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Shell: Will a new boss be content with a Dutch treat?


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Worried about the soaring cost of oil and gas? Shell boss Jeroen van der Veer agrees to an email grilling from Times Online readers on profits, prices and petrol. 
The Times
May 21, 2008

Can Britain return to be the best engineer?

Parliament has given Britain an opportunity to become great in engineering once again. It is a small chance but one worth backing, and in the defeat yesterday of the opponents of embryonic stem-cell research, there is the possibility in coming decades of building a world-beating industry.

It means engineering better human beings, not bridges, but that is no matter, unless you are hysterical or ideologically orthodox.

Years ago, we in Europe voluntarily gave up a new technology of huge commercial and social benefit – GM foods. The research went to the United States because of our fear of the new and our sentimentality about the natural world.

Supporters of stem-cell research will be grateful that the animal cells used in hybrid admixed embryos come from cows, rather than more photogenic foxes or seal pups.

A combination of luck and American religious fundamentalism has secured for Britain a competitive advantage, attracting American scientists, notably Roger Pederson and Stephen Minger, who escaped to a more congenial intellectual climate.

The head start will not last long. Despite the veto cast by President Bush on federal funding, billions of dollars are being invested, notably by California.

If good research is to be transformed into something bigger that creates wealth, opportunity and hope, rather than only ideas, there must be bold investment, initially by the State, and a robust attitude to detractors.

It will take time and it could fail, but this Government has precious few irons in the fire.

France relishes idea of greater subsidy

A massive food fight is erupting again in Brussels, where Mariann Fischer Boel, the Commissioner for Agriculture, is pushing for further reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in an interim health check of European Union farm policy.

Production subsidies would be removed, grants for biofuels would be eliminated and payments for set-aside land removed. In addition, she would top-slice the subsidies to big farms and use the cash to support rural development.

It all sounds great. While the world frets over foods shortages and panicky governments lock up their pantries, Europe would do the opposite – open doors, deregulate and let farmers produce the food that consumers want to eat.

Needless to say, Ms Fischer Boel’s agenda faces attack from all sides.

Even the British are worried because her proposal to place a ceiling on bungs to the biggest farms would hit the UK hard, notably the pampered grain barons of East Anglia.

It is about who gets what share of the pie and France is jubilant, seeing in the present food price escalation a golden opportunity to push for more subsidy, not less.

France receives a quarter of the €40 billion (£32 billion) CAP budget and Michel Barnier, the French Agriculture Minister, wants to return to the bad old system of giving farmers subsidies for output, using the simplistic argument that in a world of shortage Europe must be self-sufficient.

This return to an agricultural war economy is nonsense, of course. Europe needs to trade and produce food competitively. The world does not need more farming – it needs more intelligent farming.

Knowing when to flirt with Mammon

If food divides Europeans, they agree, nonetheless, about executive pay, and our EU partners are threatening punitive taxes to curb greed in the boardroom.

Moves are afoot in the Netherlands, where, to the great distress of the Dutch business establishment, legislation has been tabled in parliament to tax executive bonuses.

The Bill would require a 30 per cent levy on payouts of €500,000 or more. Conspicuous displays of wealth are not to the Dutch taste – there was an outcry over the €22 million golden parachute paid to Rijkman Groenink, the former boss of ABN Amro.

Still, the Dutch know that they must flirt with Mammon to survive. Amsterdam is on the business map because of the generous Dutch tax treatment of holding companies, but some Dutch bosses are now weighing up their potential loss of personal earnings.

Ad Scheepbouwer, the head of KPN, the telecoms group, gave warning: “All the fuss about salaries will make companies want to move their headquarters away from the Netherlands.”

At least two Anglo-Dutch companies must be in the frame, Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever, both of which employ rafts of senior executives earning multimillion-euro salaries and bonuses.

Latterly Unilever has been drawing more of its top team to London, leaving only a treasury function in Rotterdam (useful to gain the maximum advantage of Dutch taxation).

Shell, however, has moved in the other direction, settling its head office in The Hague and reducing London to a rump of downstream businesses.

It is a tough choice for Shell’s bosses. Jeroen van der Veer, the Shell chief, will no doubt suffer with good grace the requirement to share his retirement bonus and pension with his fellow Dutchmen.

But what of his British and American colleagues? Shell has not found it easy recruiting senior people to The Hague, and what of Mr van der Veer’s successor?

The expectation is that Shell, for the first time, will recruit an outsider to lead the company. Will a new boss be content with a Dutch treat?

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