The Oil and the Glory

Advice for BP’s new guy

When John Imle was president of Unocal, he was known in the oil industry as a cowboy. He had ambitions of challenging the world’s biggest multinationals, and to that end took some of the business’s biggest gambles, making a deal with the pariah regime in Burma and flirting with the Taliban in order to build ...

Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

When John Imle was president of Unocal, he was known in the oil industry as a cowboy. He had ambitions of challenging the world’s biggest multinationals, and to that end took some of the business’s biggest gambles, making a deal with the pariah regime in Burma and flirting with the Taliban in order to build an oil pipeline across Afghanistan. Both created serious public relations disasters, and Imle eventually ended up out on the street with a handshake.

But that was a decade ago — people have a new oil company to hate these days, and with Tony Hayward en route to Russia, a new guy soon will be inheriting the mess. So I asked Imle whether he had any advice for BP CEO-designate Bob Dudley (above) as he takes power in the current age’s biggest fiasco. His response:

If I were to have a drink with Bob Dudley and if he asked for advice, I would tell him:

1. You come off as a modest, transparent, honest executive with an ego that is well controlled — don’t change!

2. One of your predecessors (during your turtle era) once told me that I was too honest. If he told you that — ignore the comment — he ruined the company, didn’t he?

3. You can change the BP safety culture very quickly if you really want to and show that you’re serious — by dumping those who don’t cooperate. They are replaceable in a nanosecond. This will speed the process and you have no time to waste.

4. BP is in deep trouble — perhaps its reputation is unrecoverable. I know from bitter experience that once behind the PR curve, catching up is near impossible. You will have to assess whether recovery is possible and if not, act boldly to preserve value for your shareholders — even if it means dividing and selling. You may have to relinquish operator status in deep water plays. Let your partners operate or sell to those who can operate for you. Doing it yourself could be counterproductive for a while — perhaps a long while.

5. BP’s profits will suffer greatly — markets will scream — but being predominately non-operator may be the best path forward. You’ll get the profits with less exposure to the microscope.

6. Go back to number one — about the ego — both yours and that of the company.

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