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Cook’s tenure at Shell Canada far too brief

TheGlobe&Mail.com: Cook’s tenure at Shell Canada far too brief

By DEBORAH YEDLIN

Friday, May 21, 2004 – Page B2

Well that didn’t last long, did it?

Linda Cook’s tenure as the first woman to lead an integrated oil and gas company in North America is going to be clocked at less than one year, not exactly what anyone expected, including Ms. Cook.

Back in September, barely a month after settling in the saddle as Shell Canada’s chief executive officer, Ms. Cook was “white hatted” in true Calgary fashion and welcomed into the disappointingly small circle of 70 prominent women from the city’s business community.

As she donned the ceremonial hat, swore an oath to become a citizen of Calgary and was welcomed as such, she talked about how special Calgary was in its ability to make newcomers feel at home.

Hopes were high that she, along with company chief financial officer Cathy Williams, would set an example for other big companies in Calgary that it was time for the thick glass ceiling of the oil patch to be shattered.

Now, with Ms. Cook being yanked back to head office in Holland, that glass ceiling might just be in the process of being put back together. In Calgary, anyway.

While Ms. Cook’s departure is Calgary’s loss, her appointment as head of the company’s global natural gas and power business segment has to be viewed as a feather in her cap in light of the challenges facing Royal Dutch/Shell Group in the wake of its reserves scandal.

Royal Dutch owns 77.9 per cent of Shell Canada.

Back in April, Royal Dutch, the world’s second-largest oil and gas company, admitted to having overstated the amount of reserves by a factor of 20 per cent. The company has since undertaken a massive house cleaning exercise within its senior ranks and is now in the process of handpicking those that can help restore its credibility.

Ms. Cook’s appointment to the management committee, as well as heading up a division that generated revenue of more than $830-million (U.S.) in 2002, clearly indicates she is highly regarded and capable of furthering that corporate goal.

At the same time, however, it raises the question of how important the Canadian operations of Shell Canada are for Royal Dutch because the CEOs don’t tend to stay all that long. In fact, until Ms. Cook’s recent move, it seems Shell Canada was the last stopping point for company veterans before retirement; no one went on to bigger and better things after cooling their heels in Calgary.

There have been three CEOs since 1993, when Charles Wilson arrived to clean house at Shell. Nicknamed ‘Chainsaw Chuck,’ Mr. Wilson slashed the ranks at Shell Canada to 3,700 from 5,000, and went quietly into the good night in 1999.

Tim Faithful, another Royal Dutch veteran, succeeded Mr. Wilson and stayed with the company until last August. He too retired.

These relatively brief tenures are in stark contrast to what other major companies in the oil patch tend to do when it comes to their respective CEOs.

Gwyn Morgan led Alberta Energy Co. for eight years and now heads up EnCana, Jim Buckee has been at the helm of Talisman Energy for 13 years and Suncor’s Rick George has been CEO since 1991.

There is much to be said for continuity and having the time to carry through on a business strategy. But Royal Dutch and the tenure of its Calgary-based executives suggests a different view.

Was Ms. Cook really put in place for a significant period of time or was Calgary always intended as a brief stopping point in her career? Either way, the reserves scandal has pushed the time frame on her advancement and it’s back to caretaker mode.

Ms. Cook’s successor seems to fit that old mold of Messrs. Wilson and Faithful. Mr. Mather is a 35-year veteran of Royal Dutch and it seems likely that he too will use Shell Canada as his last stopping point before opting for more time on the putting green.

All things considered, it’s not a bad place to bid adieux to one’s career because the role of CEO at Shell seems to be more akin to stewardship than action. Mr. Wilson thinned out the employment ranks and kick-started the Athabasca oil sands initiative, while Mr. Faithful was viewed as the overseer. The 2004 capital expenditure budget stands at $1.1-billion, with most of the money directed toward refining and marketing initiatives and the oil sands, and very little going into conventional upstream exploration and development.

In other words, don’t expect much in the way of growth.

From this perspective one must say good on you Ms. Cook, because you are one of four managing directors at Royal Dutch and will go on to hold positions of greater significance than overseeing a branch plant of a huge multinational that isn’t one of the company’s key growth areas.

But for the women who were hoping Ms. Cook’s arrival heralded a new era in terms of advancement in the oil patch, it’s time to break out the hankies.

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