Christophe de Margerie (1951–2014)

OPEC Bulletin Commentary October 2014

We are constantly reminded of the fine line between life and death. The tragic loss of Christophe de Margerie, the charismatic and ebullient Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of French oil major, Total, in a freak accident in the Russian Federation in October will continue to reverberate within international energy circles and beyond for a long time to come. At two minutes to midnight on a chilly, misty evening at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport on October 20, the 63-year-old French oil chief and three crew members were taking off in a private jet when it collided with a snow-clearing machine and burst into flames. There were no survivors on board. The loss to Total and the international sector is immense.

This was a man who started from the bottom up at the French energy giant, taking a position in the company’s accounts unit back in 1974 after graduating from the Ecole Superieure de Commerce business school in Paris. He spent the next 40 years learning his craft and helping build Total into not only France’s second-biggest listed company, but also one of the oil industry’s leading international pioneers. He was appointed Chief Executive Officer in February 2007, after running the company’s exploration and production division, and in May 2010 took on the additional role of Chairman.

As a result of countless petroleum agreements, reached in countries all over the globe, he is especially credited for bringing about the biggest expansion of Total’s oil reserves in 15 years. In fact, there was only one year when there was no addition.

De Margerie, a proud French national, cut an imposing figure physically with his hefty stature and signature bushy white whiskers. But the gentle giant was renowned for his unique blend of warmth, social awareness and wit, mixed with shrewd, down-to-earth business skills, laced with diplomacy.

He would think nothing of staying up into the early hours holding court and chatting, just to help broker a deal — and make new business colleagues and friends into the bargain. He was once quoted by the French newspaper, Le Monde, as saying: “Nothing replaces human warmth and handshaking. You don’t win a contract by telephone.”

Before the accident, ‘Big Moustache’, as he was affectionately known, was doing what he did best — negotiating and problem-solving, this time with Total’s Russian partners. These were relations that de Margerie held dear to his heart, having invested so much time and effort in extensively developing and nurturing them over the past few years.

He was considered a great friend of OPEC. Total has worked — and continues to work — with many of the Organization’s Member Countries. These invaluable ties were established and enhanced in large part as a result of his business acumen and perception. OPEC Secretary General, Abdalla Salem El-Badri, who knew de Margerie from his time as Libya’s Secretary of the People’s Committee for Petroleum, said after hearing of his death: “Having known Mr de Margerie over many years as an extraordinary and charming professional, he will be sorely and sadly missed by all who had the honour of knowing and working with him.”

Outside his business interests, de Margerie was in great demand as a guest speaker at international energy fora. His speeches were always entertaining — different — and often avant-garde. He was a familiar face at OPEC events over the years, particularly the Organization’s International Oil Seminar. In fact, he was due to attend the Sixth OPEC Seminar in Vienna in June 2015. He was also interviewed by OPEC’s Webcast team and appeared in articles in the flagship OPEC Bulletin.

What is striking about his loss for the industry he dedicated so many years to is that at a time when the international oil sector is seeing so many of its experienced personnel retiring, leaving a worrying shortage of skilled professionals, losing someone of the calibre of de Margerie is devastating. The knowledge and experience he gained and put to good use over his four decades in the industry, negotiating and striking deals in an extremely complex and ever-changing environment, cannot be measured, let alone recouped. Today, with the oil industry having to respond to so many new challenges, it needs personalities and figureheads like de Margerie who offer both experience and that ‘something else’, which are essential for overcoming the various obstacles and moving the industry forward in an organized fashion.

Of course, all this pales into insignificance when considering the loss of de Margerie the family man, the friendly socializer, and the ever-personable negotiator who will always be remembered for going that extra mile, with a smile — just to get the job done.

The OPEC Bulletin would like to offer its sincere condolences to Christophe de Margerie's wife and three children, his family, friends and colleagues
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Christophe de Margerie

Mr. Christophe de Margerie

OPEC Bulletin October 2014

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