“I may not be good with talking about myself, but if there’s two things you can get John Hollowell to talk about for hours, it’s about how proud I am to be an Aggie, and how proud I am to work at Shell,” John Hollowell ’79 told Mays Business School students in a recent lecture and small-group discussion.

The executive vice president for Shell Deep Water says Texas A&M taught him three things: How to work hard, how to relate with people and how to solve problems. “I owe this place a lot,” Hollowell says, crediting his Aggie education for propelling him to his current success.

“You can’t afford to make a mistake in this industry,” says Shell Deep Water EVP John Hollowell ’79. “You have one opportunity to touch base with the customer.” (view more photos)

After graduating in 1979 with a chemical engineering degree, Hollowell went to work with Shell as an engineer. Moving up the ranks to his current position, he is celebrating 32 years with Shell this year and claims he’s “never had a reason to leave … Shell has great people and challenging, yet rewarding assignments.”

The multinational oil company currently employs 93,000 people in 93 different countries. Hollowell flew in from his 37th country the night prior to his visit to Mays.

Hollowell says the oil and gas industry is unique — it’s a volatile business with strategies dependent on the shifting external environment. For instance, the issues surrounding the oil and gas industry were once “How deep can we drill?” and “Do we have the technology to support our execution strategy?” Now the questions are “Can our company coexist with the culture in this country?” and “How do we find favor in the eyes of the media?” In other words, the focus has shifted from technical to non-technical issues, Hollowell observed.

The oil and gas industry walks a fine line every day. “You can’t afford to make a mistake in this industry,” he says. “It’s like adding my daughter on Facebook — if I break the rules and post on her wall or respond to a status update, I lose my right to be her Facebook friend.”

Shell works “doubly hard” on its reputation, Hollowell says. “For customers, truth doesn’t matter. Their perception of your company is truth.” For this reason, whenever Hollowell is filling up his car at a Shell station and there’s a plastic bag over one of the pumps, he personally apologizes to each customer at the station. “You have one opportunity to touch base with the customer. If there’s a bag over the pump, you just lost that opportunity.” He adds that the customer “doesn’t care about the complex scheduling issues surrounding the closed pump — they just want to fill up their car.”

Hollowell also chimed in about the 2010 BP oil spill, calling it “a time to lock arms with other companies.” In fact, Shell hosted several BP employees in their deep-water training facility when BP management had to relocate and work out of New Orleans. All BP meetings, nationally broadcasted interviews, and housing over a five-month span were based out of Shell facilities.

After the oil spill, Shell had one goal in mind: be the first company to regain its permit for drilling. Not only did Shell succeed in this goal, they are currently recovering revoked permits 20-40 percent faster than competition. “How do we do it?” Hollowell asks. “We focus on the non-technical areas of advocacy, above-ground risks, and industry initiative.”

In his 32 years at Shell, Hollowell has learned how to lead. He describes himself as a “technigeek” who had to learn finance mid-career, and claims that “companies who win in a volatile world mesh “technigeeks’ and business people.”

He says running a company is like driving a truck: “You’re going to get in a ditch sometimes. The mark of a good leader is to have people working for you that jump out of the truck and start pushing it out of the ditch before you ask them to.”

For him, good leadership stems from three principles: Gaining trust; “Getting in the mud” with those under you; and leading from the heart, rather than the head. “You won’t make it if you don’t capture hearts.”