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“Oilmen are like cats; you can never tell from the sound of them whether they are fighting or making love” – Calouste Gulbenkian
1. Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP)
2. Gulf Oil (later part of Chevron)
3. Royal Dutch Shell
4. Standard Oil Company of California (now Chevron)
5. Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (Esso, later Exxon, now ExxonMobil)
6. Standard Oil Company of New York (Socony, later Mobil, also now part of ExxonMobil)
7. Texaco (later merged into Chevron)
These seven companies – five American, one British, one Anglo-Dutch – had all become major powers in the oil industry before the ‘twenties. There were many others, including the other offspring of the Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, that were to play important roles. But it was the seven ‘majors’ who were to dominate the world oil business in the following decades, and to become new kinds of industrial organization – in some respects the forerunners of the modern multinational corporation. Each of them soon developed into an ‘integrated oil company’ controlling not only its own production, but also transportation, distribution and marketing. With their own fleets of tankers, they could soon operate across the world in every sector of the industry, from the ‘upstream’ business of drilling and producing at the oilfields, to the ‘downstream’ activity of distributing and selling at the pumps or the factories. And each company strove, with varying success, to be self-sufficient at both ends, so that their oil could flow into their tankers through their refineries to their filling-stations.
There were plenty of signs that the seven companies were competing, often ferociously, to sell their precious fuel: and nowhere was the competition more evident than in the promotion of the new product gasoline for the new automobiles. The names Standard, Gulf or Texaco, first on cans, then on filling-stations, then on the bright signs sticking up from the landscape were visible symbols of choice facing the consumer. Yet the competition also had striking limitations. It was not just that the product, as far as any consumer could detect, was identical – much more identical than cars or soaps. Nor that the new garages and filling-stations seemed to huddle in clusters on the roadside as if they dreaded to stick their tall necks out alone. More seriously disturbing for the advocates of free enterprise was the tendency of the giant companies, as they ventured further abroad, to cling together in consortia and to reach hidden understandings with each other in their attempts to bring order to the volatile market. The name the Seven Sisters, that came to be applied to them and which they so much resented, was not altogether inappropriate. Like the classical sisters, who were translated by Zeus into stars, they seemed to have acquired immortality. But also like mortal sisters, they fought and competed with each other, while still preserving a family likeness and closing ranks when challenged by outsiders.