Anyone who thinks globalization will be a cakewalk for U.S. companies should look at what's been happening in the oil industry recently. Aggressive foreign competitors are surging forward -- using brash business tactics that would make even a Ted Turner blush.
The latest example was last week's hostile takeover bid by French oil giant TotalFina for Elf Acquitaine, France's other big oil company. If Total succeeds -- and there's little doubt among industry analysts that it will -- the merger will create the world's fourth-largest oil company.
What may surprise triumphalist Americans is that with the Total-Elf merger, three of the world's top four oil companies will be foreign-run. The U.S. behemoth, Exxon-Mobil, will be first -- followed by BP Amoco, Royal Dutch Shell and TotalFina/Elf.
Thierry Desmarest, Total's chief executive, is a model of the tough new executives who are now emerging in Europe after decades of genteel corruption and corporate sleepwalking. Friends describe him as a low-key, soft-spoken man whose manner hides a determined, risk-taking approach to business. He's just 53, a kid among European tycoons. But he has created, in just a few years, one of the fastest-growing oil companies in the world.
When Desmarest took over at Total in 1995, he inherited a company that was comfortably in the middle tier of the oil industry -- which is to say, nowhere. The first big risk he took was to buck heavy pressure from the United States in 1997 and sign a deal with Iran to develop its huge South Pars oil and gas field.
"They were alone on Iran, breaking away from the pack," recalls Robin West, the chairman of Petroleum Finance Co., a Washington-based firm that has done consulting work for Total. "That was a risk for an international oil company, but it was a risk that Desmarest was willing to take."
Total's next big move came last December, when it announced it would acquire the Belgian oil company, PetroFina. That move added oil reserves, especially in the North Sea, which boosted the combined company to the top of the middle tier, ahead of such competitors as ENI/Agip, Conoco, Phillips, Unocal, Marathon and Occidental. But Desmarest recognized that he still didn't have the scale to compete against the majors.
So a week ago, just as the PetroFina acquisition closed, Desmarest announced his surprise bid for Elf Acquitaine -- infuriating Elf's management. In the cosseted world of French business, this kind of hostile takeover is rare. But financial analysts recognized that it would be a good fit -- making the combined company a powerhouse in the North Sea, West Africa and the Middle East -- and the French government quickly announced it wouldn't oppose the deal.
Total's acquisition of Elf would symbolize another important trend in European business -- the move away from the kind of gross corruption that for decades has been practiced by big, state-owned companies such as Elf. Though it isn't widely understood outside France, some of these oil and defense companies have doled out bribes with the same zest and savoir faire the French bring to their cuisine.
A continuing French judicial investigation into Elf's activities has produced evidence that would make your hair curl, mon ami. Among the allegations are payoffs to prominent politicians in Africa, a special slush fund used to pay the mistress of a former French foreign minister, secret Swiss bank accounts, shady real estate deals and the suggestion of kickbacks to prominent French politicians. Elf's current chief executive, Philippe Jaffre, has tried to clean up the mess -- but that has been awkward, given Elf's close links to the French government. (It was privatized only in 1995.)
This kind of corruption isn't simply immoral -- it's inefficient! And Desmarest, though no saint, appears to have little use for it. He wants to run a company that is responsive first to shareholders and the financial markets -- rather than to politicians looking for a bribe. Indeed, Desmarest was in New York yesterday briefing financial analysts on his merger plan.
In his dramatic expansion of Total, Desmarest is following the example of another new-age European manager -- John Browne, the chief executive of BP. Browne also inherited a sleepy, mismanaged company and expanded it quickly, acquiring Amoco last year and proposing in April to buy another U.S. company, Arco.
This new breed of European executive has "merged the best of the European business skills with the best American ones," says West. "They have moved quickly to adapt to the discipline of the marketplace, like U.S. companies, but they're also comfortable operating around the world."
People think of the energy business as massive and slow moving -- as hard to turn around as a giant oil tanker. But aggressive executives like Desmarest are showing that change is possible. And in a few years these hungry newcomers may pose a serious challenge to America's smug dominance of the global marketplace.