'What the hell's going on?': String of abrupt CEO departures at oil giant BP raises eyebrows

Former employees say BP tends to overlook rising stars’ missteps

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Since Bernard Looney resigned as BP PLC chief executive in September, the energy major has presented his departure as an isolated incident: the result of one man’s failure to disclose to the board past relationships with colleagues.

Former employees, shareholders and others familiar with BP paint a more complicated picture. They say Looney’s rise and fall is symptomatic of a corporate culture that has long treated its rising stars differently from others, resulting in a tendency to turn a blind eye to missteps until they become too big to ignore.

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“BP protects senior leaders … isn’t that the problem with the culture?” asked one energy executive with years of experience working with the company. “Senior people are more important than others.”

Three of BP’s last four chief executives have departed abruptly. Lord John Browne resigned in 2007 after lying to a court over how he met his partner. His successor, Tony Hayward, left in 2010 following a series of gaffes after a drill rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 people and leading to the biggest-ever oil spill in United States waters.

In September, Looney cut short his tenure as chief executive, prompted by allegations that he had failed to fully disclose past relationships with female colleagues, some of whom he had also later promoted, the Financial Times reported.

In contrast, Shell PLC’s last three chief executives left only as part of planned successions.

BP protects senior leaders … isn’t that the problem with the culture?

energy executive

“It compares badly, not only with Shell and TotalEnergies, but also with ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhilips,” said veteran oil analyst Paul Sankey of Sankey Research. “Losing one chief executive is OK, losing two is awkward, losing three is like, ‘what the hell’s going on?’”

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The recent turmoil has left the 114-year-old energy major facing a difficult question as it seeks a permanent replacement for Looney: should it promote from within, or, for the first time in its history, hire a chief executive from outside the company?

In the aftermath of Looney’s departure, chair Helge Lund favoured an internal hire, but 10 weeks later no preferred candidate has emerged, according to people with knowledge of the process.

BP said both internal and external candidates were being considered in the search for a permanent replacement. It declined to comment on the characterization of its corporate culture.

If the board is forced to recruit externally, the incoming chief executive will inherit a strategy designed by Looney and a company still wrestling with his legacy.

A company where leaders are venerated

An almost ecclesiastic hierarchy where leaders were rarely questioned and the company was in service to the chief executive is how former BP employees have described the culture. When an individual became chief executive it was like they were the “God-given successor,” said one former senior executive.

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Most of the former employees who spoke to the FT dated the start of BP’s veneration of its leaders to the period under Browne, from 1995 to 2007. Browne transformed BP from a sluggish “two pipeline company” in the 1980s into an aggressive, multinational oil major.

As the company expanded, Browne’s star rose. He created a cadre of trusted lieutenants, known as the “turtles” — after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who sprang into action when needed. They included Hayward and Looney.

Browne was dubbed the “Sun King” in the industry after a 2002 FT profile warning about the risk of a monarchy-like system. Alongside successes, Browne presided over operational disasters, such as the Texas City refinery fire that killed 15 workers. None resulted in his exit. Browne declined to comment.

Lord John Browne in 2006.
Lord John Browne in 2006. Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

When Hayward succeeded Browne, he reformed the corporate structure but kept in place many features of his predecessor — including a mechanism for rewarding managers for hitting targets set by the chief executive and prioritizing cost cutting. Hayward rose through the ranks despite a series of setbacks in Colombia and Venezuela. As chief executive, his handling of the Deepwater Horizon explosion saw him immediately blame rig owner Transocean Ltd. before any investigation had taken place.

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Hayward told the FT that in his opinion “successive BP boards” had failed to “stand by their CEO.”

Bob Dudley, who replaced Hayward, was the only boss since 1995 not forced to resign. Unlike Looney, Hayward and Browne, he was not a BP-lifer, having joined when it acquired United States oil producer Amoco Corp. in 1998.

When Looney became chief executive three years ago, he sought to change parts of the culture, including BP’s veneration of its leaders. “Those days where the boss was the hero and the boss knew everything and just seemed impervious to anything … I think those days are over,” Looney said in a 2022 interview.

He also tried to put a greater focus on diversity and mental health, and launched an ambitious strategy to pivot the FTSE 100 company towards greener energy and took control of the corporate messaging. Those who did not embrace the shift were sidelined.

While staff were broadly enthusiastic about his efforts, some questioned whether his personal life would ultimately bring him down. “On the day he was appointed, staff were saying ‘he will modernize the company, but he needs to clean up his back garden’,” said one female former BP employee.

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Looney declined to comment for this story.

‘The Bernadettes’

The allegations that led to Looney’s resignation were made in May 2022 and September 2023, but his romantic liaisons with colleagues had been quietly discussed by staff for years. Some women Looney was said to have had relationships with were even nicknamed “the Bernadettes.”

“This was Bernard’s primary external activity. Other people whittle or fish or restore old cars … that was not what Bernard did,” said a former BP senior executive, who left the company a few years ago after a long career. “We’re not talking about your average guy at work, who has one or two or three affairs at the office. That’s not the playing field we’re on.”

Looney joined BP in 1991 aged 21 and was married from 2017 to 2019.

For years it had been known by other BP staff that Looney was being “prepared for the CEO job,” said one former executive assistant. This meant that Looney, like others before him, was treated favourably and any misgivings about his personal conduct were overlooked, the person added.

Bernard Looney's romantic liaisons with colleagues had been quietly discussed by staff for years.
Bernard Looney’s romantic liaisons with colleagues had been quietly discussed by staff for years. Photo by Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

Given that Looney’s record of past relationships was known among some BP employees, some executives questioned why the board selected Looney as chief executive in 2019.

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“Bernard is who Bernard was for the 20 years that I knew him,” the former senior executive said. “If I was the chairman of the board, or a board member, I would have asked ‘are we setting ourselves up for a difficult situation?’”

BP said there was a “rigorous and thorough appointment process” when Looney was selected, including “a thorough due diligence process pre-appointment, vetting of open-source data and interviews with Bernard.”

While the board knew Looney had a string of relationships, they viewed them as his “private lifem” said a former senior BP figure. The number and nature of his relationships within BP was unclear, but not thought to affect his performance at work, he said. Looney was also the standout candidate at a moment when BP needed a young and charismatic leader to champion a new strategy to navigate the company through the energy transition at a time of intense shareholder pressure.

There were no complaints on his personnel file when he was being considered for chief executive in 2019, several people have said.

We’re not talking about your average guy at work, who has one or two or three affairs at the office. That’s not the playing field we’re on

former BP senior executive

When the board received a first set of formal allegations regarding Looney’s past relationships — via an anonymous letter in May 2022 — it gave the chief executive another pass.

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BP appointed external counsel to assist with an investigation that identified relationships with colleagues but no breach of BP’s code of conduct. During the process, Looney acknowledged four past relationships and attested that he had nothing further to disclose, the FT has reported.

BP’s code of conduct does not ban relationships with colleagues, but highlights the risk of conflicts of interest, particularly if the relationships are not appropriately disclosed.

One veteran energy executive questioned why BP’s board did not take stronger action in 2022. “Why did the board act in September, when not long ago they accepted his mea culpa?”

The failure of the board when selecting the next chief executive in 2019 to fully investigate the extent of Looney’s historic relationships, or acknowledge the risk that his past posed to BP’s future, has now left BP without the key architect of its strategy.

BP has said it remains committed to the plan — one of the most ambitious energy transition overhauls in the sector — but that could further complicate the search for a chief executive. While most internal candidates were involved in designing that strategy, external hires would want the ability to make adjustments, said a chief executive of a rival company.

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Looney’s departure has also cast a shadow over some of the other changes he made, including efforts to improve gender diversity.

“It’s unfair that his behaviour could give people reason to doubt the achievements of all women doing well at BP,” said the female former executive. “Because of the cultural change Bernard tried to embed, the whole thing seems hypocritical.”

© 2023 The Financial Times Ltd

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