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Carl-Henric Svanberg is just the man for the job – Scout’s honour

The Times

June 26, 2009

David Wighton: Business Editor’s commentary

We may at last have a chance of winning Wimbledon but it is a bit of a blow to the national self-esteem that we can’t find a Brit to chair BP.

Carl-Henric Svanberg may prove an excellent choice to head one of Britain’s biggest companies. Yet it is striking that in the space of three months both BP and Rio Tinto have been forced to look beyond these shores for new chairmen. Not only that. They have also been forced to look beyond their own industries. Jan du Plessis, the South African appointed to Rio in March, knew little about mining and Mr Svanberg has no background in oil. Both Shell and BP now have Nordic former telecoms bosses heading their boards.

There has been much comment about the dearth of candidates to run big British bank boards, not least because the reputations of so many potential candidates have been damaged by the credit crisis.

Does the experience of Rio and BP suggest that there is a dearth of talent, full stop?

To be fair, there were two eminently qualified Brits lined up for Rio and BP. But Jim Leng quit as chairman-designate at Rio because he was against the Chinalco deal. And Paul Skinner did not get the BP job because he was for the deal.

Mr Svanberg’s predecessor, Peter Sutherland, is an Irishman who had no previous experience of oil and gas. And the appointments of Mr du Plessis and Mr Svanberg can be seen as merely a continuation of the gradual internationalisation of the boardrooms of Britain’s biggest companies.

Nevertheless, Britain does seem to have a bit of a trade deficit in senior executives. Apart from the remarkable example of Sir Howard Stringer at Sony, Brits are not that well represented at the top of foreign companies, particularly since the ejection of Martin Sullivan from AIG.

Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, says the lack of British candidates for top jobs reflects the fact that many companies are under stress and senior executives feel they cannot switch horses in mid-crisis. But it is not clear why that should particularly affect British candidates. Most companies around the world are under stress.

Mr Svanberg may be far from a household name in Britain and some of BP’s shareholders in London were scratching their heads yesterday. But he does know many of the top City institutions from his time at Ericsson.

This gave him valuable experience of dealing with governments around the world, a key role for BP’s chairman. A salesman by background, he has good knowledge of China and India. He also has experience in Russia, and knows some of the players involved in BP’s battle for control of its TNK-BP joint venture.

At his previous companies he had a good record of tightening the nuts and bolts, where BP still has some work to do.

Although BP needed new blood, the fact that Mr Hayward and Mr Svanberg barely know each other means that there is no guarantee the relationship will work.

But they say they share the same views on many aspects of global business. And they say they gained many of their lessons in leadership from the same source – the Boy Scout movement.

The conspiracy theorists will be waiting for BP to drop Beyond Petroleum and switch to Be Prepared.

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