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So far so good as Shell is giving a shaking

Times Online

March 16, 2010

David Wighton: Business Editor’s commentary

He arrived with a bang and within weeks had axed 5,000 jobs. But eight months after taking over the helm at Royal Dutch Shell, is Peter Voser making progress turning around the supertanker?

Long derided as the most sluggish of the top oil companies, Shell will today try to persuade investors at its annual strategy briefing that it is back on course. There certainly are some encouraging signs. For six years, oil production has been drifting lower at an average of 3.5 per cent a year. But with a series of big projects due to give the figures a boost this year, production is expected to stabilise at about 3.2 million barrels a day in 2010. In 2011 it could start growing for the first time in almost a decade.

Mr Voser can claim only limited credit for this trend, which reflects years of investment. But his own changes are starting to have an impact, in particular a sweeping reordering of the company that has reduced costs and improved focus.

For years, Shell was plagued by delays and budget overruns on big projects. So far, his creation of a separate division, Projects and Technology, responsible for masterminding large-scale operations, seems to be working well. Compared with peers such as Exxon and BP, Shell has been slow to make such changes, but that means the potential for improvements is greater.

Mr Voser has promised at least another $1 billion in cost cuts this year and will provide further details today.

He is still grappling with huge challenges — not least Shell’s sprawling refining and marketing operation, which is struggling in the face of the industry’s most severe downturn in 20 years. The group’s poor record at finding new supplies of oil and gas also remains a profound problem which Voser must address.

Still, his decision to sell some of Shell’s onshore Nigerian assets and bid for Arrow Energy, an Australian producer of coal-seam gas, show that he is willing to give the portfolio a good shaking. It will be years before Mr Voser’s performance can be judged properly — but so far so good.

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TIMES ARTICLE

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