June 14, 2010 • Scott McMurray
When BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” image campaign was running full throttle a few years ago, I remember cornering a company lawyer. What was wrong with being a petroleum company, and being the best one they could be?
He shrugged. Oil was so 20th century; the company’s C-suite was focused on a future increasingly powered by alternative energy sources. Hadn’t BP’s ad agency found plenty of fresh-faced millennials to address the camera and say they expected no less of the corporate sector? Didn’t I read Tom Friedman?
BP wasn’t getting out of oil, but there was a clear sense within the company that the core business was pretty much on auto pilot. Careers were being made elsewhere, said the lawyer, who was relocating his family to keep his job.
We all know what happened next, starting with a string of serious safety and environmental failures in plants in the United States over the past few years, and ending, at least for now we hope, a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico.
Leadership in the commodity and processing industries—inherently dangerous and dirty businesses—is all about safe and efficient exploration and production that meets or exceeds environmental standards. The right thing to do, of course, but also the only way to stay ahead of the pack by avoiding regulatory pitfalls. And, yes, making a profit. Auto pilots need not apply.
It is also about pride. The best in these businesses have safety and innovation baked into their corporate cultures and values. They would no more go “beyond” them and think such core values could be taken for granted than they would walk around a drilling site without wearing a hardhat.
As a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and more recently as a writer and consultant for The History Factory, I have been continually impressed with the pride the best operators in these industries take in their work, be they Dow Chemical truck drivers in Midland, Michigan, or Saudi Aramco geologists in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
Working with Saudi Aramco over the past few years on a history of the oil company and the development of modern-day Saudi Arabia brought that point home. I was struck with what a central role the clean-up of the mammoth 1991 oil spill in the Arabian Gulf that occurred during the First Gulf War plays in Saudi Aramco’s corporate culture.
Company and government officials and employees rallied in an all-out effort to contain and recover the oil—and not just to protect their own production facilities and massive water desalinization plants. There was a clear sense of obligation: This was their business, even though it was Kuwait’s oil, not theirs. And this was their region. And this was their reputation at stake, as the Gulf’s largest producer and holder of proven oil reserves.
Failure was not an option. They put one of their fastest-rising executives in charge of the project, and the CEO was intimately involved in the decision making. They had the training, though certainly not on a scale matching the record-setting spill, and they had the resources, calling upon an international consortium that had just completed containment training in the area and included BP among its members.
There were setbacks, of course, but eventually they recovered nearly 1 million barrels of oil from the Gulf. The experience engendered a new level of environmental consciousness in the company culture, without anyone fooling themselves that they weren’t working for an oil company.
No one should be ready to write the last chapter on BP just yet. Beneath the tattered reputation is a company with a storied history in the birth of the Mideast oil industry, the success of the British Navy—featuring a cameo appearance by a young Winston Churchill no less—and the development of historic oil fields on Alaska’s North Slope and in the North Sea. Here’s hoping that once the oil disaster in the Gulf is contained, and a full review has occurred, BP will be able to drill down and reconnect with the core values that made it great.
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