Ralph S. Cunningham
Energizing an Industry with Ethical Leadership
Inducted in 2005
He has helped build exemplary refining facilities to fuel a nation through an accelerating economy, determinedly outpacing competitors and facing down crises. Throughout, Ralph S. Cunningham, Ph.D., son of a Birmingham clergyman, has tempered the headiness of success with a strong footing in ethical environmental, economic, and engineering stewardship. His career in oil and petrochemicals does Auburn University and our state’s entire engineering family proud.
An Ohio native, Dr. Cunningham graduated from high school in Birmingham. An Auburn education was made possible by hard working and dedicated parents with the help of a merit scholarship he earned. He studied for a degree in chemical engineering, graduating in 1962. He earned two postgraduate degrees—a master’s and doctorate in chemical engineering—at Ohio State University and then became a technical engineer at Exxon, his gateway to greater things. Dr. Cunningham’s relocation to Exxon’s Baton Rouge refinery, an “academy” for upward-bound Exxon professionals, soon followed. Later, diverse assignments in Texas and California culminated in promotion to Exxon’s corporate planning department.
In 1982, Dr. Cunningham was recruited to an executive vice-presidency at Tenneco Oil; its presidency, too, would become his. Rapid consolidation in the oil industry during the 1980s is illustrated in Dr. Cunningham’s subsequent moves to Clark Oil, then Texaco Chemical, then Huntsman Corporation. He joined each as CEO, president, or vice chairman as company ownership changed.
Entering the 1990s, Dr. Cunningham joined Tulsa-based CITGO, refiner and marketer of transportation fuels and industrial products. With Dr. Cunningham on board as president and chief executive officer, CITGO’s financial and operational results shone ever brighter with its U.S. gasoline market share third in the industry. As an engineer and an executive manager of engineering personnel, Dr. Cunningham’s performance for the Venezuelan-owned company was indeed meritorious. In 1997, he retired from CITGO. He continues to serve as a director on the boards of Agrium Incorporated, EnCana Corporation, Enterprise Products, Reaction Design, TETRA Technologies, and an environmental consulting firm in Houston.
Heeding his sense of responsibility to profession and community, Dr. Cunningham has acted as advisor and generous patron of Auburn’s Ginn College of Engineering. He is a revered member of the Alumni Engineering Council and Chemical Engineering Department Advisory Council. A former director of the American Petroleum Institute, he has also worked for better engineering and management education through the University of Texas Engineering Advisory Council and University of Tulsa business school advisory board.
A devoted husband, father, and grandfather, Dr. Cunningham and his wife, Deb, have four children and six grandchildren and live in Houston, Texas. Dr. Cunningham is a former director of the Boy Scouts of America Executive Committee, the Indian Nations Council, Tulsa’s Chamber of Commerce, and a local hospital and art museum. He also served as campaign chairman of the Greater Tulsa Area United Way in 1996–1997. Dr. Cunningham, an avid sportsman, serves as treasurer of the board and convention chairman for 2004 and 2005 of Safari Club International, which supports wildlife conservation, education, humanitarian efforts, and hunting rights around the world.