- Monday May 19 2008
A shareholder revolt at ExxonMobil led by the billionaire Rockefeller family has won the support of four significant British institutional investors who will call on Monday for a shake-up in the governance of the world's biggest oil company.
The Guardian has learned that F&C Asset Management, Morley Fund Management, the Co-Operative Insurance Society and the West Midlands Pension Fund are throwing their weight behind a resolution demanding that ExxonMobil appoints an independent chairman to stimulate debate on the company's board.
Exxon is facing a rebellion from its investors over its hardline approach to global warming. The firm has refused to follow rival oil companies in committing large-scale capital investment to environmentally friendly technology such as wind and solar power.
The Rockefeller dynasty, whose ancestor John D Rockefeller founded the original oil business at the core of ExxonMobil, have sponsored four shareholder resolutions demanding changes at Exxon. One of these calls on Exxon's chief executive Rex Tillerson, to relinquish his role as chairman in favour of an outsider to bring in an alternative point of view.
The London-based corporate governance advisory service Pirc intends to recommend that institutions support this proposal, which is in line with best practice on corporate boards in the UK.
F&C Asset Management's director of governance and sustainable investment, Kevin Litvack, said it could pave the way for a different attitude at Exxon towards the environment.
"Despite top-notch individual directors, the company's record over the last decade, particularly regarding climate change, demonstrates that debate has been lacking," said Litvack. "By bringing in an independent chairman, the company can better leverage that creativity and challenge, and avoid over-dominance by management."
Exxon maintains that present green technologies are not financially viable. But critics on Wall Street and in the City fear that the company's reluctance to explore alternative energy will prove to be bad business judgement in the long run as rivals such as BP seek to capture public affection by re-branding themselves as environmentally sensitive enterprises.
The Rockefellers point out that Exxon has $25bn of capital investment planned in carbon-based fuel but its environmental commitment is centred a relatively modest $100m to fund a Stanford University project on climate change.
If the rebellion continues to gather pace, Exxon could suffer an embarrassing defeat at its annual meeting in Dallas later this month. At last year's meeting, 40% of investors' votes were cast in favour of a similar call for an independent chairman and the Rockefellers' involvement this time has raised the profile of the battle.
In the US, three advisory firms – RiskMetrics, Glass Lewis and Proxy Governance – have urged fund managers to support the Rockefellers' resolution. The result of the vote is not binding on Exxon but the company has said that its board will reconsider any of its policies challenged by successful shareholder resolutions.
An Exxon spokesman last night responded to the British institutions' stance by re-asserting the company's position that its board is better placed than investors to decide on the leadership structure.
In a written response to the shareholder resolutions earlier this month, Exxon said its board members possesses "considerable experience and unique knowledge of the challengers and opportunities the company faces".