Tavoulareas, William Peter

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Tavoulareas, William Peter

(b. 9 November 1919 in Brooklyn, New York; d. 13 January 1996 in Boca Raton, Florida), aggressive Mobil Oil Corporation president and chief operating officer.

Tavouraleas’s father, Peter, was born in a small Greek village in 1892. The elder Tavoulareas, according to his son, “walked down his village mountain at the age of 16 and sailed by himself to America… he never saw Greece again.” His father went on to become a small, successful restaurant entrepreneur. His mother, Mary Ralisi, a second-generation Italian, was “endlessly cooking and cleaning, endlessly concerned, but never tired.” He had one sister. Tavoulareas received his B.B.A. in 1941 and his J.D. in 1948, both from St. John’s University in New York City, and was admitted to the New York bar. While attending law school at night, he began working for the Mobil Oil Corporation as a junior accountant in 1947. Working for Mobil’s Middle East concerns, he gained numerous opportunities for advancement once the company became aware that the Middle East had most of the Western world’s oil supply.

Tavoulareas credited his 1959 appointment to head Mobil’s first corporate-planning department as being his “big break.” By 1961, he was in charge of Mobil International’s planning section, which afforded him the opportunity to become personally acquainted with many powerful players in the oil industry. He was elected a director of the Mobil Oil Corporation in 1965, and by 1969 he was president and chief operating officer. His foresight, drive, deal making and negotiating skills, as well as his personal contacts, helped increase Mobil’s 1969 revenues of $7.6 billion to nearly $70 billion when he retired in 1984.

Under Tavoulareas’s guidance, Mobil’s North American production increased as he was constantly on the “prowl” to purchase domestic reserves—“a cheaper way to increase output”—in the 1970s. Yet between 1970 and 1976, America’s proven oil reserves fell by 27 percent and gas reserves by 24 percent. Mobil diversified and purchased the department store chain Montgomery Ward. This proved to be a mistake, and Mobil later sold the retailer for a big loss. Tavoulareas retired as president of Mobil Corporation on 1 November 1984 at the age of sixty-five.

Tavoulareas also served on the board of Georgetown University and as governor of the Society of New York Hospital. He was trustee of St. John’s University, Georgetown University, and Athens College, Athens, Greece. He received an honorary degree (Doctor of Commercial Science) from his alma mater (St. John’s University) in 1969. Until his death, he kept close ties with his Greek heritage. He died at age seventy-six from complications of a stroke suffered earlier (1995). His wife, Adele Maciejewska; two sons, Peter and William; a daughter, Patrice; and four grandchildren survived him.

Tavoulareas was a straightforward, fast-speaking individual—a sharp contrast with many major oil company executives of his era, who were known to speak with either the “drawl of the Southwest or the measured tones of the Ivy League.” Following the OPEC oil embargo in 1974, the hard-hitting Tavoulareas challenged the idea that conserving oil alone would alleviate future shortages and dependency. He believed that the United States had plentiful energy resources and instead pointed the finger at political roadblocks that thwarted the development of gas and oil deposits. His close ties with Saudi Arabian Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, minister of petroleum and mineral resources (1962–1986) and an OPEC “moderate,” along with his aggressive and sometimes unorthodox style, led to numerous confrontations with congressmen, environmentalists, and newspaper reporters.

On 30 November 1979, the Washington Post ran a story that alleged Tavoulareas had “set up his son” (eldest son Peter) in the London-based Atlas Maritime shipping industry. The article also inferred that he misused his position as Mobil’s president as well as company assets. Tavoulareas v. The Washington Post was filed to defend his family’s name. The case appeared on various court dockets until it reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989. The July 1982 federal jury found that he had indeed been libeled and awarded him a $2 million judgment. A 1985 appeals court upheld this verdict. This ruling reinforced newspaper industry fears that this case would lead to a wave of libel suits—inhibiting newspapers from doing tough investigative reporting. Tavoulareas ultimately lost in 1987, when the appellate court reversed the decision; the Supreme Court allowed that decision to stand.

In his 1985 book, Fighting Back, Tavoulareas recounted the six exhaustive and costly years of his lawsuit against the Post in which he initially fought to clear his family’s name. He credited his hard-working immigrant father with passing on to him something that money could not buy: “a good, unblemished name.” Later he took his struggle further—hoping in some small way to contribute to returning America to her initial path, “respect for the individual above all else.” Neither derogatory remarks during the trials nor negative reviews of his book deterred him from pressing his legal case. Even the Post reporter Patrick Tyler, who wrote the 1979 story, was quoted as saying, “It is not every day you knock off one of the seven sisters (oil companies).” The two Mobil Oil presidents that followed Tavoulareas were also New Yorkers and considered “gritty, hard-edged characters who didn’t go to Oxford or Harvard; tough, street-smart kids with very independent personalities.” This is possibly Tavoulareas’s chief legacy.

In addition to Tavoulareas’s autobiographical account in Fighting Back (1985), consult Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, The Prize: The Epic Quest For Oil, Money, and Power (1991), an extensive history, analysis, and political outlook of the oil industry. See also Florence George Graves, “Starr Struck,” American Journalism Review 3 (Apr. 1998): 1-7. Various newspaper articles regarding the lawsuit were published in the New York Times from 1979 through late 1982 including Jonathan Friendly, “Committee Aide’s Work for Media is Challenged,” New York Times (4 Jan. 1982); and Stuart Taylor, “Closing Arguments Are Made in Washington Post Libel Trial,” New York Times (28 July 1982). See also Thomas Chayes, “Mobil Promotes One of Three in Race for Chief,” New York Times (4 Feb. 1993). An obituary is in the New York Times (16 Jan. 1996).

Ellen O’Connell Bkasel