Don Humphreys, senior vice president and treasurer of ExxonMobil, returned to Wharton this spring as a part of the School’s Leadership Lecture series. In his talk to students, he spoke of three pillars of leadership in the energy industry: effective partnerships, technological innovation, and long-term investment.
Today’s energy industry leaders are enmeshed in far more than fuel production: Energy figures into issues of climate change, energy security, and international economic development, said Humphreys. “I often say it is almost like working for the State Department at very senior levels, because of the various government interfaces we must maintain and our long history in many countries.”
Malaysia, for instance, a country Humphreys and his family lived in for four years as part of his long career at ExxonMobil, has a 115-year relationship with ExxonMobil. That kind of long-term, carefully maintained partnership is built on consistently ethical, open dealings and mutual awareness, he stressed. Humphreys has deep roots in the energy industry. His father was in the oil business, on the finance side, in Tulsa, OK, then known as the oil capital of the world.
Humphreys started his career as a plant engineer for a year after graduating from Oklahoma State University in industrial engineering and management. He then entered the Army, where his commanding officer, a Penn alumnus, encouraged him to attend Wharton after his service. “The practical work experience Wharton offered was immensely valuable,” Humphreys told students. An independent study assignment, he recalled, was a logistics modeling project for an international shipping company—work that gave him experience in finance and technology.
In 32 years with Exxon and ExxonMobil, Humphreys has had 16 different assignments and moved 10 times. He says he loves the variety of his work, which includes overseeing fuels and lubricants marketing, global services (IT , procurement, real estate), controllers, treasurers, and tax, human resources, and aviation operations. Looking ahead, Humphreys cites access to hydrocarbon (i.e., oil and natural gas) resources as the key near-term challenge for his industry. Politics can be a barrier, which is why strong partnerships are vital, but there are technological challenges as well, since many of the world’s remaining reserves are difficult to access.
Humphreys says that for the time being ExxonMobil is more focused on continuing to work with hydrocarbons (including creative new conservation solutions such as clean coal and carbon sequestration, lithium ion batteries for hybrid automobiles, and onboard hydrogen separators), but that the company sees a larger role for renewables long term. ExxonMobil is exploring hydrogen, solar energy, biofuels, and other technological studies through a large investment in the 10-year Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) at Stanford University. Long-term leadership in a cyclical business such as the energy industry requires disciplined financial investment, Humphreys says. But he believes that developing future energy industry leaders is another important way to invest.
This is one reason Humphreys and his wife, Cathey, who helped put him through Wharton by working in North Philadelphia for a job-training organization, have endowed numerous scholarships and fellowships, both at Wharton and at Oklahoma State. “It’s our very firm belief that investing in education is the Best—capital B—investment you can make, whether you make it for yourself or you make it for your children or you help somebody else with their education.”