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Shell Chief to Leave Next Year

Screen Shot 2013-01-11 at 20.09.51 “One of the few blots on Mr. Voser’s record would be Shell’s high-profile exploration effort in Alaska, which has been plagued by accidents and other problems. Those difficulties have led Shell to suspend drilling until at least 2014.”

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LONDON — Royal Dutch Shell’s chief executive, Peter Voser, plans to retire next year, after a decade in top management jobs in which he helped the company recover from an accounting scandal and become the world leader in liquefied natural gas and related businesses.

Mr. Voser, 54, made the unexpected announcement as Shell reported first-quarter profit that reflected only a modest gain from a year earlier but still exceeded analysts’ expectations.

“After such an exciting executive career I feel it is time for a change in my lifestyle and I am looking forward to have more time available for my family and private life,” Mr. Voser said Thursday in a statement. One longtime associate said Mr. Voser had long privately expressed a wish to retire by age 55.

Although Shell’s chairman, Jorma Ollila, said the board would consider outside candidates to replace Mr. Voser, the company has a team of executives who might be contenders in what the industry assumed would be an orderly transition.

With 87,000 employees across the globe, and second only to Exxon Mobil in terms of production by Western oil companies, Shell would not be an easy company to change, in any case.

Mr. Voser, who began his business career at Shell in 1982, left in 2002 to become the chief financial officer of a struggling maker of industrial equipment, Asea Brown Boveri, in his native Switzerland, where he made his reputation by helping to lead a turnaround.

He returned to Shell in the wake of a scandal on the misreporting of reserves that had led to the departure of both the chief executive, Philip Watts, and chief financial officer, Judy Boynton. Mr. Voser started as chief financial officer and was promoted to chief executive in 2009 upon the retirement of Jeroen van der Veer.

One of the few blots on Mr. Voser’s record would be Shell’s high-profile exploration effort in Alaska, which has been plagued by accidents and other problems. Those difficulties have led Shell to suspend drilling until at least 2014.

Fellow executives and analysts say that Mr. Voser has pursued a strategy of ambitious projects meant to pay dividends for decades. In particular, he has built up the liquefied natural gas and related businesses to a point where they now account for close to 50 percent of Shell’s exploration and production earnings.

“I think Voser has done a good job for Shell,” said Iain Pyle, an analyst at Bernstein Research in London. “The company is left with a strong portfolio of projects and some large, long-term projects which should deliver strong stable cash flows for years to come.”

Shell showed evidence of its strength on Thursday when it reported net profit, adjusted for one-time items, of $7.5 billion, up 3 percent from a year earlier. The performance substantially beat analysts’ forecasts.

Revenue, at $113 billion, declined 6 percent, but financial analysts pay little heed to revenue figures in the oil industry, given the volatility of prices and the ebbs and flows of production.

One of the star performers was the new Pearl GTL plant in Qatar that turns gas into liquids, a technology that only a handful of companies have mastered.

Pearl was extremely expensive, costing around $20 billion. But it now looks like a smart bet because its products, like diesel, are linked to high oil prices, giving Shell and its Qatari hosts a hedge against any drop in prices for natural gas.

Pearl nearly reached full production at the end of last year, which added an extra 175,000 barrels per day in the quarter, Shell said. The plant has a capacity of 260,000 barrels a day.

Shell is considering putting a similar plant on the U.S. Gulf Coast, the company’s chief financial officer, Simon Henry, said Thursday.

Mr. Voser has led an effort to build up Shell’s gas portfolio, particularly liquefied natural gas, which is made by supercooling gas into liquid form so that it can be transported, usually on ships. Shell expects global demand for L.N.G. to double by 2025 to the equivalent of about 4.5 billion barrels of oil per year.

The business unit called integrated gas, which includes L.N.G. as well as facilities like Pearl, brought in $2.5 billion this quarter. Shell has invested $40 billion in this business in recent years, much of it under Mr. Voser.

Analysts say that the advantage of L.N.G., which has extremely high upfront costs, is that it produces steady returns with relatively low capital spending over decades. Shell says it is earning returns of about 25 percent on the capital invested in the integrated gas business.

The risk for Shell is that a surge of exports of L.N.G. from the United States and Canada using inexpensive shale gas lowers gas prices in the rest of the world. Recently, North American gas prices have been in the range of $4 per million British thermal units. European prices spot prices, though, were around $10 per million B.T.U.s and Asian prices about $15.

Contract prices, especially in Asia, where most of Shell’s L.N.G. goes, are often higher and indexed to oil, which is currently much more expensive than gas.

A European oil company chief executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that Shell’s gas emphasis put the company at risk of not only being hit by lower gas prices but also of losing any potential upside if oil prices were to rise.

As one indicator of that risk, Shell’s stock price has been flat over the past year while that of Chevron, which is more oil-based, has risen about 15 percent.

But Shell executives appear to have made the choice of hedging their oil portfolios. During a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Mr. Henry, the chief financial officer, criticized companies that “bet the farm” on the continuation of $100-a-barrel oil. “We don’t,” he said, saying Mr. Voser was leaving a company “much less exposed to the vagaries of short-term cycles.”

Among the internal candidates to replace the chief executive, Mr. Henry, a 51-year-old Briton who has also served as head of investor relations, would probably be a popular choice with investors.

But if the board wanted to reward smooth project execution, a top candidate might be another Briton, Andrew Brown, 51, who joined the top management team a year ago as head of international exploration and production, after presiding over the construction of the Pearl plant and a giant L.N.G. facility in Qatar.

A third possibility is Marvin Odum, 54, an American, who runs the Americas exploration and production business. Of the three, the only broadly experienced operations executive is Mr. Odum, though he might carry the stigma of the Alaska debacle.

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