The Right Chemistry

Exxon Eyes the Cream of the MBA Crop

Upon reading of the $50,000 first-year salaries offered to some graduates of Stanford and Harvard Business Schools, many observers have compared the intense bidding for graduates of the nation's more prestigious business schools to the high-priced baseball free agent market. If this analogy is an apt one, then Exxon's Max McCreery is the MBA market's George Steinbrenner. As chief corporate recruiter for Exxon's New York headquarters, McCreery can offer prospective executives the same inducements the Yankee owner dangles before baseball stars--a high salary, a successful employer, and a name almost synonomous with the business it represents. McCreery and a team of seven recruiters visited the Business School for three days earlier this month, offering a glimpse into how one of the nation's largest corporations goes about selecting its future managers.

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It is Wednesday night, February 4, and McCreery has scheduled an "icebreaker" to precede Thursday and Friday's interviews. The young, second-year B-School's plush Hamilton lounge promptly at 5 p.m. to exchange social amenities with the men and women who will be valuating them for the next two days. Next to the hors d'oeuvres and cocktails are reprints of an August, 1980, New York Times Magazine article: "Inside Exxon: Managing an $85 Billion-a-Year Empire." The men are a sea of blue and gray pinstripes; the women wrapped in tastefully muted tailored skirts and jackets with the ubitquitous string bow tie or large silk bow. Bits of conversation between the similarly Dressed-For-Success Exxon recruiters and the students relate to the topic at hand--but broadly, not broaching the specifics which will come later:

"Our job is to drill for offshore oil--and to do it successfully, to do it safely, and to do it within the confines of all the regulations the government has placed on us."

"I was stalking to Scoop (Sen. Jackson) and Frank (former-Sen. Church) last month..."

"Actually, more crude oil is coming out of there (Iran) than either the government or the press has led us to believe. Apparently the Iraqi bombing hasn't done as much damage as previously thought."

If all goes well, the pre-interview reception will give recruiter and student a good exposure to each other. Then, during the 30 minutes allotted for each interview, they can, in one interviewer's words, "concentrate on the business at hand": obtaining the cream of the B-School crop, which will eventually oversee Exxon's corporate empire.

The name of the recruiting game is exposure--making sure that every student at the B-School is at least aware of Exxon as a possible career choice. To accomplish this objective, McCreery begins each September by investigating B-School career clubs that might have an interest in being addressed by an Exxon executive. He also contacts various B-School faculty members to see if Exxon case histories could be used in their classes. Finally, he sends videotapes, brochures, and annual reports to the B-School's Career Center, all to "provide an accurate perception of what it's like to work at Exxon."

These activities are carefully designed to keep the Exxon names in the student's eye, both to attract him as a potential employee and to influence future corporate leaders and government officials who might be in a position to help the company some day. "These 1500 students are going out into all walks of life, and pretty quickly influencing society," McCreery says, leaving unsaid Exxon's opinion that if these future decisionmakers have a rosy picture of the corporation because of their exposure to its recruiting literature in business school, so much the better.

On December 1, the B-School mails to most of the major business concerns in the United States a dark blue binder containing the resumes of the 750 students in its class of 1981. The resumes contain the usual academic and employment histories, as well as each student's areas of career interest. Of these, McCreery selects about 300 to forward to various Exxon division managers as possible employees. The managers select about 200 to receive a Mailgram inviting them to sign up for interviews during Exxon's visit to the B-School. Of these, about 100 accept the offer, and it is these 100 McCreery concentrates on in earnest.

"There are certain negative perceptions students have, which we work at correcting," he says, citing the primary one: "Exxon is so big you can get lost." McCreery stresses Exxon's "decentralized management approach," and its "emphasis on management development," which "makes size an advantage..." Representing an enterprise with 180,000 employees, whose $4.3-billion profits in 1979 represented more than the profits of DuPont, Sears, Proctor & Gamble, Xerox, and RCA combined, McCreery fights an uphill battle in convincing students they will be more than just a rung on the corporate ladder. But, he says, "Once you give people the idea that an industrial career can be tailor-made to their interests and capabilities you've basically done the job."

Even the most subjective observer would acknowledge that major oil companies enjoy what might be described as a less-than, flattering public image, and McCreery somewhat reluctantly admits and "there's no question our image is something we're quite concerned about, and we make every attempt to present the company as it really is." But he finds that B-School students are looking at Exxon "in terms of what challenges and opportunities it presents to them--once they get an understanding of the integrity of the management of Exxon that becomes a moot point." McCreery insists that he attempts to portray an accurate--not idealized--picture of Exxon to interested students. "We try to portray Exxon as it is--that way, we both profit."

After the 100 students Exxon has invited to interviews have an accurate idea of the size and integrity of the company, McCreery and his team settle in for the three days of interviews. In addition to the seven actual interviewers, all of whom are field or line managers rather than personnel employees, McCreery brings additional team members, ranging from recent B-School graduates who can give students a description of the academia-employment transition, to Lilly Whalley, a Black woman who offers women and minorities her personal perspectives on integrating the corporate world.

At some point during the three days, each student has a 30-minute interview with someone like Dick Swersey (see box). Resumes and interview reports for about 60 of them are interview reports for about 60 of them are referred to managers at Exxon headquarters in New York. About three-quarters of the 40 students invited to New York, for an "on-site-visit" accept the offer. In New York, they spend one or two days talking to perhaps ten more managers and supervisors in the department in which they hope to work--and the are treated to cocktail parties, receptions, and nights on the town. "By this time," McCreery says, "we feel an individual has had the opportunity to formulate in his or her own mind whether, indeed, Exxon is the company for him or her--beyond that, there just isn't much we can do.

If McCreery and his recruiting team have done their all, the line managers in New York will see fit to extend about 20 job offers to B-School products, and seven or eight students will accept an Exxon offer by April 15--a date that marks the final winnowing step in a procedure that stats in September with a book of 750 resumes.

Although 70 per cent of Exxon's yearly hires are in technical positions--as engineers, etc.--it is likely that these MBAs will one day occupy the executive suites in the Exxon Buidling on Avenue of the Americas. so to the tall, energetic McCreery--whose career at Exxon has ranged from sales representative to advertising--recruiting B-School students in "just marketing the company in different way."

McCreery modestly declines to give a dollars-per-hire recruiting estimate because of "competitive advantage." But even a rough estimate of the figures indicates that they are substantial. Flights to and from New York, three-day stays at the Sheraton Commander, receptions, videotapes, presentations, managers absent from work, and lucrative salaries begin to add up. But to Exxon managers, who regard today's students as the company's future, McCreery's generous recruiting budget is money well spent. "It's very high priority," he says. "We're selling a person on a career and a commitment.