By: Mark Airhart
When he enrolled as a doctoral student at The University of Texas at Austin, Charles “Chuck” Williamson (Ph.D. ’78) planned to become a geology professor. Instead, when he graduated, he went to work as a researcher for California-based oil company Unocal.
Over time, his interest in the oil industry grew far beyond the science of finding oil and gas. He became fascinated by the economics, politics and international cultures that swirl around the entire business. He took positions in England, the Netherlands and Thailand. He changed roles time after time, mastering diverse realms including operations, exploration, information technology and finance. His rise through the company culminated in his selection as CEO and chairman in 2000.
Williamson led Unocal during a watershed moment when China’s offshore oil company made a much publicized bid to buy the company in 2005.
“It was a landmark,” Williamson said. “It was the single biggest acquisition attempt by the Chinese at the time.”
Williamson, who is now retired, lives with his wife in Sonoma, Calif. He has turned the notion of retirement on its head. He serves as director of PACCAR (the largest truck manufacturer in North America), chairman of Weyerhaeuser (a Fortune 500 forest products company) and chairman of Talisman (a Canadian oil and gas company). He consults for a biofuels company. He travels the world. He kayaks, hikes and sails. He even has his own “hobby vineyard” and makes his own wine, although he says he still has much to learn.
“I tell my friends, it’s simple to make wine,” he said. “It’s hard to make good wine.”
He and his wife both came to UT for graduate school (she studied nutrition). In his field of sedimentology, he said, UT was the first choice. Some of the world’s top academics in sedimentology (including Earl McBride and Robert Folk) taught there. He says field trips and close interaction with his fellow graduate students combined with stellar faculty to make it a tremendously rewarding experience.
“I learned as much from my grad student colleagues as I did from the faculty,” he said.
As a student, he struggled with the uncertainties and complexities of an open-ended research project, but found the experience invaluable. He says developing the skills of a researcher, such as critical thinking, served him well in his career.
“I learned how important it is to ask the right questions, seek the critical data, dig deeper and access the resources of my colleagues and the faculty,” he said. “Not a lot different from what a CEO does.”
Williamson returns to campus at least twice a year as a member of the Advisory Council for the Geology Foundation, the main organ of support for advancing the geosciences at The University of Texas at Austin. As students, he and his wife loved the sense of community around the university, the live music and the food.
“I’ve lived all over the world, but Austin is still home for me,” he said. “I always enjoy coming back.”