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The quiet man who takes center stage at BP

by SuperiorInvest

This time last year, Murray Auchincloss seemed to have few ambitions of becoming chief executive of Britain’s most famous oil company. The former Canadian tax analyst had carved out a quiet and highly successful career within BP, but as finance chief he was destined to be the numbers guy who kept his more flamboyant boss in line.

Then in September, that boss, Bernard Looney, resigned after failing to disclose past romantic relationships with BP colleagues to the board. The scandal put Auchinclos in the spotlight. Such was the abruptness of Looney’s departure, just days after BP received a second set of allegations about its boss, that Auchincloss had only 20 minutes’ notice before taking over as interim chief executive, he told his colleagues. friends.

This week, after a four-month process that some investors say took too long, he was confirmed in the role permanently and takes on one of the highest-profile, most challenging and unforgiving positions in British business.

His selection was, on the one hand, not surprising. In its 114-year history, BP has never hired a CEO from outside the company and Auchincloss was widely considered the strongest internal candidate. In other ways, however, his appointment is unusual.

Finance chiefs have rarely been appointed to BP’s top positions. While Looney was selected in 2019 as the charismatic visionary needed to drive the company’s transformation from oil producer to clean energy provider, his colleagues describe Auchincloss as “low-key” and “unpretentious.”

“While Murray may not bring the same enthusiasm, he brings exactly the kind of leadership the company needs right now, which is someone who is very credible, very competent and extraordinarily stable at the helm,” says a former senior BP executive, who worked with Auchincloss for several years.

Born in 1970, the son of a traveling Scottish geologist, and educated at the University of Calgary, in the heart of Canada’s oil patch, Auchincloss was perhaps destined for a career in the industry. He joined the American oil company Amoco in 1992, becoming the fourth generation of his family to work in the energy sector.

After starting in Amoco’s tax department in Chicago, he joined BP when the two companies merged in 1998.

Auchincloss impressed immediately, his former colleagues say, and moved through a series of finance roles before moving into the CEO’s office in 2010, a testing ground for potential BP high-flyers.

As chief of staff, he initially worked for Tony Hayward, just as a drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the largest oil spill ever recorded in U.S. waters. Six months later, when Hayward resigned because of the disaster, Auchincloss remained with the next chief executive, Bob Dudley, and became his longest-serving chief of staff.

Over the next two years, Auchincloss traveled to every corner of BP’s business with his boss. He was a tireless helper and became a trusted advisor, Dudley says.

“If I sat down with him and went over the quarterly numbers. . . He would tell me if there was a problem,” Dudley tells the Financial Times. “I wasn’t hearing that from others.”

He then spent seven years crunching the numbers for BP’s upstream oil production business, before being appointed group chief financial officer in 2020.

The financial talent Dudley observed has endeared Auchincloss to the company’s institutional investors, many of whom welcomed confirmation of his permanent appointment as chief executive.

“You have the ability to answer any numerical question with data, without evading, without being political,” says Oswald Clint, a longtime oil and gas analyst at research house Bernstein. “This doesn’t happen with all CFOs.”

The CEO job, however, requires a broader set of skills, particularly at a time when BP is a lightning rod for criticism in the complex debate over the role of oil and gas companies in the effort to slow change. climate. His current and former colleagues, who describe Auchincloss as an introvert, are intrigued to see how he will handle the public challenges of the top job.

In 2020, BP introduced climate targets that went further than its competitors. Since then, BP’s total shareholder returns have lagged those of its four main rivals. But any investor betting that Auchincloss will lead BP away from its green promises will likely be disappointed. He was a key architect of the plan and is said to be as committed as Looney to the transformation.

Internally, his appointment has been welcomed by staff, some of whom are still reeling from Looney’s sudden departure and the board’s decision in December to claw back up to £32.4m in salary from their beloved former boss.

Many employees viewed Auchincloss and Looney as a very effective team. The board has taken pains to assure staff that Auchincloss was not involved in its decision about Looney’s salary. Auchincloss also has a relationship with a BP colleague but, unlike Looney, the company says it was properly disclosed.

If Auchincloss can manage BP’s business, its staff and its investors, he must also manage the board. Three of BP’s four previous chief executives have been forced to resign abruptly. Hayward told the Financial Times in November that “successive BP boards” had not “backed their chief executive.”

“Board chemistry and dynamics are very important, and Murray handled all of that very well,” says Dudley, who is the only BP chief executive since 1995 who has not been forced to resign.

“He was never a high-maintenance employee,” Dudley adds. “He just worked.”

tom.wilson@ft.com

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