Total SA’s board of directors scheduled an emergency meeting on Tuesday after the company’s charismatic and outspoken leader, Christophe de Margerie, 63, known to many in France and around the world as the “Big Moustache,” died Monday night.

According to Russian officials, de Margerie’s business jet collided with a snowplow in foggy conditions on a runway of the Vnukova International Airport in Moscow, killing de Margerie and the jet’s three crew members. The driver of the snowplow escaped unharmed.

De Margerie was returning to Paris after attending a meeting of corporate executives with Russian Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev.

“Total confirms with deep regret and great sadness that chairman and CEO Christophe de Margerie died,” the company said. “The thoughts of the management and employees of the group go out to Christophe de Margerie’s wife, children and loved ones, as well as to the families of the three other victims.”

Total is the fourth largest Western multinational oil major by market capitalization following ExxonMobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell plc and Chevron Corp. In France, Total is second in market size only to pharmaceutical giant Sanofi.

De Margerie was the grandson of champagne maker Pierre Taittinger. Oil and gas, however, proved more tempting than his family’s taste for the bubbly. Known for his good humor and larger-than-life presence, relatives had joked that de Margerie, called by friends the “Big Mustache” for his bushy, white whiskers, could have become the “king of brut” but instead had settled for “king of crude.”

After graduating in 1974 from the Ecole Superieure de Commerce in Paris, de Margerie’s first job was in Total’s finance department, where he oversaw the exploration and production (E&P) unit budget. In 1995 he was tapped as president of Total Middle East and joined the executive committee as president of the E&P division in May 1999. In January 2002, de Margerie became president of the E&P division. De Margerie joined the board of directors in 2006 and was named CEO in February 2007. Since May 2010, he also has served as chairman.

The Total chief was said to have stuck by a simple motto: “Go where the oil is.”

Under his watch Total has extended the producer’s reach beyond traditional oil and gas regions. His eye was on the future in places considered to be technically challenging, such as U.S. unconventionals and deepwater Gulf of Mexico (GOM), Canada’s oilsands and Russia’s Arctic fields. Total now operates in more than 130 countries, with 97,000 employees worldwide and 2012 sales of $257 billion.

“Christophe de Margerie gave his life to French industry and the development of Total,” French President Francois Hollande said. “He lifted the company up into the ranks of the world’s leaders.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the country had lost a “great industrial captain.” The country “is losing a company chief out of the ordinary who knew how to transform Total into a global giant.”

The respected Total leader was a draw at international energy conferences where executives clamored to hear his take on politics and energy. De Margerie this year and in years past was a keynote speaker at the IHS Inc. CERAWeek event in Houston (see Daily GPI, March 14, 2011).

“He provided extraordinary leadership for Total and had deep understanding of the Middle East,” said IHS Vice Chairman Daniel Yergin, who chairs the annual IHS CERAWeek event. “He was very much a man who thought about what was going to happen down the road. He was a man of great vitality and charm, a statesman who would speak his mind, though with verve and humor.”

Shell CEO Ben van Beurden called de Margerie “a larger-than-life character, a leader respected across the energy industry and a friend…My thoughts are with his wife and family, and his many thousands of colleagues at Total.”

De Margerie “was a remarkable French businessman who was at the forefront of many large joint projects that laid the foundation of the long, fruitful partnership between Russia and France,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said.

Total was developing closer ties with Russia on natural gas deals despite calls for sanctions by the United States and the European Union (EU) over the Ukrainian conflict. De Margerie had said earlier this year that Russia would continue to play a vital role in Europe’s energy supply even while the EU attempted to reduce its dependence on the country’s natural gas.

De Margerie early on had worked at expanding Total’s holdings on oilsands in Canada, as well as unconventional natural gas fields and oil shale fields in the United States. In January Total also became the first Big Oil company to invest in Britain’s shale.

In the United States, Total Holdings USA Inc. employs close to 6,000 people in 60 locations, with manufacturing facilities in 31 states. The operator has its fingers in U.S. onshore and the GOM; natural gas/crude oil trading/marketing; liquefied natural gas (LNG); refining and petrochemicals; specialty chemicals; marketing and services; and renewables. U.S. agreements put together under de Margerie’s watch include:

Although there are several top Total executives who were being groomed for the top spot, energy analysts said it would be difficult to find as charismatic a leader as de Margerie to take over. Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. (TPH) analysts said de Margerie’s death was a “sad day for the oil industry…The loss of the larger-than-life de Margerie leaves a void at Total…Historically, Total has appointed CEOs from within.” TPH suggested that the market likely would view the most likely successor to be one of the following: E&P President Arnaud Breuillac, Gas & Power President Yves-Louis Darricarrere or Refining & Chemicals President Patrick Pouyanne.