A plucky patriotic British defense of BP CEO Tony Hayward in the early days of the Gulf oil crisis has mostly disappeared and Robert Dudley, the first American head of the multinational oil giant, is set to take over this fall.
While the company shed the name "British Petroleum" in the late 1990s to reflect its status as a global corporation, BP continues to loom large in its home country, where its dividends are among the largest contributors to pension funds and its international success is a point of pride.
But three months into the worst oil spill in US history sympathy in London for Mr. Hayward, a highly regarded geologist with a reputation for his adroitness in oil industry politics, has been largely replaced with relief that BP is replacing the man whose handling of the spill has been a public relations disaster.
The focus in the UK now is on BP's ability to stem its mounting losses and hope that Mr. Dudley can right a listing BP ship that has lost nearly $60 billion in share value since its rig drilling the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico exploded on April 20, killing 11 crew.
“There’s much more realization today that if you are the head of a multinational, the responsibility starts with you,” says Justin Urquhart Stewart, director of Seven Investment Management in London. “Probably the best thing that could happen is for an American to take over. It is no time to for anyone to wrap themselves in the Union Jack.”
Sharp exchanges between Washington and London as BP couldn’t plug a leak one mile down in the Gulf of Mexico brought out tabloid, cartoon, and talk show rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic. Brits felt put upon or scape-goated. The US Doonesbury cartoons of Garry Trudeau began featuring a hapless BP chief being “advised” by a PR firm on ways he might change his British accent to better connect with distraught Americans.
As the oil gushed, the Gulf fishing industry panicked, solutions were stymied, and President Barak Obama was attacked – Hayward seemed unable to show he “got” the gravity of the problem. A month and a half after the initial oil rig explosion that left 11 workers dead, Hayward said: “I want my life back.”
Even yesterday, as it was clear BP chair Carl Henric Svanberg was replacing him, Hayward told reporters that “life isn’t fair” and that he had been “demonized and vilified” inside the US.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs shot back that, “what’s not fair is what’s happened on the Gulf…What’s not fair is the actions of some have caused the greatest environmental disaster that our country has ever seen.”
The Daily Telegraph’s headline today read “Era of ‘Toxic Tony’ ends with a fiery salvo,” along with the subhead, “As he introduced his successor, Hayward couldn’t resist making one last gaffe.”
To be sure, in London corporate and energy circles the oil blowout is seen as a circumstance Hayward could not control and is an object lesson for corporate leaders. It’s a “bad luck” defense, but Hayward will still make out pretty well. The British press has reported that Hayward will clear $18 million, including a year’s salary at $1 million.
Some industry analysts point out that removing Hayward isn’t a substitute for solving the technical side of the Gulf problem.
“There’s a general sense that Hayward dropped the ball, and for the good of the company he needed to move. But let’s not forget that BP still needs to demonstrate they can actually solve this without wrecking the environment. The problem isn’t over,” said a British energy analyst who asked not to be identified.
BP itself is reportedly trying to sell assets around the world to help pay for the disaster. In comments Monday, Dudley said BP would become “a slimmer company, not a smaller company.” Dudley was born in Mississippi, and spent some boyhood time along the Gulf.