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Financial Times: Mudlark: It’s a Shell of a tale

Financial Times: Mudlark: It’s a Shell of a tale

“some shareholders have asked what Moody-Stuart, who remains a non-executive director at Shell, was doing while the reserves debacle was unfolding.”

By Clay Harris

15 July 2004

Just when you thought no more surprises could emerge from Royal Dutch/Shell, there comes a curious tale.

According to whispers that have emerged in recent days, Walter van de Vijver, deposed head of exploration and production, was mulling the possibility of a move to Shell’s global rival, BP.

An incriminating message, it is said, was found in his Shell e-mail account after he was sacked in March. Could he even have had ambitions to succeed Lord Browne?

That would be rather odd. Before his downfall, van de Vijver was seen at Shell as having farther to rise; he was a frontrunner eventually to succeed Sir Philip Watts, who also lost his job in March.

And yet … the memos released after Davis Polk & Wardwell’s internal inquiry for Shell revealed van de Vijver’s increasing frustration about the reserves position he had inherited from Watts, his E&P predecessor. Could he have got so desperate as to contemplate defection?

No one has ever moved between Shell and BP at such a senior level. BP has not recruited an executive director from outside since Robert Malpas came from Imperial Chemical Industries in 1983 to run BP Chemicals.

To BP, the idea that it had been in talks with van de Vijver was “absolutely total rubbish”. Shell disclaimed all knowledge and said it was a question for van de Vijver. Mudlark’s inquiry brought this response from someone close to van de Vijver: “No direct contact with BP; no discussion with BP; no invitation from BP; no deal with BP – zero.”

No direct contact? Perhaps a headhunter on the prowl? “No headhunter. Third-party inquiry. No response. No follow up.” So there was at least an ember underneath the smoke but not enough to justify the whispers.

Moody-Stuart talks

It was with a delicious sense of irony that Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, former head of Royal Dutch/Shell, on Wednesday lectured attendees at a Chatham House conference on corporate citizenship about the need for strong governance.

Moody-Stuart, in charge at the Dutch-UK energy group at a time when its oil reserves were being overbooked, was specifically addressing the “absolutely vital” need for sound governance in developing countries. He later said Shell’s drive to improve its own, less-than-spotless governance record at head office would provide a useful blueprint for operations in countries such as Nigeria.

Sticking with the governance issue, some shareholders have asked what Moody-Stuart, who remains a non-executive director at Shell, was doing while the reserves debacle was unfolding.

He was cleared of blame by the independent external report into the overbooking but said on Wednesday he felt “a sense of responsibility” for what had happened.

He said he was unaware of what was going on because he was “in no way” involved with the independent reserves auditing system but “if anything like this happens, the person at the top has to carry some kind of responsibility for it”.

Moody-Stuart said he had not been approached by US investigators.

Full marks, no sparks

“This is probably the largest ever meeting of polite people,” Paul Myners told Marks and Spencer shareholders on Wednesday, giving a consummate performance at his first AGM as chairman of a FTSE 100 company. Myners played perfectly to an audience that wanted to be pleased and – with rare exception – was united in its determination to resist the overtures of that rough Philip Green.

Because of the excitement over Green’s stalking of M&S, the queue waiting to enter the Royal Festival Hall stretched back as far as the Shell Centre and kick-off was delayed by more than 15 minutes. Myners opened by saying he’d talked in the lobby to “Mrs Powell from Carlisle” who had been a shareholder since 1932. “Under the rules of the Takeover Code,” Myners said, “I’m not allowed to … give Mr Green what she said to give him.”

From then on, Myners had the audience in his hand. His decision to forgo any additional fee for acting as interim chairman drew the sting from criticism of the £1.25m signing-on payment received by new chief executive Stuart Rose.

Myners even got the audience to vote to cut off questions when two-thirds of those who had registered had yet to be heard.

His overtly engaging approach contrasted with the other half of the new team. “Stuart thinks, talks and acts like a shopkeeper,” Myners said. And Rose’s speech – a reprise of his presentation to institutional investors and analysts on Monday – did nothing to damp down that impression.

It was detailed to the point of micro-management: the lowest-priced men’s pyjamas would be reduced from £17 to £15. But even if the coughs increased in frequency as Rose went on, it was right for him to press on with the Power Points.

The message: we’re treating you just like the big shareholders. The manner: I know retailing and I’m focusing on the business.

( Posted here by John Donovan of )

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