In an industry that prizes safety and reliability above all, airlines and OEMs are looking for more from their lubricants suppliers than products alone. They’re looking for a trusted partner who can share knowledge of industry trends and best practices, in addition to providing the best lubricants on the market. For more than a decade, ExxonMobil Aviation Area Manager Tom Kim has striven to make ExxonMobil that kind of partner.
We spoke with Tom about his love of aviation, his early work for Mobil Oil designing gas stations, and how he uses his background in engineering and business to understand and anticipate customer needs.
How would you describe your current role at ExxonMobil?
Since 2010, I’ve been the aviation account manager between ExxonMobil and our commercial airline customers. I work closely with their engineering teams to help optimize aircraft reliability through our products and services. The aviation industry is extremely risk averse – safety is a priority. Our customers want to know they’ll have predictable outcomes when using our products. Given my exposure to different airlines, I’m able to share insights from across the industry to help solve problems and increase reliability. That's how we earn our value with customers.
What led you to pursue a career at ExxonMobil?
Ever since I was young, I've always been fascinated with aviation and cars and loved tinkering with stuff – taking things apart and putting them back together – so an engineering major was a natural choice for me. I chose mechanical engineering, in particular because it wasn't too specific. I thought it would give me options as I pursued my career.
In 1989, when Mobil Oil came to campus my senior year [at California’s University of the Pacific], they were by far the most desirable employer, so I ended up working for them. One of the things that attracted me to Mobil at the time was that so many employees had been with the company for 30-plus years and had multiple jobs and gaining immeasurable skills along the way. Now, with over 30 years with ExxonMobil, I can honestly say that I’ve had many different and equally fulfilling positions during my career. The opportunities you have within ExxonMobil are immense.
What types of projects were you working on when you first joined the company?
I was hired as a project engineer, working on dozens of multimillion-dollar projects to build gas stations. The amount of empowerment they gave me, a newly hired graduate, was monumental.
In this role, our marketing department would identify the site where they wanted to build a gas station and turn over the project to our engineering team. I would be involved in everything from planning a station’s layout and managing the budget to pursuing permits, hiring contractors, breaking ground, and installing tanks. Being able to be so involved in building these new locations was, quite honestly, spectacular. We were creating businesses that provided livelihood to dealers and their employees, as well as a service to local communities. I really enjoyed that piece of it; it was a very satisfying role.
You mentioned that one of the things that appealed to you was the company’s ability to offer new career opportunities for its employees. What was your next move?
The Lubricants business really interested me because it spans across so many industries. Everything that rotates, slides or relies on hydraulic power uses our products. I could be working in a cement mill or gold mine one day and the next day supporting a company that makes deep sea submersibles used to scan the ocean floor. That type of widespread use of our lubricants – and learning about different machinery in those industries – really kept my interest up.
How did you go from the lubricants business to the aviation business?
At the time, I didn’t know much about ExxonMobil’s rich history in aviation and the critical role the aviation business played in nearly all major aviation milestones. The fact that Mobil lubricants and Esso fuels were used in the first Wright Brother’s flight and the commitment to still be involved in aviation some 120 years later is impressive. It’s this dedication and my love of aviation that has made my role so rewarding. While I focus on sales, I’m involved in every aspect of the business from budgeting to delivering value to the customers to identifying market needs for next generation products.
How has ExxonMobil’s Aviation Lubricants business changed over the past decade-plus that you’ve been working there?
How you do business, fundamentally, remains the same across time and industry. It really comes down to putting the customer first. The ultimate goal is for the customer to start valuing you as a partner, someone they can turn to if they have a problem. I think that's probably the biggest compliment your customers can give you.
The aviation industry is extremely resilient, from 9/11 to the recession in 2007 and now COVID-19. In each instance, the industry has recovered. Now, not only has the aviation industry recovered, but in the last three years we’ve seen several new startup airlines driven by new, fuel efficient aircraft and passenger’s desire for recreational travel. It’s an exciting time to be in aviation.
How were you able to respond to your customers’ needs during the pandemic?
That situation was new to all of us across the industry. Airplanes are not meant to sit idle without some level of preparation. Airlines had to make sure they followed proper storage procedures. The airlines were also facing the toughest time since 9/11 and we had to be an understanding and empathetic partner. It’s times like these that set ExxonMobil apart from competition.
As the industry emerges from the worst of the pandemic, what are your customers’ top priorities in the near term, and how is ExxonMobil Aviation prepared to support those priorities?
One of the most significant changes in the industry has been the emergence of sustainable aviation fuel, as airlines take on the challenge of lowering their carbon footprint. Everything ties back to sustainability and greater efficiency, which will require new types of engines that run hotter and are more demanding in terms of lubricants. Our customers need a next-generation lubricant that can meet those needs, and we already have that with Mobil Jet Oil 387. So, one of our top priorities is to continue to get Mobil Jet Oil 387 approved for use across all engine types globally. It’s been an incredibly long process, but once Mobil Jet Oil 387 is fully adopted and approved by all the OEMs, it’s going to be one of the most popular and widely used aviation lubricants going forward.