No job too big

Dennis M. Houston

With a name like "Houston," it almost seems like destiny that Dennis Houston (BS, '74, chemical engineering) would wind up in the oil business.

However, a more likely reason for Houston's career choice was growing up in the shadow of three oil refineries in Wood River, Ill. It also didn't hurt that both of his parents, as well as his grandfather, worked in the oil industry.

Today, Houston is responsible for ExxonMobil's entire oil tanker fleet, its pipeline business around the world, and all of the tank farms where trucks pick up gasoline and diesel. He is also responsible for getting the optimal use out of every molecule of the millions of barrels of crude oil that go through ExxonMobil's 40-plus refineries around the world or that are sold to other refineries.

These are big jobs for a man from a small Illinois town; but when it comes to oil, everything tends to be big. Crude oil tankers are three football fields long, roughly 100 feet high, and can carry as many as 2.2 million barrels of crude oil products.

Taking on big responsibilities for one of the largest companies in the world has also earned Houston a 2006 LAS Alumni Achievement Award. Houston, who received his BS degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1974, was the first co-op undergraduate student ever in chemical engineering at U of I—a program that blended his studies with on-the-job experience at the Shell Oil Company. After graduation, he displayed extraordinary management skills at the Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge, beginning what would become a rapid rise up the ranks, eventually reaching his current position, executive vice president of the ExxonMobil Refining and Supply Company and chairman of Mobil Oil Shipping and Transportation.

One of Houston's most memorable assignments came early in his career when he moved to Singapore to serve as deputy managing director of Esso Singapore in 1988 and then chairman and managing director in 1989. He says the Singapore workers combined "the best of the East" (consensus building and teamwork) with the "best of the West" (technology and innovation). Houston also says he is proud of his part in developing hundreds of capable engineers and business leaders over the past 30 years. In addition, he helped plan the $80 billion merger transition of Mobil and Exxon in 1998; and his organizations within ExxonMobil have raised the industry bar in safety and environmental performance.

"ExxonMobil has the best marine safety record in the industry," he says. "Our mariners spill less than one teaspoon of oil for every one million barrels transported." This is an impressive statistic, he adds, when you consider that ExxonMobil is "either loading or unloading a tanker every five to 10 minutes someplace in the world."

It's all part of what the company calls "flawless operations"—minimizing oil spills, vapor releases and injuries, while keeping the company economically healthy. It also means keeping refineries open even under difficult conditions, as they experienced in Hurricane Katrina last year.

"I'm extremely proud of the workers at the Baton Rouge refinery," Houston says. "Not only did they keep the refinery up and running after Katrina, but then they went down to New Orleans and saved lives, rescuing people off of the roofs of houses."

In addition to his heavy workload, Houston is on the foundation board of the INOVA Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, is a member of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and is part of the Center for Energy, Marine Transportation, and Public Policy at Columbia University. He also has maintained close ties to the U. of I., serving as a founding member of the School of Chemical Sciences Leadership Council.

According to Edmund Seebauer, head of the University's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, "Dennis Houston is one of America's most outstanding corporate leaders and a philanthropist for his alma mater. His accomplishments reflect the depth and the breadth of the values the college pursues."

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Doug Peterson