Related Articles
Forward article link
Share PDF with colleagues

Obituary: Christophe de Margerie, CEO of Total

The death of Christophe de Margerie in a plane crash not only robs Total of its charismatic chairman and chief executive, it denies the energy industry one of its most passionate advocates. We are far poorer for his loss.

For all his undeniable wit and charm, his droll humour, intelligence, his bonhomie and eccentricity, his appalling timekeeping, his love of single malt whisky (preferably accompanied by good conversation and in good company), de Margerie was one of the industry's staunchest supporters, and one of its most astute critics. 

He died, aged 63, on 20 October when his jet, a Falcon-50, collided with a snow plough during take-off at Moscow's Vnukovo airport. The aircraft subsequently caught fire, killing de Margerie and three crew. Russian and French accident investigators have opened an inquiry into the crash.  

De Margerie's untimely death silences a voice that spoke openly - frequently bluntly - about the industry. Often a contrarian, de Margerie relished debate. This passion gave his words a weight that echoed beyond boardrooms and conference floors. But this, he believed, was crucial. Speaking to French newspaper Le Monde in 2007, he argued that engaging with the public was critical if the energy industry was to carve out a viable future. "If we do not explain what we do, others will speak for us, and [our work] will no longer be tolerated," he said.

He was not afraid to criticise his industry or the political decisions that affected it. He drew flak after questioning the need for Arctic exploration, and his sceptical view of the industry's ability to meet future demand put him at odds with prevailing opinion. He was a prominent opponent of EU and US sanctions on Russia, and maintained that Total would operate in plays others shied away from because, quite simply, without production "the lights would go out". In 2009, ahead of an international climate change conference in Copenhagen, de Margerie told policy-makers that energy security was critical. "If you only [consider one issue], we are dead. Carbon is not the enemy, carbon is life," he said.

De Margerie, who became chief executive in 2007 and group chairman in 2010, is credited as the force behind Total's international expansion over the past 15 years. He helped consolidate the company's merger with Petrofina and Elf Aquitaine, and firmly established Total as the world's fourth largest oil company after ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron. Under his leadership, Total developed its operations in politically difficult countries, including Russia, Iran, Iraq and Angola.

The success of this expansion stemmed in part from de Margerie himself. He joined Total after graduating from the École supérieure de Commerce in Paris in 1974. He took a post in the oil company's finance department rather than with IBM or Alcatel (his other options), he said, because Total's 16th arrondissement headquarters were near his home. He later headed the company's Middle East operations before becoming president of the exploration and production division in 2002. The experience -- and crucially the contacts -- he gained in his early career helped shape the way he ran the group.

He possessed great skills as a deal-maker, was an open, inclusive manager, and easily established a good rapport with a number of world leaders, from the Middle East to Latin America and Central Asia. Russian president Vladimir Putin called de Margerie "a true friend of our country".

This gives some measure of the man. He was a sound strategist. He knew when to give ground, when to bend without breaking. His negotiation skills stemmed not just from sharp business sense and an appetite for hard work and long hours, but also from a keen understanding of human nature. De Margerie was adamant that contracts could not be agreed by telephone. If sealing the deal meant meetings lasted long into the night? Then those meetings lasted until the small hours. "Nothing can replace the human touch," he told Le Monde. 

Much was made of De Margerie's background. He was, as the French say, bien né. His maternal grandfather, Pierre Taittinger, founded the renowned Champagne house; his father came from a long line of diplomats and industrialists. In newspaper and magazine profiles, de Margerie was often referred to as the black sheep of the family. This is debatable. He talked often of his family's "chagrin" at his choice of career. But de Margerie also knew that his privilege carried responsibilities. Sometimes he referred obliquely to the parable of the talents, from the gospel of St Matthew: "We have a duty to give back what we have received."

This sense of responsibility lay at the heart of de Margerie's stewardship of Total. He felt keenly that his duty to his colleagues, the company and its shareholders extended to the wider industry, to French society and beyond.

His clout in France was undeniable. President Francois Hollande paid tribute to de Margerie's skill in turning Total into a leading global company. Prime minister Manuel Valls lauded him as France's "grand captain of industry and a patriot". De Margerie acted as an adviser to a number of political leaders, although his relationship with former president Nicolas Sarkozy was said to be difficult.

While he had genuine political influence, his success at Total is better measured by the fierce loyalty he engendered within the group. One former colleague likened de Margerie to a chess grandmaster: "He always saw his moves well in advance".
"He made you want to give the best of yourself. He was like a father," the former colleague said. "Like a father, you could disagree with him sometimes. You could wish he hadn't said this or that. But his assessments were often proved right. "I admired him. And now, I feel like an orphan."

Christophe Jacquin de Margerie, born 6 August 1951, Mareuil-sur-Lay-Dissais, France. Died 20 October 2014, Moscow, Russia. He is survived by his wife Bernadette Prud'homme, his daughters, Laëtitia and Diane, and a son, Fabrice

Also in this section
Deltic rides out the storm
9 July 2020
The UKCS explorer’s strong balance sheet allows it to brush off many of the challenges posed by the oil price collapse, but it is still not immune to bearish investor sentiment
Caution creeps into investors’ oil and gas infrastructure appetite
7 July 2020
The US downturn and the inexorable rise of ESG concerns are clouds on the horizon even for traditionally low-risk energy investments
Junk sale buys Oxy much-needed time
6 July 2020
US independent slices off chunk of near-term debt but ominous overhang remains an existential threat