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The Explorer

Tim Cejka

In 1969, Tim Cejka arrived at IUP from Pittsburgh’s Perry High School. He anticipated he would leave college four years later as an Earth Science teacher and thereafter dedicate himself to shaping young lives, secure within the confines of Steelers Nation.

But at IUP, his life veered toward a more exotic destiny. He met and later married a woman who was, literally, from Utopia. And, because he changed his major after his freshman year, he was eventually to spend so much time in places like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that he “almost became a taxpayer.”

Cejka’s wife, Debra Phillips Cejka, comes from the Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, community of Utopia. Both she and her husband graduated from IUP in 1973. Cejka had by then become a Geology major. The department’s former chairperson, Walter Granata, a Texaco veteran, told Cejka, “You should go to work as a geologist in the oil and gas industry.”

Granata was right. Today, Cejka is president of ExxonMobil Exploration Company and a vice president of Exxon Mobil Corporation. 

Tim Cejka

Cejka talks to a class during a visit to IUP.

Cejka went on to study geophysics at the University of Texas and joined Exxon in 1975. Even now, he said, “Ninety percent of our company comprises people with degrees in geoscience and/or engineering. They are on top of technology. Our people are the best.”

“We choose people really carefully, and we expect them to stay,” Cejka said. Careers spent solely at Exxon Mobil are the rule, rather than the exception—a departure from trends in most of modern corporate America.

“We are very much into career development and continuity,” Cejka said. 

Cejka’s first role was as an exploration geophysicist for offshore California. He later served as a production geologist in New Orleans and then undertook supervisory positions in both onshore and offshore Gulf Coast operations. Eventually, he worked for three years as exploration advisor for Exxon’s Netherlands and German affiliates.

“There are two things in college I wish I’d taken,” he said. “One is keyboarding. The other is cultural awareness.” 

Tim Cejka

Cejka, left, talks with his former IUP classmate John Taylor, center, who is now a Geoscience professor at the university, and with another faculty member, Michael Poage.

ExxonMobil Exploration gives its international representatives all kinds of training in different cultures. They have to understand not only mannerso and mores but customs governing interpersonal interactions, as well. “In some countries, you have to build a relationship very slowly,” Cejka said.

The company is in the business of finding sources of oil and gas and acquiring rights to them, but it also employs political scientists to assess various nations’ business, governmental, and social frameworks.

“In western countries, we have a very businesslike, formal structure,” Cejka said. “In other countries, business is done differently. Direct, one-on-one negotiation is usually best.” 

Most of the negotiation occurs with governments. “The United States is one of the few places in the world with private ownership of mineral rights,” Cejka said.

Professional research and advice aside, there is no substitute for human observation. “Nothing,” Cejka said, “replaces being on the ground. You have to comprehend the situations through your own eyes and ears.”

Cejka has been “on the ground” a lot. In 1993, when Exxon created the Exxon Ventures company, he became its vice president of Exploration, traveling extensively and living for extended periods in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. After Exxon and Mobil merged, he was named vice president for the Caspian/Middle East Region for ExxonMobil Exploration. In 2001, he assumed responsibilities for exploration and geoscience in Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and the Caspian Region.

The key to the whole negotiation/acquisition process is “relationship, relationship, relationship,” Cejka said. Individuals valued for what he calls “rapport-building ability” serve as venture managers while negotiations take place.

“These are the kind of people who work their whole lives for ExxonMobil Exploration but who don’t want to work in Houston—and perhaps never do,” Cejka said. “An example is the Frenchman who was hired in France, retired in France, and never worked in France.”

Tim Cejka

Cejka, center, with Richard Brown (ExxonMobil Middle East Exploration manager), left, and Nasser Jaidah (director of Oil and Gas Ventures, Qatar Petroleum) at Geo2004 in Bahrain.

In the thirty countries where it operates, Cejka’s company has 1,500 employees—not that many, he said, “considering that we work the world.” Of the 1,500, he says he has met at least 1,420 personally.

“The only assets in exploration are people,” Cejka said. “My job is to get those people to their full capacity every day.”

“We recruit globally, and we recruit on a diversity basis intentionally,” he said. “We want diversity in thought, diversity in race, and diversity in gender.” In the countries in which his company operates, well over 90 percent of the company’s employees are of local origin.

Half the recent worldwide geoscience recruits are female. “Women are in technical and leadership positions globally,” he said. In some countries where equality and diversity are not as highly valued, “we usually build diversity after our presence has been established,” he said. “We want to live up to our own culture of diversity.” 

Another part of company culture is eternal vigilance. “We do not like surprises,” Cejka said. The company’s Operations Integrity Management System contains eleven elements that mandate certain behaviors. For example, Element 10: Community Awareness and Emergency Preparedness suggests that “emergency planning and preparedness are essential to ensure that in the event of an incident, all necessary actions are taken.”

“The only assets in exploration are people,” Cejka said. “My job is to get those people to their full capacity every day.”

With the memory of the Exxon Valdez 1989 oil spill still haunting the industry, Cejka said, “Safety is our number-one responsibility. We do not believe in accidents. As a result, we have the world’s number-one safety record.”

ExxonMobil has its own meteorologists, and its safety sciences program is designed to identify and rehearse a series of worst-case scenarios. Safety drills are unannounced and not immediately identified as drills. “Rehearsals take away fear,” Cejka said.

“Safety and ethics are the primary things new employees learn,” Cejka said. “We love creativity, but it’s got to be focused. We also have the most rigid drug and alcohol policy in the industry. Everyone from the top down is randomly tested.”

As president of ExxonMobil Exploration, Cejka still shows up around the world when negotiations are in progress. Now, however, he is the opener or the closer. “I still go, but I don’t stay as long,” he said.

Cejka and his team were in Libya two weeks after it reopened to U.S. firms and their foreign subsidiaries. “The best food in Tripoli is Italian,” he said. “I swear the seafood was so fresh it was still wiggling.”

Despite all the world travel, or perhaps because of it, Cejka and his family value time spent at their ten-acre farm near Latrobe, Pennsylvania—secure within the confines of Steelers Nation. The 1862 farmhouse was built to last with twelve-by-twelve-foot oak beams, and every summer for the last eleven, there has been a new project to be undertaken. In 2005, it was fighting poison ivy by the trout stream.

Cejka speaks with pride of the couple’s two daughters, one a Ph.D. candidate in Engineering Education at Tufts University and the other a Sam Houston University undergraduate with aspirations to teach third grade. He himself has fond memories of his time at IUP.

“The big concert was when Chicago was here,” he said. “At Spring Fling, we’d have three days of bands. My bellbottoms were so wide in those days, I could have sailed.”

Cejka was due back at IUP in December to give the Winter Commencement address. There’s no word on the bellbottoms.