Inside the Head of BP He doesn't like red meat. He thinks green. What is John Browne doing running the world's largest oil company?
(FORTUNE Magazine) – In an industry peopled with Texans who drop their "g's" and seem fresh from the set of Rawhide, BP's John Browne is decidedly different. Lord Browne of Madingley, as he is formally known, is as content discussing his collection of crystal goblets or contemporary art as he is BP's latest offshore find or next big pipeline project. He prefers salmon to steak and still speaks the Queen's English he learned at boarding school and Cambridge. And while other CEOs like Exxon Mobil's Lee Raymond are skeptical about global warming and blast Big Oil's perpetual critics, Browne is eager to talk about how to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and limit the energy industry's impact on the environment.
Lord Browne can afford to cut an unlikely, even idiosyncratic, profile in his industry. Through bold acquisitions and mergers, adept management, and silky-smooth PR, he has put once-stodgy BP at the forefront of the global energy industry. BP's $232.6 billion in revenues last year vaulted it to the No. 2 spot on the 2004 FORTUNE Global 500--ahead of Exxon Mobil, the largest U.S. energy company (see "The FORTUNE Global 500"). And sometime next year BP is set to pass its Dallas rival in total oil and gas production, another key yardstick in the competitive energy sector.
The rise of BP illustrates how oil provinces far from the Middle East--especially Africa and Russia--are becoming key sources of energy for the rest of the world. BP already pumps nearly twice as much oil and gas as Kuwait, and Browne is promising Wall Street that BP's production will outstrip its rivals' by a wide margin in the years to come. At the same time, Browne's outspoken support for limiting greenhouse-gas emissions has forced even traditionally skeptical companies like Exxon to adjust their public stance on the issue of climate change.
It's quite a turnaround from the company Browne inherited in 1995, when he became CEO of what was then called British Petroleum. When he took over, BP's shares were below where they had been in the early 1980s, and the company's main assets were tired fields in the North Sea and Alaska. It ranked No. 31 on the FORTUNE Global 500 that year, with revenues of $50.7 billion. Today BP is the leading oil and gas producer in the U.S. and the first major Western oil company to enter Russia in a big way. Its offshore oil projects in the Gulf of Mexico and along the coast of Angola are among the most productive in the world. "Our history is very different from that of Exxon," Browne says, puffing an H. Upmann cigar, the Cuban brand favored by Winston Churchill, during a recent interview in Dublin. "We came from the middle of the pack, and we knew what it felt like to taste failure."
That's as close as Browne comes to boasting about BP's recent performance. But leaving Exxon Mobil in its wake will no doubt bring a quiet sense of satisfaction to 1 Saint James Square, BP's swank headquarters in London, not far from Buckingham Palace. For years now Browne has been the un-Raymond and BP the un-Exxon, branding itself the green energy company with its "Beyond Petroleum" ad campaign. In 1997, Browne was the first major oil CEO to acknowledge a link between emissions and global warming, prompting one industry official to complain that Browne had "left the church." Seven years later it's a criticism Browne still revels in. Raymond, meanwhile, has become the energy executive everyone loves to blame for the industry's PR problems, and Exxon has been targeted with a boycott in Europe. Belatedly, Exxon Mobil has launched its own green ad campaign.
Browne wasn't just the first major energy CEO to talk about global warming or to focus on Russia. More than for either of those accomplishments, he's likely to be remembered for launching the consolidation wave that transformed the oil industry over the past decade. When he inked the deal to buy Amoco for $56 billion in 1998, it was the largest industrial merger ever. Within months Exxon agreed to buy Mobil. But Browne wasn't about to get left behind. Even as BP was digesting Amoco, Browne bought Atlantic Richfield in 1999 for another $32 billion. "He is the father of megamergers in the oil industry," says Oppenheimer analyst Fadel Gheit. Browne's latest blockbuster was the $7 billion purchase early last year of half of Russia's TNK, the first time a Western giant has acquired a significant piece of a major Russian energy company.
Browne is well aware of the risks of investing in Russia--even as FORTUNE traveled with Browne to Russia in early July, the Kremlin was tightening the screws on Yukos and its jailed CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. For now, though, BP's partnership with TNK and oil oligarchs Mikhail Fridman, Viktor Vekselberg, and Len Blavatnik is proving bounteous for BP's bottom line. TNK-BP, as the Russian venture is known, contributed nearly 900,000 barrels a day to BP's overall operations in the second quarter of 2004 and will single-handedly lift the company's oil and gas production by 10%, to more than four million barrels a day, by the end of this year. With oil trading near $40 a barrel, that kind of increase means billions of dollars in additional profits.
Over the next four years BP's production should grow by about 7% annually, predicts Bear Stearns oil analyst Fred Leuffer. By contrast, rivals such as Exxon Mobil, ChevronTexaco, and France's Total will see their production increase by 4% a year--at most. "When John Browne became CEO, he directed the company toward higher-risk, frontier-type exploration," says Leuffer, and that bet is now paying off. "This guy is a visionary," says Oppenheimer's Gheit. Whether the issue is global warming, or consolidation, or opportunities in Russia, "Browne saw it coming before the competition." Although the company dropped the "British" from its name five years ago and became simply BP, Browne is still British enough to be embarrassed by this kind of gushing. "It makes me very nervous to be called a visionary," he says. "Very nervous indeed."
High above the north sea, as BP's gulfstream V speeds toward Moscow, breakfast is laid out--croissants, bagels, smoked salmon (there's salmon pretty much wherever Browne goes), fruit, and Danishes. For half an hour after the spread appears, no one talks or moves, and the G-V's cabin seems like the library of St. John's, Cambridge, where Browne earned an honors degree in physics. Finally, Browne puts aside his reading on Russia and gets breakfast, followed by the three executives traveling with him.
That kind of single-mindedness in the face of a tempting breakfast is typical of Browne, who has often been described as donnish. "John is dedicated to BP in a way that is not an obsession but is a full spiritual, emotional, and intellectual commitment," says John Studzinski, a top investment banker with HSBC and one of Browne's closest friends. "He didn't come out of an oil well in Houston, and he's not a good old boy. He's a cosmopolitan, worldly business leader who wants BP to be at the top of its game."
Browne considered a career in research or academia but followed in his father's footsteps and joined BP after graduating from university in 1969. Browne's father worked in community relations for BP overseas, and Browne spent his early years in places like Tehran and Singapore. "It gave me a taste of the oilfields," he says.
Even so, Browne's first posting in Alaska "came as a hell of a shock.... All I would do is complain and say this place is deficient." After two years in Alaska, Browne worked for BP in New York and San Francisco. Despite his initial gripes about life in Anchorage, "for someone from Europe, it was the right place to go," he says. "There was great growth and great change." Working in the U.S. also put its stamp on Browne, freeing him from the stuffy culture that permeated BP at the time. The British government had a majority stake in the company, and workers enjoyed daily tea service, with biscuits on bone china for the top brass. The tea service is gone--as is the typical British reserve. In fact, BP is more aggressive than many of its American competitors: It completed the Amoco acquisition twice as fast as Exxon swallowed Mobil, or Chevron bought Texaco.
Browne spends about half his time on the road, much of it in the U.S. That's because while many Americans still think of BP as a British company, by most metrics it's actually more American. Of BP's 104,000 employees, roughly 39,000 are in the U.S., more than double the number in Britain. It operates nearly 15,000 gas stations in the U.S., and of its $10.3 billion in profits last year, more came from North America than from Britain and Continental Europe combined. BP's American operations are expected to grow as its investment in the Gulf of Mexico pays off. The company is spending between $1 billion and $2 billion a quarter in the U.S.--roughly a third of its global capital expenditures--and by 2007 is expected to be pumping 500,000 barrels a day of oil and gas from the Gulf, up from about 300,000 today.
Still, only a third of its production is in the U.S., and it is to places like Russia and China that BP will increasingly look for future growth. In China, the fastest-growing energy market in the world, BP is building two new liquefied-natural-gas plants to help slake that country's demand for power. It is also exploring ways of shipping natural gas to China and South Korea from TNK-BP facilities in eastern Siberia, in what could be the company's next multibillion-dollar project.
That kind of capital investment is a major reason why BP was able to avoid the reserve nightmare Royal Dutch/Shell faces. Beginning in the early 1990s, when Browne headed BP's exploration and production division, the company moved aggressively into areas that were just opening up, such as the deep-water Gulf, the Caspian Sea, and offshore Angola. Shell, by contrast, was a sluggish competitor; its executives ended up creating oil on paper because they weren't finding it underground. Overall, BP's proved holdings now total 18 billion barrels of oil and gas, still behind Exxon Mobil's 22 billion barrels but well ahead of Shell's 14 billion. Browne refuses to talk about Shell's misfortunes, but on condition of anonymity, another BP executive says, "The reaction inside BP was not so much gloating but incredulity and astonishment."
BP executives are more comfortable talking about Exxon Mobil, at least privately. While they admire the American giant's organization and profitability (it earned more than twice as much as BP did last year), they portray it the way Luke Skywalker might have described the Death Star. A few years ago, recalls one upstream BP executive, the leaders of exploration and production for the two companies gathered in Texas to talk about their joint ventures around the world. While BP's team was dressed casually, the Exxon executives all wore dark suits, blue shirts, and red ties. Exxon's Harry Longwell, No. 2 in the company at the time, did all the talking for the Texans. Among BP's team, even junior members spoke up. "We have a less prescriptive way of doing things," says the BP upstreamer. "It's a different culture."
With Exxon Mobil and Lee Raymond taking most of the heat for the oil industry's excesses over the past decade, Browne has been happy to be cast as the "green" oilman. Although there was muttering from environmentalists that the "Beyond Petroleum" campaign was little more than "greenwashing" to improve BP's image--Greenpeace even awarded him an Earth Day Oscar for "Best Impression of an Environmentalist"--BP's public image is far better than Exxon's, especially in Europe. After all, while Exxon has faced boycotts over oil spills and emissions, nothing comparable is aimed at BP. Now that BP is king of the hill, though, it's likely that environmental groups will start focusing more on that company's activities. In Britain, for example, BP's role in building a pipeline from the Caspian Sea through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean has drawn criticism from activists who warn of damage to environmentally sensitive areas in the Caucasus.
"Raymond and Browne are very different people, and Exxon and BP are very different companies," says Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace USA. "Exxon is still doubting the science and deceiving the public on climate change. But the pressure will be on BP to put its money where its mouth is. Their marketing effort is amazing, but the investment better be equal to the rhetoric." Browne responds that the million-barrel-a-day pipeline through the Caucasus will dramatically reduce tanker traffic in the Black Sea and the Bosporus, making an oil spill less likely. And he's emphatic that efforts to make BP more environmentally friendly aren't cosmetic, citing reductions in the company's greenhouse-gas emissions over the past few years, even as production surged, as well as a multimillion-dollar experiment to pump carbon dioxide back into the ground in Algeria. BP is also among the top three producers of solar panels in the world--even installing them at some gas stations in the U.S. and Britain.
In addition, Browne is trying to alter the public stance of the industry. Rather than always opposing regulation, and then eventually submitting to it, he wants to strike a more cooperative approach when rules are being formulated. "Every time there's a new piece of regulation, we say it's the end of our industry," he says. "The oil industry has an appalling track record in this regard."
It's the final meeting of a three-day jaunt to Moscow, and Browne is looking knackered, as the Brits would say. He's due to speak in a few minutes before several hundred TNK-BP employees. "I hope they ask questions," he says, savoring the last few puffs of a cigar before driving off in a police-escorted Mercedes. "I will stand there with silence for quite a while till they break." As it turns out, the Russians need little prompting, and the weary Browne comes alive in the spotlight. "BP's commitment to Russia is absolute and infinite," he says. Nodding toward oligarch Vekselberg, who's sitting in the front row, he adds, "From our co-shareholders, I see their commitment is the same."
But for all its promise Russia could end up becoming a major worry for Browne. Although the TNK purchase has proved more successful than many observers anticipated, BP is also increasingly dependent on Russia for the kind of production growth Wall Street is anticipating. If President Putin decides to go after another oil company or any of the oligarchs who own TNK, BP's shares would likely take a hit, says Bear Stearns analyst Leuffer. "Russia is a risky place to do business," he says. Indeed, in the late 1990s, when BP had a much smaller investment in Russia, Leuffer says, "BP had to sue the same partner it has now in order to protect its rights."
What's more, a production shortfall anywhere would probably cause a selloff in BP's shares, which have jumped 35% over the past year, compared with a 29% gain for Exxon and a 32% rise in ChevronTexaco's stock price. When BP's production numbers disappointed investors in 2002, its stock dropped nearly 10%, and the Financial Times headlined a story, TARNISHED LORD BROWNE LOSES THE PIXIE DUST. Although the company has toned down the certainty with which it forecasts production, the Street is counting on Browne to put some very big numbers on the board, especially in Russia. "There's a lot of pressure to deliver," says Leuffer.
Browne has certainly regained the luster he lost when BP's shares swooned two years ago, and, at age 56, is set to remain in the top job until he reaches BP's mandatory retirement age of 60. For now the two leading contenders to take his place are Tony Hayward and John Manzoni. Hayward is a boyish 46-year-old who runs the upstream, Browne's job before he was CEO, and is said by analysts and BP limo drivers alike to have the inside track. Manzoni, 44, also spent years in the oilfields but now is responsible for BP's global refining and marketing units, which generate more than a quarter of the company's revenues. Another candidate is Iain Conn, 42, who runs BP's global marketing and technology units. All three are British and BP lifers, and they are being watched carefully by both Browne and the board.
But talk of succession is still only whispered about in BP's hushed, library-like offices. That's because Browne is the dominant, public face of BP. And as Europe's most prominent CEO, he's certain to become increasingly visible on the world stage as the new face of Big Oil, especially after Lee Raymond's expected retirement next year. Although Browne enjoys hobbies like art collecting and photography, and he treasures vacation time at his home in Venice, BP is his life. An only child who never married, Browne says that "when you don't have a real family, you build a surrogate one." So Browne can remain single-minded in his determination to solidify BP's position as the world's leading oil company. "The game is afoot," he says, echoing another British bachelor mastermind, Sherlock Holmes. "The game should always be afoot."