This past week the energy industry lost an outspoken pioneer. The loss stemmed from a plane crash in Moscow that took the life of 63-year-old Christophe de Margerie, the CEO of French energy giant Total S.A. (NYSE:TOT). His plane collided with a snowplow that was reportedly being operated by a drunk driver. It's a tragic end to the well-regarded energy executive's life.
Remembering "The Big Moustache"
De Margerie will be remembered for a lot of things. The industry has been pouring out its condolences calling him, among other things, a brilliant strategist, a smart businessman and a visionary leader. Business aside he was well-liked and affectionately called "The Big Moustache" by his employees due to his walrus moustache. These sentiments were summed up by CEO of rival Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A)(NYSE:RDS-B) Ben van Beurden who called him "a larger than life character, a leader respected across the energy industry and a friend."
The respect stemmed from the fact that he wasn't afraid to take a stand. This took him on a path to tread where others feared, which is why Total has slowly exited legacy oil fields in safer parts of the world in order to explore for the gushing oil and gas resources of more challenged locations. Total's move into politically risky areas came about largely due to de Margerie's belief that global oil resources were finite and that his company really didn't have any other choice but to operate in difficult regions to keep growing, so it was better to get there first.
However, this did get him into some hot water. Last year he and others including former French elected officials were acquitted on charges that they bought oil from Saddam Hussein's regime by trying to maneuver past the United Nations embargo by using the oil-for-food program. Even more recently, he had been viewed as an opponent of the West as he had been critical of the sanctions placed on Russia.
The uncertainty of what's next
De Margerie's unabashed support for Moscow helped him gain access to the country's rich energy resources. He was able to leverage his personal relationships with Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, into a wealth of business opportunities in the country. These relationships also led Total to take a stake in Russia's second-largest natural gas company with the two teaming up on a $27 billion LNG project in Russia's Arctic. He also signed a deal earlier this year to invest more than $100 million to explore for oil in Siberian shale.
It was his desire to take Total to places that offered boatloads of political risk that set the company on an interesting path. With that risk came greater rewards, as Total is poised to grow its oil and gas production by 8% through 2017, which is nearly twice as fast as many of its European rivals, at a time when these rivals face the daunting challenge of figuring out where to go for growth.
That being said, because of his fearless leadership he'll be a very difficult man to replace, leaving big shoes to fill. Total is the fourth largest supermajor oil company in the world and the second largest company in France. It currently employs around 100,000 people around the globe. Moreover, his personal relationships were really the key to unlocking a lot of doors.
Because of this his newly appointed successor, Patrick Pouyanne, will have a very tough decision to make. Pouyanne, who is an 18-year veteran of the company spent the most recent part of his career focused on the company's refining operations. While he has experience in exploration and production, he doesn't have many of the personal relationships with public officials as his predecessor. Because of this he can either choose to go and develop those relationships or return Total to less risky locations.
Under de Margerie's leadership Total was leveraging his relationships to build bridges into resource-rich nations. His death leaves those bridges unfinished with the tough decision ahead to either abandon the foundation he laid or to continue the work. In the meantime the company's shareholders are left with a big question mark until the company determines its future course of action.