PARIS (Reuters) - Christophe de Margerie, the head of French oil and gas giant Total who died when his jet crashed in Moscow, was a gregarious bon vivant with a passion for risk-taking and deal-making.
Known as “The Big Mustache” for his bushy, gray mustache, de Margerie, 63, was the most charismatic and outspoken oil executive of his generation who cultivated relationships with leaders across Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
An opponent of Western economic sanctions against Russia, the Frenchman was close to President Vladimir Putin - who said on Tuesday that “Russia had lost a true friend”.
There was also sadness among Gulf business partners for the loss of “Mr Middle East”, along with three crew of his private jet, on Monday night.
Greeting rival business chiefs with a huge hug or networking with a glass of whisky in his hand, the burly de Margerie’s gregarious nature masked an astute business sense for frontier projects and tough negotiating skills.
From a family of ambassadors and CEOs, de Margerie was the grandson of Pierre Taittinger, who founded the Taittinger champagne group. This led one associate to joke that he could have been the King of Brut but opted to be the King of Crude - brut meaning both dry champagne and crude oil in French.
De Margerie oversaw Total’s Middle East operations and then joined the group’s exploration and production branch, the most prestigious, in 1995. He became chief executive in 2007 but his time at the top was troubled by legal problems.
De Margerie’s dominance of Total means that the group may struggle to find a chief who can fill his shoes.
“This fabric of international relationships he has are fundamental ... There are perhaps seven or eight bosses in the world who have that, no more, and certainly not at Total. His potential successors are not ready,” another associate said before his death.
He called Total’s recent exploration strategy “high risk, high reward” as he tried to close a gap with rival energy majors and find super-giant oil fields.
Relishing political and financial risk, de Margerie enjoyed success in Nigeria and Angola. His friendships brought loyalty when it came to deal-making and negotiations.
Before his death, he had been looking at a possible big merger or acquisition. This would have been the first under his leadership of the company, which was created in its current form by a merger of TotalFina and Elf in 1999. “A big deal would make sense,” de Margerie told Reuters last month.
“Christophe was a larger-than-life character, a leader respected across the energy industry and a friend,” said Ben van Beurden, CEO of Royal Dutch/Shell. “The way the oil industry is these days with its ups and downs, nobody can replace him,” a close friend said.
He never shied away from big political statements in an industry where other executives often chose to be mute. Passionate about Iran and Russia, de Margerie was openly critical of sanctions against both countries.
In Russia, his position earned Total some of the biggest and most lucrative projects, as well as huge popularity there. In Iran, Total would be one of the best positioned oil majors to return when and if sanctions were to be lifted.
When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared at the global economic forum in Davos in January, it was de Margerie who made sure he sat next to him, publicly illustrating Total’s special relationship with the Islamic Republic.
A decade-long investigation of bribery allegations linked to Total’s dealings with Iraq and Iran has been a nagging background feature of de Margerie’s time at the top of the world’s fourth largest investor-controlled oil company.
In May 2013, the company agreed to pay $398 million to settle U.S. criminal and civil allegations that it paid bribes to win oil and gas contracts in Iran. A French prosecutor recommended that de Margerie himself face trial, although no hearing resulted.
Two months later, de Margerie was among 18 people acquitted in court, alongside Total itself, of corruption charges related to a United Nations oil-for-food program in Iraq. They had been accused of misusing assets in a decade-old case involving the program, from which an illicit $1.8 billion flowed to Saddam Hussein’s government.
“Christophe was very affected by the legal episodes in Iraq and Iran,” said a close adviser and friend, who declined to be named. “He was not destroyed, but hurt.”
De Margerie’s rise at Total was unconventional. After graduating from the standard Ecole Superieure de Commerce business school - an anomaly in a company filled with engineers from elite French schools - de Margerie joined the financial department of Total in 1974 because, as he once quipped, the company’s headquarters was the nearest to his home.
editing by David Stamp