Christophe de Margerie: Business executive who was warned against joining Total but helped make it one of the world's biggest oil producers

 A charismatic and popular character in the business world, known for his direct approach to people and issues, he was instantly recognisable

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The Independent Online

Christophe de Margerie was the chairman and chief executive of Total, the second-largest listed company in France and the fourth largest oil producer in the world, with 100,000 employees and a stock market valuation of some 102 billion euros. A charismatic and popular character in the business world, known for his direct approach to people and issues, he was instantly recognisable by his silver handlebar, which gave him the nickname "Big Moustache".

De Margerie was born in 1951 in Mareuil-sur-Lay, in the Vendée département of France, to Pierre-Alain Rodocanachi, a businessman, and Colette Taittinger, daughter of Pierre, the founder of the Taittinger champagne house. When his mother remarried he took the family name of her new husband, Pierre-Alain Jacquin de Margerie.

He graduated from the École Supérieure de Commerce, a Paris business school, in 1974 and joined Total in its finance department. "I was told, 'You have made the absolute worst choice. Total will disappear in a few months'," he recalled. However, he rose through the ranks, becoming head of its Middle East operation in 1995. In that role he was instrumental in re-establishing relations with Iran, the first energy company to do so since the late 1970s, and opening up production in the Sirri and Pars fields.

The Iranian MP and former deputy oil minister, Mohsen Yahyavi, praised the company at the time, saying "Total was the first foreign oil company to sign agreements with Iran despite US threats, which is very important for us..."

By 2000 he was named senior executive vice-president of Exploration and Production in the newly formed TotalFinaElf group and became president of that division two years later. In February 2007 he was made chief executive of Total and was appointed chairman just three years later, succeeding Thierry Desmarest.

Interviewed a month after taking on the chairmanship he was asked if he would like to work in a simpler business than the oil industry. "We have issues. Some others have issues," came the reply, "and frankly, I don't know if our issues are worse or not. I still believe if you take it as a responsibility, we have a chance to play a major role in this world. Because energy is life. Energy is growth."

With de Margerie at the helm, the company he had been warned against joining thrived and grew, building its reserves and shareholder value. He was able to increase the company's "reserves life", a key measure of the remaining oil and gas still to be extracted, almost every year throughout his leadership. By last year the company turned over 171 billion euros, with profits of 8.4 billion euros.

So much of this success was down to de Margerie's ability to engage with energy barons and politicians of all kinds. When asked whether oil companies had no choice but to deal with despots he replied, "Bloody right! Because we don't have oil or gas... This is why French companies are always looking for partnerships."

His time in office was not without controversy. Last year he was acquitted of charges of corruption during the UN "oil-for-food" programme, which had allowed Iraq to exchange oil for food rations during the mid-1990s. Closer to home, in 2010 Total and other oil companies were fined more than £5 million for their involvement in the 2005 Buncefield depot explosion. Then, last year, the company paid $398 million to settle allegations that it had paid bribes for energy contacts in Iran. De Margerie had been under investigation by France since 2006 in relation to similar allegations.

On the other hand, he was also, according to the French human rights lawyer, William Bourdon, "one of the rare 'global players', who was able to master the contradiction between developing his business to benefit his shareholders, whilst also demonstrating that he could be a benefactor to humanity." He saw one of his roles as being to restore the company's tarnished image in its home country, where the 1999 Erika tanker disaster and the 2001 AZF chemical factory explosion had left doubts about the company's regard for safety.

He had been a consistent defender of Russia during the Ukraine conflict and argued against isolating the country from the rest of the world. In July this year he said in an interview, "You hear people say we have got to protect ourselves from Ukraine and then they talk about Russia," and asked, "Are we going to build a new Berlin Wall?" Vladimir Putin described him as a "true friend of our country."

De Margerie relished his position of power and would do what he could to retain it for as long as possible. At the company's AGM, in May, he successfully passed a resolution to increase the retirement age for the CEO from 65 to 67. As a commentator in Le Nouvel Observateur noted at the time, "Why would he give up the crown from which he derived so much pleasure?"

He died in Moscow when his Dassault Falcon business jet crashed into a snow plough at Vnukovo International Airport, killing all four people onboard. Russian investigators initially suggested that the snow plough driver was drunk, an allegation he denied, while admitting that he lost his bearings on the runway. Thierry Desmarest, the former chairman, will take over de Margerie's role at Total.

MARCUS WILLIAMSON

Christophe Jacquin de Margerie (Christophe de Margerie): businessman; born Mareuil-sur-Lay 6 August 1951; married Bernadette Prudhomme (four daughters, one son); died Moscow 20 October 2014.

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