HOUSTON—Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a no-noise guy: he tends to tune out the static of reporters and doesn’t have a social media account.

So, while he always knew he served at the pleasure of President Donald J. Trump, when he was fired by presidential tweet, “my chief of staff had to call me because I don’t have Twitter,” he said.

Tillerson reflected on the state of geopolitics, global economics, trade disputes and the lessons he brought to the nation’s capital as former head of Exxon Mobil Corp. during a wide-ranging interview at the 2019 KPMG Global Energy Conference on June 5.  He was even reminded about his portrayal by actor John Goodman on “Saturday Night Live” by his interviewer, Regina Mayor, U.S and Global Head of Energy & Natural Resources at KPMG. 

“You can react as much to that noise as you want to or you can just ignore it,” said Tillerson, who has said previously he laughed out loud at Goodman’s portrayal. “I don’t mind dealing with the media, but unlike a lot of people in Washington who have further ambitions, I was never going to run for political office. I’m not a politician. I didn’t care if I ever wrote a book or gave a speech. I don’t need money.”

Tillerson expressed similar ambivalence about the erratic oil prices of 2018 that have continued to ricochet up and down this year. The tumult of commodity prices is part of choosing a career in oil and natural gas.

“This is the nature of the beast and has been for 100 years,” he said, adding, “It’s also not a new normal. It’s the old normal. … That is part of the business. That is just part of what makes it exciting.

Former Secretary of State and Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson talks with Regina mayor on stage at the Global Energy Conference in Houston. (Source: Darren Barbee/HartEnergy)

However, swings in price—whether wild or more moderate—still have consequences for decision making.

At Exxon Mobil, where Tillerson worked for 41 years, the company principally concerned itself with long-term trends and looked at near-term volatility as a way to manage cash.

Demand is now the focus as supply has largely stabilized after previous decades of relative scarcity.

Geopolitical events, particularly in countries such as Venezuela, Iran, Libya and Nigeria, can inject risks into oil and gas supply. But Tillerson added that instability in oil-producing countries “also can inject risk into the demand side to the extent that they are disruptive to global economic performance.”

Economic conditions, in Europe for instance, have long been stagnant and he sees no change in that dynamic anytime soon.

“The global economy, in general I think, has people wanting to at least hit the pause button,” he said.
Projects that might have been are now being delayed to see how the economy plays itself out.

“That will naturally roll through to the economy,” he said.

Asked by Mayor about the effects of trade policies, tariffs, sanctions and bilateral trade agreements, Tillerson said he agreed with the aims of the White House, though he “may not support the tactical moves that are being made everywhere.”

He emphasized that as world leaders mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, he hope it reminds Americans “how bad things can get and when you really want your friends standing with you.”

On his trip in the U.K., Trump has promised the nation a “phenomenal” deal after it leaves the European Union.
 “I have some concerns about moving to strictly bilateral discussions,” Tillerson said. “That we are undermining or weakening that very strong alliance that’s been knitted together over really the last century and particularly the last 70 years,” he said.

He also sees flaws in how the administration is dealing with China, though he expects both sides to come to a point where they see the trade war isn’t productive and can find a compromise that enables both to declare victory.

His larger concern is one he learned running Exxon Mobil. Chinese negotiations can be difficult without an atmosphere of mutual respect and win-win scenarios.

“Those are the things they want to hear,” he said. The Chinese, I hope, do not come to the conclusion that they can’t make a deal with this administration. And they’ll just wait for a new one.”

Comparing his tenure as Secretary of State with ExxonMobil, Tillerson said both are about the same size and have a global presence. But he also said the state department was nearly devoid of management structure or process. When he arrived, 72 envoys all reported directly to the secretary. It was also difficult to identify who made decisions and who could be held accountable.

In an attempt to save money, Tillerson also encountered the media “noise” he sought to avoid. He chartered a smaller Air Force aircraft that could only accommodate about half the press pool that typically traveled with the secretary. He was accused of trying to hide from public scrutiny.

“In retrospect, that little effort to send a signal got me off on a bad start,” he said.

Mayor noted that former Secretary of State Colin Powell had told her he missed the state department plane.
“I don’t miss the state department plane,” Tillerson said to laughter. “I miss my Exxon Mobil plane.”

Tillerson said among many accomplishments, he was proudest of his working relationship with former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Relations between the two cabinet posts have been historically tense.

“We agreed that state and defense were not going to make a move without talking to one another. And that there wasn’t anything to hide,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson said that after he was fired, he returned home, look at his wife, and said: “what was that all about?”

Tillerson’s wife had told him God wanted him to help Trump.

“Well,” she said, “God sent you home.”

Mayor posed a final question. Would Tillerson do it all over again, knowing all he knows now?

“Yes, without hesitation,” he said. “Don’t ever pass up the chance to serve your country, no matter who your boss is. Because you’re really working for the American people and there’s nothing more gratifying than that.”

Darren Barbee can be reached at dbarbee@hartenergy.com.