Desmarest, Thierry 1945–

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Thierry Desmarest

Chairman and chief executive officer, Total

Nationality: French.

Born: December 15, 1945, in Paris, France.

Education: Ecole Polytechnique, graduate; Ecole des Mines, graduate.

Career: Corps des mines, 19711975, engineer; Ministry of Industry, 19751978, engineer; Ministry for Economic Affairs, 19781980, engineer and technical adviser; Total compagnie française des pétroles (renamed Total in 1992), 19811983, director of Algerian operations; 19831988, director of Total Exploration and Production (TEP) for Latin American and West Africa; 19881989, manager and economic director; 19891995, director general of TEP and senior executive vice president; 19951998, president and chief executive officer; 1998, chairman of the board and chief executive officer.

Address: Total, 2 Place de la Coupole, La défense, Paris 92078, France;

Through his audacious and bold leadership, which many described in compliments as distinctly "un-French," Thierry Desmarest, chief executive officer (CEO) of the oil giant Total, acquired both the Belgian company PetroFina and the French company Elf Aquitaine to make Total the world's fourth-largest oil company in 1999. True to his nickname, le petit prince (the little prince), that is, short in stature and big on ideas, Desmarest's next move was rumored to be the creation of a European-based oil company to compete with the big three: Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch/Shell, and BP Amoco.


Desmarest graduated from the Ecole polytechnique and the Ecole des mines in his native Paris. For the first 15 years of his career, he worked as an engineer, including a series of technical-adviser posts in New Caledonia for the ministries of economics

and industry. After the Socialist François Mitterand became president, Desmarest, who did not care for Mitterand's politics, left the civil service and went to work in 1981 in the exploration and production division of Total compagnie française des pétroles, which shortened its name to Total in 1992.

Desmarest spent his first two years directing the company's Algerian operations. Most noteworthy during his tenure was the addition of oil reserves to the company's assets. In 1983 he became director of Total Exploration and Production (TEP) in French West Africa and Latin America. Five years later he was rewarded for his hard work in those challenging parts of the world with a promotion to director of TEP for both North and South America, France, and the Far East.


After a series of other promotions, Desmarest become president and CEO of Total in 1995. His job was challenging because at the time Total seemed to be losing ground to the other oil giants. But the profile of the company changed when Desmarest made the first bold move of his executive career: a $2 billion deal with Iran to develop the South Pars natural-gas fields. Since the shah was toppled from power in the 1970s, no company in the West had done any serious business with Iran. Desmarest's move was criticized sharply in the United States and elsewhere, although he had the support of the French government.

Desmarest did not back down from his stance, arguing that the United States was hypocritical in its refusal to do business with Iran on human rights grounds while simultaneously pursuing a trade relationship with China and other countries where the same issues were at stake. Total's reputation as an astute and resourceful force in global markets began to grow, and in 1998 Desmarest was named chairman of the board in addition to his title of CEO.


The merger of Total with the Belgian oil company PetroFina was only the first part of a scenario that displayed Desmarest's boldness as a leader. Total succeeded in acquiring PetroFina, in which Elf Aquitaine, a French oil company previously owned by the government, also had an interest. According to an article in Fortune International, "What followed speaks volumes about the audacity, ruthlessness, and acute sense of timing hiding behind Desmarest's bland exterior."

Desmarest faxed an offer to Philippe Jaffre, the CEO at Elf, in July 1999, only three days after the PetroFina deal was completed. He offered to buy out Elf as well. Stunned by this hostile takeover bid, which was definitely not in the French tradition, Elf board members attempted a counteroffer. By the fall, however, the shareholders had voted for the merger, and Robert Alexander, a former banker and Total board member, admiringly described Desmarest as a "modern chief executive," rather than merely a civil servant who had been handed a top position. According to a Washington Post article, Desmarest "is a model of the tough new executives who are now emerging in Europe after decades of genteel corruption and corporate sleepwalking. Friends describe him as a low-key, soft-spoken man whose manner hides a determined, risk-taking approach to business."


Before the U.S.-led war with Iraq began in 2003, it seemed likely that Total would profit hugely from its dealings with the oil-rich country. But France's opposition to the war complicated matters, and Desmarest denied reports that he had made any deals with Saddam Hussein or signed contracts with the Iraqis. The general consensus in the press was that Desmarest was, according to an article in the Economist, "one of the best managers in the oil business [who] stresses shareholder value and capital discipline." With Britons and Americans making up one-third of Total's shareholders and the firm's excellent capital returns, Desmarest's leadership of Total seemed secure.

See also entry on TOTAL S.A. in International Directory of Company Histories.

sources for further information

"Desmarest: Less Acquisitive," Weekly Petroleum Argus, February 25, 2002, pp. 810.

Ignatius, David, "Rival Tycoons," Washington Post, July 14, 1999.

"It's Not Easy Being French; Face Value," Economist, April 5, 2003.

"Oil CEOs Discussing New Guidelines on Booking Reserves," Oil Daily, February 23, 2004.

"Thierry Desmarest," BusinessWeek, June 11, 2001, p. 32.

Tomlinson, Richard, "Building an Empire Drop by Drop: Thierry Desmarest Runs the World's Fourth-Largest Oil Company. He Wants to Be a Supermajor. The Last Thing He Needs Is a War in the Middle East," Fortune International (Asia edition), October 15, 2001, p. 76.

Anne Lesser