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Growth in a Changing Environment: A History of Standard Oil Company (New Jersey), 1950-1972 and Exxon Corporation, 1972-1975.

Growth in a Changing Environment: A History of Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) 1950-1972 and Exxon Corporation 1972-1975 Bennett Wall, in his new volume, Growth in a Changing Environment: A History of Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) 1950-1972 and Exxon Corporation 1972-1975, has given us a splendid account of the corporate history of the last twenty-five years of one of America's most important corporations. The book is preceded by three other masterly volumes covering earlier eras in the history of the company, each published by the Business History Foundation, in cooperation with the company: Ralph W. Hidy and Muriel E. Hidy, Pioneering in Big Business, 1882-1911 (1955); George S. Gibb and Evelyn H. Knowlton, The Resurgent Years, 1911-1927 (1956); and Henrietta M. Larson, Evelyn Knowlton, and Charles S. Popple, New Horizons, 1927-1950 (1971). Wall's book is consistent with the excellent style established by these and is meant to bring the historical record up to date. The volume ranges the world in subject matter, owing to Exxon's immense overseas investment and also makes reference to the company's early origins.

It is not primarily a book aimed at the study of petroleum economics; rather, its principal use is in the description and explanation of the general development of one of the world's major oil companies. The book is generally interested in the high strategy of the company and in the personalities of the executives who devised and executed it. The first chapter sketches Exxon's recent past, while the next three discuss some of the company's fundamental changes to its corporate structure. The remaining chapters are mainly organized on a regional basis: Europe; Canada and Latin America; and North Africa and the Middle and Far East.

Bennett Wall argues that Exxon grew and responded rather successfully to most of the challenges it faced during the twenty-five years covered. It renamed itself and its products to make its position in the market distinct from similarly named competitors that were all once part of the Standard Oil Trust. The company reorganized its disparate chemicals production and sales into an integrated and profitable operating division. The postwar years saw the company expand into new and growing markets in Europe. Its other great success was in profitably recovering from a forced divestment of part of its Far East operations. Wall also argues that the company did have some major failings in policy: 1) in the 1960s it seized on an investment strategy that relied almost exclusively on financial criteria and led to poor investments in unfamiliar businesses; 2) it did not sufficiently oversee its Italian operations, and it soon fell into political and legal trouble; and finally, 3) Exxon was left extremely vulnerable to the oil price shock in the early 1970s, as it relied on the Middle East for most of its oil.

The material is generally well balanced and based on a variety of sources; however, the work on the last few years in the period has relatively less in the way of internal documentation supporting it and relies, unfortunately, on newspapers and public sources. To do otherwise in the analysis of the most recent years would have been impossible, owing to universal practices in the delayed declassification of confidential documents in large organizations. It would have been best, perhaps, to cut off the story in 1972 rather than to try to bring the book "up to date," since the work would have been equally splendid if it had stopped, say, after chapter 22. This would then have told a story of almost twenty-five years and included the radical change of the company name to Exxon, but would have left the examination of the post-1972 oil crisis for another, and better documented, volume.

On to some specifics: the chapter on chemicals contains a useful glossary for understanding the nature of the considerations (pp. 239-42), and is worthwhile having. The chapter on the company's Canadian operations (Imperial Oil, Ltd.) is a good contribution to Canadian oil history--the biography of which is still thin. It also usefully sets up the transition to the discussion of Jersey Standard's Latin American operations, in Venezuela and Peru, owing to their historic links with the Canadian oil industry. The book provides a complete list of the top officers, since employees seeking a sense of the culture and background of the company must surely number among the book's readers. Also it provides a twelve-page black and white photo insertion to illustrate some of the many scenes that are described in this immense, 899-page book. More operating and financial figures could have been used throughout the book, such as those that appear in the chapter on Humble Oil (p. 169). Also, if tables and figures had been numbered and a list provided at the beginning, it would have been easier to find specific statistical information in this big book.

Wall has made the work of oil company leaders and the operation of the oil industry interesting and accessible to the nonspecialist. His book is a welcome contribution to the literature on the petroleum industry and would be primarily of interest to business historians studying the recent presence of Exxon in particular economies; each chapter can be read independently of the others to provide a quick resume of the basic names and details involved. Members of the international oil community will no doubt find it a useful reference book, particularly in conjunction with the many other excellent oil company histories now available.

David F. C. Myers is dean of Oriel College, Oxford University. He is an international petroleum industry specialist and is currently interested in research relating to the history of the industry in Latin America.
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Author:Myers, David F.C.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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