Engineering alum, ExxonMobil SVP Jack P. Williams talks energy, offers advice

Jack P. Williams (photo courtesy of ExxonMobil)

Jack P. Williams (BE’86) launched his career as a drilling engineer for ExxonMobil in New Orleans and saw promotions that took him to Alaska and Malaysia before he settled into corporate headquarters in Texas.

The Vanderbilt University School of Engineering alumnus soon will mark the end of his first year as senior vice president and member of the corporation’s management committee.

Raised in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, Williams said he always knew he wanted to attend Vanderbilt. His father and aunt graduated the university, and his mother graduated Peabody College. He will be back on campus next week, advising the School of Engineering during the spring Board of Visitors meeting.

In advance of that visit, Williams discussed energy, success and seeing the dorm where he lived undergo a much-needed upgrade.

What will the energy industry look like 25 years in the future? What is the mix going to be?

At ExxonMobil, we have an energy outlook that’s updated every year and predicts what energy demand is going to be 25 years into the future and how our supply is going to meet that. As you can imagine, that’s fundamental to our business, because all of our decisions are based on a long-term view. The projects we’re undertaking and the investments we’re making are dependent on having a market for them in 20 to 25 years.

We predict fossil fuels will still supply 77 of the world’s energy in 2040 compared to 82 percent today, so it doesn’t change that much. Energy demand will be 35 percent higher than it was in 2010. That’s driven by a couple of things. The world population is going to grow to 9 billion people in that time frame – from 7 billion today – and the GDP will grow by 140 percent.

If you think about it, it’s interesting the GDP grows by 140 percent, but energy demand only grows by 35 percent. We’re predicting that the world is going to get much more efficient in how it uses its energy.

In what ways would that happen?

One way in particular is with the fuel efficiency that we’re seeing in passenger vehicles – they’re much more efficient today than they were 20 years ago, and we think those improvements will continue. We’re doing research in that regard, working with several of the large auto manufacturers on improving vehicle fuel economy. You might think of us as an oil and gas company, but we’re also very involved in petrochemicals. We’re working on lighter-weight plastics that have the strength automobiles need and on lubricants to help with fuel efficiency.

We think, by 2040, hybrids will have much more penetration into the market than they have today. Their growth will be significant.

Can you describe some of the alternative fuel sources ExxonMobil is exploring and how today’s engineering students might end up working in those areas?

There’s ample opportunity to do so. At ExxonMobil, we currently have 18,000 scientists and engineers on the payroll. We actually have both upstream and downstream research organizations set up, looking at issues such as alternative fuel sources. We’re asking how we can we take on the dual challenge of meeting the world’s energy needs and reducing the environmental impact of energy use.

The lowest-hanging fruit is using fossil fuels more efficiently, so we have a lot of research going on in that regard. But we’re also looking at other potential energy sources we think can be scalable and competitive with fossil fuels. This is a very long-term endeavor, but we’re looking at producing biofuels from algae. We’re working with Synthetic Genomics to look at the algae strains and figure out a way we can scale that up and leverage our current refining and transportation infrastructure.

How did studying electrical engineering at Vanderbilt prepare you for a top position in an energy company?

Early on, a portion of what I did at ExxonMobil involved some aspects of electrical engineering, but we’re out to hire the best engineers we can find. We have all the internal training courses to train those engineers to become petroleum engineers.

What I learned at Vanderbilt was all the engineering basics such as  math, physics and chemistry. That provided the foundation for petroleum engineering.  But just as important was learning how to learn. Very few of us bring our college textbooks and use them on the job. As we enter the working world, we must understand how to problem-solve technical issues.

What advice do you have for School of Engineering students who want to succeed at the level you have?

I count myself very fortunate and blessed to be working for ExxonMobil. A nice thing about this company is that it’s a pure meritocracy. All the engineers who walk in the door have the opportunity to progress as far as their capabilities take them.

In terms of advice for students, there really isn’t a silver bullet or magic formula. It’s continuing to learn. I’m continuing to learn today. Have intellectual curiosity throughout your career, and keep grasping new concepts and keep going on to the next thing. The more flexibility and patience you can have in your career, the better you’ll do. Take on an assignment that may not be exactly what you want to do at the time, but will benefit you down the road. Show flexibility in the locations where you will work. That next promotion may not come tomorrow, but have patience that it will eventually come around.

Everybody has an opportunity to make a unique contribution in whatever organization you’re working in. Once you see that opportunity, that’s when you have to kick it into high gear and put in 110 percent to make a difference.

When you travel to Vanderbilt for Board of Visitors meetings, what’s familiar about the university and what’s different?

There are some things that have stayed the same from when I was there, and some things are very different. It’s nice to see those points of familiarity like Kirkland Hall and Memorial Gymnasium. I had my wedding rehearsal dinner at the University Club, where the Board of Visitors meets, and that’s very familiar, even though they’ve made some changes.

I was taking my son back for a summer program on the Peabody campus, and I got to see the new Commons. It is fantastic – we were very impressed. They were in the middle of tearing down the old Kissam Quad, but I was able to show him  Reinke, where I lived my freshman year, before it was torn down.


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