STEVE INSKEEP, host:
You can often associate a big oil company with the big city where it's headquartered. ConocoPhillips is in Houston. B.P. is in London. Chevron is in the San Francisco Bay Area. But there is one oil company that's far off the beaten path. Murphy Oil is not one of the industry's giant, but it does run about 1,000 filling stations outside Wal-Marts - among other things - and is based in rural Arkansas.
Kate Archer Kent of Red River Radio took a visit.
KATE ARCHER KENT: It's noontime in El Dorado, and Murphy Oil CEO Claiborne Deming is off to his favorite lunch spot.
Mr. CLAIBORNE DEMING (Chief Executive Officer, Murphy Oil): Hi, Bill.
Mr. BILL ROBERTSON (Sandwich Shop Owner): Hi…
Mr. DEMING: How you doing?
KENT: Bill and Barbara Robertson have served up sandwiches to this town of 20,000 since 1971. The Robertsons have watched Murphy Oil evolve into a global corporation with some 7,000 employees. Many Wal-Mart Supercenter gas stations are owned by Murphy. Still, its home offices remained rooted in this town for the past century.
Barbara Robertson can't imagine life in El Dorado without Murphy Oil.
Ms. BARBARA ROBERTSON (Sandwich Shop Owner): This would be a very stalemated city. There wouldn't be anything here. And I'm proud of the fact that Murphy has agreed to stay here.
KENT: About 350 Murphy Oil executives are based in El Dorado. The view from Deming's downtown office looks out to tidy brick churches and the stately Union County courthouse. He says in today's world you can run a business anywhere.
Mr. DEMING: It takes a particular person who wants to live in this type of setting. But given the universe of people out there who you could hire, you can typically find people who don't want to live in a larger environment.
KENT: Murphy Oil hasn't forgotten where it came from, and that's reassuring to Mayor Mike Dumas. He believes Murphy has revitalized this town.
Mayor MIKE DUMAS (El Dorado, Arkansas): My greatest fear is someone, some company coming by and buying Murphy Oil and moving them to New Orleans or Houston or some place else.
KENT: The population of El Dorado, Arkansas has dropped 10 percent since 1990, but now a new program aims to change that. Murphy Oil will pay every El Dorado public school student to go to college. Deming says the $50 million scholarship program is expected to last 20 years, and it's patterned after one in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Mr. DEMING: We can disproportionately, positively impact this area. We saw that and we said, gee, let's do something about that. Others are different, and if you're a big oil company in Houston, Texas, for example, that area is so large that, gee, what can they do to impact it and see the results of it?
KENT: The results in El Dorado have been striking so far. Since officials announced the scholarship program in January attendance at the public school system has surged to record levels. For the first time ever, the mayor says contractors are coming to his office begging to build housing developments. The Arkansas Realtors Association says property value is up 14 percent in the county compared to a five percent decline statewide.
Southern Arkansas University President David Rankin is an economist by trade. He says the scholarship program is just what the region needed.
Dr. DAVID RANKIN (President, Southern Arkansas University): Most corporations will certainly make investments in the community in which they reside, but this has been a step beyond the usual.
KENT: Even when Murphy Oil's refinery near New Orleans flooded after Hurricane Katrina, the company took responsibility and paid $330 million in damage claims to homeowners.
Back at Bill's sandwich shop, Claiborne Deming finishes his barbecue sandwich and realizes he only has a $100 bill in his wallet. It's no big deal if Bill can't make change. Deming will be back for many more lunches. The Robertsons and all of El Dorado, Arkansas count on it.
For NPR News, I'm Kate Archer Kent.
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