Exxon Turns to Outsider Mikells as New CFO

Kathryn Mikells's appointment "is clearly a first move for what will be a change in management and tone."
Matthew HellerJuly 20, 2021

Kathryn Mikells

Exxon Mobil has named former United Airlines CFO Kathryn Mikells to lead its finance team, making her the first woman and outsider to join its management committee.

Her appointment as CFO and senior vice president comes three months after activist investor Engine No. 1 led a shakeup of Exxon’s board amid investor concerns over the energy giant’s corporate culture and financial performance.

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“This is clearly a first move for what will be a change in management and tone,” analyst Paul Sankey told Reuters. “The history of the company has been a rigid hierarchical matter. This is the kind of unprecedented move we expected from the board change that has occurred.”

Mikells will join Exxon in September from spirit distributor Diageo, where she has served as finance chief since November 2015. She replaces Andrew Swiger, who is retiring.

“We welcome Kathy to Exxon Mobil and look forward to the perspective and experience she brings as we work together to deliver on our strategies and increase shareholder value,” Exxon CEO Darren Woods said in a news release.

As The Wall Street Journal reports, the company “has historically preferred to promote from within its own ranks, especially for positions on the management committee, which employees internally refer to as the ‘God pod.’”

But Engine No. 1, which now has three seats on the Exxon board, has criticized Exxon’s corporate culture “as being too insular, and said the company needed outside perspectives to help it navigate a continuing industry transition to lower carbon energy sources.”

At Diageo, Mikells focused on reducing costs and reshaping the company’s portfolio by buying brands like Casamigos tequila in 2017 and Aviation American Gin last year. She has also used predictive analytics to identify trends and forecast customer demand and commodity prices.

Before joining the drinks company, Mikells was CFO at Xerox, ADT, and United Airlines, where she was responsible for the carrier’s fuel hedging strategy.

Exxon’s top-tier management committee consists of the CEO and three to four senior vice presidents. It has remained all-male, according to a Reuters’ review of SEC filings, dating to 2001.