging technology, or indeed changes in career knowing you are supported by the company and your colleagues. When other companies were laying off during oil-price downturns, Total was not. This means we retained our in-house expertise and experience at a time when the industry in general is short on this resource.
With a broad portfolio of international operations, from land to offshore deep water, how does Total mix “old school” and “new school” to achieve results across this broad spectrum of operations?
I don’t believe it is either one or the other; we need both. Real professionalism is timeless. It is a mix of knowledge, pragmatism, field instinct, and experience. In my view, “old school” gives us the basics, the solid professional core to our disciplines. I would encourage young professionals not to forget the traditional basis to our disciplines such as math, physics, and chemistry. It’s very true that, for example, the guy who has seen the most rocks makes the best geologist. Experience in both engineering and operational contexts is necessary to train a good professional.
“New school” encourages us to share, not stay in our boxes. It is through working at the interfaces between disciplines that the real innovation, real creativity, is found and advances are made. This needs openness and willingness to work across functional boundaries. New school means pace and the ability to deal with and process huge amounts of information and new knowledge in a much more efficient way.
In Total, this combined “new school/old school” approach is well demonstrated in the geosciences area, where we have a global “training passport” program lasting 6 months, staggered over a 3-year period. It is a blended learning approach combining remote and on-site classrooms, use of e-facilities, and good-quality distance coaching by senior mentors. Great emphasis is given to interaction between professional disciplines. Young graduates who have gone through the program integrate readily in operational contexts, assimilate knowledge well, and have an appetite for collaborative teamworking.
Educating future generations is not a matter of window-dressing; it is a fundamental need for our business. In many countries, we work closely with the authorities to develop schools and programs to educate and train the people needed to manage and operate our facilities. The Yemen Liquefied Natural Gas project is a good example. There, the challenge posed by the Government of Yemen is to hire and train the 650 people essential to operate the plant, giving preference to Yemeni nationals. By the end of 2006, some 470 people were hired, including 350 Yemenis. By helping raise standards, we also contribute to strengthening the competitiveness of these areas on the world stage.
Knowledge is the only resource that increases when we share it!
You have a very busy professional life, but what is your ideal escape?
Time with my family. I come from a close-knit family, and there is nothing I enjoy more than spending time together with my wife, children, grandchildren, and who knows, great-grandchildren! Being with my family is a very special feeling, and it can be anywhere.
How does your company maintain a competitive position in today’s market?
To be successful means we must be adaptable and willing to evolve. This is equally true for our business model. This willingness and the knowledge of how to be good partners are fundamental, whether with national oil companies, communities, our contractors, or universities and research institutes.
But we must have something to offer, something to bring to the partnership. For Total, it means bringing technology and know-how to deal with some of the biggest challenges nature poses to us in renewing our energy resources—extracting oil from tar sands, or developing fields in extreme water depths of 1500 m or more, or in very high-pressure/-temperature conditions.
Our sustained investment in technology through our Scientific and Technical Center at Pau, and in our operations, has been a real source of competitive advantage. This, together with our global scale, gives us access to markets and allows us to transfer rapidly and apply new solutions with our partners in our areas of business.
As an illustration, in Qatar, we kicked off the creation of the Qatar Science and Technology Park in 2004. By providing a home for international technology companies, the park aims to share and spread scientific and technical knowledge and encourage small and medium-sized Qatari technology startups.
Competitive advantage also comes through making best use of the fact that we are an integrated group operating across the entire oil and gas chain. In this way, we can work with our partners and host countries to maximize value from their resources—for example, through integrating gas-production, power-generation, refining, and petrochemicals capacity, as we have on the Qatar North field.
All this said, the ultimate source of competitive advantage comes from professionalism—the skill and the quality of people and their relationships with our partners. That will be the best guarantee that we can deliver on our ambitions and our promises.
What are the key technology challenges you see for the E&P industry now and in the next 10 years?
We will continue to push the frontiers! Total is successfully exploring for oil in increasingly complex geological contexts, and in increasingly extreme environments, as in water depths in excess of 3000 m and in arctic conditions. We have had to develop new approaches and new techniques to extract oil. Developing methods to increase recovery and maximize value of our existing fields is also a priority.
We will need to add more value to unconventional resources by converting them to products that the market can use. In general, this means transforming to liquids, which are more transportable—for example, extracting oil from tar sands or converting gas and coal to liquids. We will need to develop engineering solutions to make these processes much more energy-efficient while minimizing emissions. How we integrate our extraction, refining, and transportation activities will be key to solving this.
The technology challenges faced by energy companies now extend to new horizons, such as promoting energy efficiency to extend the life of our energy resources and developing measures to counter climate change. Building on our existing expertise, Total is already developing cost-effective methods for CO2 capture and reinjection and progressing technology in renewable energy (solar, wind, and marine) and new biofuels. The environment is a great concern. It must be our concern, too.
What involvement have you had with professional organizations such as SPE, and what benefits do you see from such professional organizations?
Professional associations like SPE are vital to the well-being of the industry. They help create the mutual understanding at the core of all successful partnerships. With 70% of our E&P staff located in our subsidiaries around the world, SPE with its local branches is our village square where we meet, exchange ideas, market our know-how, build new networks and partnerships, or simply make friends across the industry. It is a forum for discovering different cultures, be they local, national, or corporate.
Most importantly, the associations are the shop window for new and developing technology. Our engineers are on the lookout for the best ideas and the best people wherever they are to be found. SPE facilitates this access through the meetings it organizes, the professional networks it promotes, and its publications. It’s a fantastic reservoir of knowledge and know-how, which we turn to again and again.
What changes would you make to the way our industry attracts people?
We must continue to convince people that the industry is fundamental to our modern world and is vital for human progress. Energy is a basic human need, and, while it is true we must make profits, the industry every day successfully delivers energy to millions of people around the world.
We must convince people that we listen and always try to do our best in what we do—in our technological endeavours, in our business dealings, in our care for the environment, and in the quality of our partnerships.
Our beliefs and our actions are our best reference. People will be attracted to companies with people they can trust and who do what they say they will do. Our success as a company depends on the efficiency, energy, and flexibility of the people who work in it. It is true what we say, “Our energy is your energy.”
Finally, what lessons can you share about leadership? How can a young professional achieve and maintain a successful career?
First, I do not believe people are born to be leaders. You can find shy people who are called upon to be leaders, just as people with large egos are not necessarily good leaders. You become a leader when you see you are a leader. The signs are there when you are being asked for advice and when people begin to seek your ideas. This gives you the feeling that you can do more than just your job, that you can be a force.
In my case, I couldn’t say that becoming CEO of Total was a target, but once my boss said he considered that I had the potential to do the job, it became a target.
To succeed as a young professional, you must first be one of the best at your professional base. In our business, this means that people must prove themselves and show they excel in their core expertise before they can move on to do other things.
You also need to bring something to the table before asking for yourself. Only by first delivering does it give you the right to ask for something. Luck has a role too. But I believe that people attract their own luck. It’s about recognizing and having the boldness to create and seize opportunities.
Finally, to be successful, you must be nice. This means thinking of others, treating people as human beings, and not being arrogant. It’s all back to how you behave. You get more, in a positive sense, from people by being nice.
And my performance as CEO of Total? Too early to say—ask me in a few years’ time!
Christophe de Margerie is chief executive officer of Total and chairman of the company’s Executive Committee, having assumed these responsibilities in February of this year.
A graduate of the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce, Paris, de Margerie joined Total’s finance division in 1974, initially serving in the budget department and then as finance manager for the exploration and production subsidiaries, before being appointed group treasurer in 1987.
In 1990, de Margerie joined Total’s Trading and Middle East Division, serving successively as finance director, vice president, Middle East, and then president, Middle East. In 1992, he became senior vice president for the division and was appointed to Total’s Management Committee.
In 1995, de Margerie was appointed president, Exploration and Production, TotalFina, and in 2000, after the merger with Elf, was appointed senior vice president, Exploration and Production, TotalFinaElf. In January 2002, de Margerie became president of Exploration and Production for the company (which became Total on 6 May 2003) and held that position until his most recent appointment. He has been a member of Total’s Executive Committee since May 1999 and director of the Total Group since May 2006.
Don't miss our latest content, delivered to your inbox monthly. Sign up for the TWA newsletter. If you are not logged in, you will receive a confirmation email that you will need to click on to confirm you want to receive the newsletter.
01 March 2019