A British Friend’s Take on BP

Posted 08.24.2010

Logo-bp By the end of the day last Friday, I was ready to spend the rest of the afternoon talking with friends. One of them was my buddy Steve Bowling. Steve’s a coach and former HR exec based in New Jersey. He’s also a Brit who has lived in the States for the past ten years or so. Great guy and a lot of fun to hang out with and talk to.

We hadn’t talked since around May. After we caught up, I asked for his take on three topics – the World Cup (good tournament, but still smarting over England’s performance), David Cameron as PM of Great Britain (waiting to see how the cuts in social services will go down with the public) and his thoughts on how badly former BP CEO Tony Hayward had damaged the British brand.

Steve (who has given his blessing for me to recap our conversation) piqued my interest when he began by saying, “Well, here’s a somewhat cynical view. I think BP has handled the situation rather well if you look at the long term.”  I was a bit taken aback by Steve’s response because, like the author of a recent New York Times piece on how not to handle crisis communications, I was among the many people who thought BP’s response and, particularly Tony Hayward’s, to the spill in the Gulf was abysmal. (One of the wonderful things about writing a blog is your opinions are part of the permanent record. You can read one of my earlier takes on BP here.)

Here’s how Steve sees it.

The chairman of the board of BP, Carl-Henric Svanberg, set Hayward up to be the fall guy for the company and Hayward filled that role masterfully. The more Hayward said, the more he became the focal point for the rage of the American people. The story became as much about Hayward himself as it was BP. He became the single point personification of the story in the U.S. media. Meanwhile, Bob Dudley, a Gulf born and bred senior executive of BP, was positioned by the chairman to take over the top job when the time was right (i.e. after the spill was capped). Hayward is then almost literally sent to Siberia to tend to critical relations with the Russians on deals that BP has with them. Out of sight, out of mind for Tony. Fresh start for BP and the chairman leverages the story to smooth the path for some long term executive succession issues he had to address.

So, is Steve right? Well, we’ll probably never know but the theory makes a lot of sense doesn’t it? At the peak of the outcry over the spill and the way Hayward was handling it, a lot of commentators were criticizing the company’s chairman for his silence. Maybe he was silent because he had a longer term set of objectives in mind. Not that I’m likely to have the opportunity, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t play chess or poker with that guy. How about you?