He said he was ‘energised’ and up for the fight. But as he stood at the podium to deliver the company’s annual strategy review, Shell boss Peter Voser (right) looked anything but.
His audience of a hundred or so British and foreign journalists listened with an air of resignation rather than in rapt attention.
Voser isn’t a natural orator. His clipped Swiss accent and the dry delivery may work well around the boardroom table, but his style is hardly inspirational.
Which is a pity. Because his message was an uplifting one for Shell investors, and addressed the concerns of the critics who dismiss the Anglo-Dutch giant as low growth, bureaucratic and bloated.
Voser’s trick was to come up with a fairly punchy production target and spice it with a subtle change of direction and emphasis.
And it seemed to work, with the company’s London-listed A shares rising 27.5p to close the day at 2920p.
The briefing re- capped the impact Voser has made in his short tenure. Since becoming chief executive in the summer of last year, he has spearheaded an impressive $2bn cost cutting drive that has seen the loss off 5,000 jobs, mostly mid-ranking managerial posts.
An extension to that programme was unveiled yesterday. It will save another $1bn by cutting a further 1,000 roles, though the workforce still numbers more than 100,000.
But what grabbed the analysts’ attention was his plans to have Shell pumping around 3.5m barrels of oil a day by 2012.
This implies an annual growth rate of 3.5%, which is well ahead of the rather pedestrian performance of rival BP at around 1.5%.
Shell even seems to have raised its game in finding new oil and gas fields, with its reserve replacement rate running at a healthy 288%.
Voser showed he recognised the lingering misgivings of investors, though he was careful to couch the message in diplomatic terms that wouldn’t offend his colleagues and predecessor.
‘When I became chief executive in the middle of last year, I did think the organisation of the company was working against us,’ he told the meeting at a central London hotel.
‘Shell had become too complicated, and slower than I’d like, and working on too many areas and options.’
The simplification of Shell, which has many moving parts, is borne out of necessity.
With the oil price hovering at, or close to, $80 a barrel, more investment is going into exploration and production.
For recession-hit refining, in the middle of the worst slump in 20 years, the pendulum has swung the other way. Capacity is set to be cut by around 15%, with plants sold or even shut down.
And the marketing operation, which owns the company’s filling stations and also sells motor oil and jet fuel, is also undergoing a shake-up. It is focusing on fewer markets to improve profitability.
Only one of the laggards seems to have been spared the Voser treatment: Shell’s gas business.
It has been hit by the downturn but is deemed to be a fundamentally sound business.
Voser trumpeted a series of exploration success stories that tell a tale of a growing conservatism, so we heard about the company’s strikes in the Gulf of Mexico, Australia and North America.
Relatively expensive regions in which to work, they do have the upside of being politically stable and incredibly easy places to do business.
Air-brushed from the literature were the likes of Nigeria and Russia.
It was only when prodded that Voser commented on the war-torn African nation, where the oil reserves are plentiful, but the region is a mess of infighting and instability: ‘In the past, as I have said many times, Shell has depended a lot on the growth of Nigeria. In today’s situation, we still have the same growth potential in Nigeria. But we have seeded plenty of projects in other parts of the world where we also can achieve growth.’
Hardly a ringing endorsement of the country’s prospects.
Some analysts, such as Collins Stewart’s Gordon Grey, see Voser’s latest strategy pronouncement as ‘an important turning point operationally’ for Shell.
The respected and experienced Richard Griffith of Evolution has been following the company for far too long to be totally convinced: ‘It’s a positive statement, but there is still plenty to be delivered.’