CAN A NEW LEADER FIX BP?
Despite challenge, experts indicate faith in new leader
For a London-based petroleum company that relies largely on oil produced in the United States and Russia, Robert Dudley might be just the ticket.
BP’s board is expected to announce early today that it has picked Dudley — who grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss., and later spent eight years working in Russia — to become the company’s chief executive, cutting short the turbulent tenure of British geologist Tony Hayward, who has been caught in the vortex of U.S. public anger over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The choice of the even-keeled Dudley, who would become the first American to run the company formerly known as British Petroleum, would represent a fresh start for a firm that has been soiled by the massive spill.
“It turns a new page, and it starts to look to the future,” said Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. “I think Bob has both the technical competence and a broad view of the industry and where it fits into the world.”
The mere prospect of Dudley becoming BP’s chief executive marks a cultural shift for a corporate goliath that suffered from identity issues ever since it acquired three big U.S. oil firms — Amoco, Arco and Sohio — more than a decade ago. Although British BP chiefs had shuttled back and forth by plane from their St. James Square headquarters in London to their U.S. empire, the cultural gulf proved too big.
And after the April 20 drilling rig explosion killed 11 workers and set off the massive oil spill, Hayward struck several wrong notes with an angry American public. On Monday, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum said that throughout the spill, Hayward “has appeared disingenuous, disinterested, and often dismissive of what our state, our businesses and our residents are suffering.”
In some ways, picking Dudley is like reaching back to the past to move into the future. He worked for Amoco (formerly known as Standard Oil Co. of Indiana) for nearly 20 years in the United States, Britain and Russia. When BP bought the company in 1998, Dudley, then Amoco’s general manager for strategy, made the leap to BP.
His U.S. background might prove an asset to him and the company. Forty percent of BP’s shareholders live in the U.S., and BP is the largest producer of oil in this nation. With Congress contemplating a ban on BP operating on federal lands, and with the Justice Department weighing criminal charges in connection with the rig blowout, Dudley’s background and temperament could help BP navigate U.S. political waters and protect the company’s ability to do business here.
“BP has two vulnerabilities, political and legal,” said Robin West, chairman of PFC Energy, a Washington consulting firm. “The political vulnerability is that Congress wants to punish BP.”
Dudley also has experience around the world. While at Amoco, he negotiated projects in the South China Sea and in Russia. At BP, he fit in well. He played a key role in politically sensitive negotiations over the construction of a pipeline in Azerbaijan. Later, he ran BP’s TNK-BP joint venture in Moscow and helped oversee improvements in safety, accounting and drilling practices in old Soviet fields. His five-year stint ended in discord with BP’s Russian billionaire partners; after being denied a visa, Dudley ran operations from abroad until an accord was reached on a successor.
“He has a demonstrated an ability to operate successfully under pressure,” West said. “This is a guy who has really been battle-tested twice.”
People who know and work with Dudley say he has weath- ered past battles calmly.
But Dudley faces a gargantuan challenge. BP is fighting for its survival while trying, in Hayward’s phrase, to “make things right” in the Gulf.
Efforts to solidly seal BP’s busted deep-sea well are scheduled to begin in a week, the government’s oil spill chief, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said in Washington on Monday.
Tony Hayward will be reassigned to key job in Russia, source says.