End of the BP emperor

If his week had gone according to schedule, earlier today Lord Browne would have been settling down with the features editor of The Engineer for a rare interview.

That was the plan until yesterday, when things went off the rails and the now ex-BP chief executive found himself pursued by journalists with a rather different agenda.

The career of Lord Browne was a spectacular rebuttal to the notion that people from the engineering and technology side of a business can only rise so far in a company before they hit a glass ceiling.

In a 40-year career with BP, Lord Browne progressed from apprentice engineer to chief executive of one of the world’s biggest companies. At the height of his powers in the early years of this decade he was regularly named as the UK’s most admired business leader.

It is worth remembering the above amid the shrill, and frequently lurid headlines surrounding Lord Browne’s sudden departure.

It is often said, and mostly true, that the UK lacks companies that are genuine global heavy-hitters in their field.

BP is one of the exceptions, transformed under Lord Browne’s stewardship into a true global energy behemoth, generating vast profits and proportionately huge tax revenues to the UK exchequer.

With almost 100,000 employees and operations in the four corners of the Earth, BP is nothing less than a business empire, and until a few years ago Lord Browne its undisputed emperor.

Recently, however, the gloss had begun to come off his reign. Operational setbacks, particularly the deadly explosion at its Texas City refinery in 2005, had put BP’s management under the microscope. The US safety authorities, for one, didn’t like what they saw, and said so.

That it should be the minutiae of his private life rather than the fine detail of safety policy that ended Lord Browne’s tenure is strange indeed.

So does the demise of the engineer-turned-business titan offer any lessons beyond the fact that it always pays to tell the truth in court?

One might be that if you are ruling an empire, things will only go well for so long. In the end, no matter what your reputation, events will leave you tarnished.

And secondly, it is sometimes easy to forget that even the most powerful figures in business, politics or any other field of endeavour are human beings, not machines and certainly not infallible.

Andrew Lee