Rawleigh Warner Jr., Brash Chairman of Mobil, Dies at 92
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Published: July 2, 2013
Rawleigh Warner Jr., who as chairman of the Mobil Corporation pushed the company to acquire vast crude oil reserves and to enhance its image by introducing “Masterpiece Theater” to public television and a combative voice to newspapers’ op-ed pages, died on June 26 at his home in Hobe Sound, Fla. He was 92.
William E. Sauro/The New York Times
The cause was complications of a progressive muscle disease known as inclusion body myositis, his family said.
Mr. Warner, who followed his father into the oil business (Rawleigh Sr. was chairman of the Pure Oil Company), transformed Mobil from a money loser in the 1950s to the second-largest American company in the early 1980s, trailing only Exxon, with which Mobil merged in 1999.
Mr. Warner became president of Mobil in 1965 and chairman and chief executive four years later, serving in that post for 16 years as he steered the company through the Arab oil embargo of 1973, lurches in the oil market and ever more delicate dealings with oil-producing nations.
“He is an aristocrat of oil, with the looks of an old-fashioned film star and a Princeton education,” Anthony Sampson wrote in “The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies and the World They Shaped” (1975).
Mr. Warner jettisoned the company’s flying horse symbol, Pegasus, in favor of a simple red and blue block-letter logo with the word Mobil. He gave Mobil’s gas stations a long overdue face-lift.
He also increased oil and gas exploration, from the Canadian North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico to the North Sea. Working with Mobil’s president, William Tavoulareas, he raised Mobil’s stake in Saudi Arabia, building huge projects there and naming a Saudi to Mobil’s board.
As the public grew antagonistic toward big oil companies because of rising prices at the pump, Mr. Warner tried to build good will by sponsoring cultural fare like the anthology series “Masterpiece Theater.” The duchess of Bedford, who sat next to him at a dinner party, alerted him to the British series “Upstairs, Downstairs,” which was later broadcast on “Masterpiece Theater.”
Mr. Warner could also play hardball. He directed his vice president for public affairs, Herb Schmertz, to place paid opinion articles on the op-ed pages of major newspapers spelling out Mobil’s positions on issues.
“If you’re not going to stand up and defend yourself and show a willingness to combat a cheap shot, then the fellow who is giving the cheap shot is going to get away with it,” Mr. Warner told The New York Times in 1981.
The effect, if not the intent, was to give Mobil a swaggering identity. In 1977, one ad featured a cartoon of women representing “the seven sisters,” as the international oil giants were known. All but one was flat-chested. “Can’t tell the sisters apart,” read the caption. “Mobil’s the one with the extra dimension.”
But the company stumbled under Mr. Warner when it used its windfall from higher oil prices to buy the Montgomery Ward department store chain in 1974. Mobil lost money and sold the chain in 1988.
Mobil also failed in unfriendly takeover campaigns against Conoco and Marathon Oil in the early 1980s as part of its drive to increase its crude reserves. But it succeeded in buying smaller companies like Transocean Oil and General Crude.
In 1984, the Mobil Corporation announced that it was stopping its advertising in The Wall Street Journal after the newspaper reported that Mr. Warner’s son-in-law was employed by a company with which Mobil had done a real estate deal.
“Mobil is inebriated with its own power,” Ralph Nader told The Times in 1981.
It could afford it. In 1981, Mobil paid Mr. Warner $1.5 million, more than $500,000 above the pay of Exxon’s chief. “When I came here, I was told that Mobil shouts and Exxon whispers,” an Exxon public affairs specialist told The Times in 1982.
Rawleigh Warner Jr. was born on Feb. 13, 1921, in Chicago and grew up in the city’s northern suburbs. He followed his father to the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and Princeton, from which he graduated in 1943. During World War II he served in an Army field artillery unit in Italy. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart and was discharged as a captain.
After the war Mr. Warner joined the Socony Vacuum Company, one of 34 companies formed from pieces of the Standard Oil Trust, which the Supreme Court ordered broken up in 1911. It became Mobil in 1920. Mr. Warner specialized in finance, in contrast to many oilmen whose roots were in Texas oil fields and Louisiana refineries.
The team he made with Mr. Tavoulareas became legendary in the oil business. Mr. Warner commanded the boardroom while Mr. Tavoulareas, a fast-talking, Brooklyn-born Greek-American, made deals with oil sheiks.
“One of the strengths of the company is that we appear to be so different, yet we complement each other so well and get along so well,” Mr. Warner said.
After retiring from Mobil in 1986, he served on corporate boards, including that of American Express, where he led a campaign to depose James. D. Robinson III, Amex’s chairman and chief executive, whom Mr. Warner argued was failing. Mr. Robinson resigned in January 1993.
Mr. Warner, who lived in New Canaan, Conn., for many years, is survived by his wife of 66 years, the former Mary Ann deClairmont; his daughters Alison Pyne and Suzanne Parsons; his sisters Dorothy Sills and Suzanne Kenly; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.