x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

BP must beware joining list of extinct corporate dinosaurs

Some observers believe BP, the energy giant based in the UK, might be on the edge of the same malign spiral faced by the likes of Pan Am and ICI.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago made BP a target for the global environmental lobby. Lee Celano / Reuters
The Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago made BP a target for the global environmental lobby. Lee Celano / Reuters

Corporate deaths tend to be drawn-out, painful affairs. When a big company begins to go downhill it is usually a lingering process of suffering, with spasms of rapid deterioration, followed by false hopes of recovery only to be dashed again as market conditions change, executives prove incompetent or global forces shift.

There are numerous cases of this attritional process. The big American airlines, Pan Am and TWA, that dominated American aviation for most of the last century are a couple of examples.

The demise of the big British industrial conglomerates such as Imperial Chemical Industries, Hanson and BTR - all household names in the business world 20 years ago - provides other examples of "death by a thousand corporate cuts".

Some observers believe BP, the energy giant based in the UK, might be on the edge of the same malign spiral.

The company, founded in 1909, dominated the global energy sector for much of the 20th century, but in the past few years there have been signs of corporate ill health that make it difficult to diagnose its future with any great certainty.

BP is still a mighty organisation, with a market capitalisation of more than £80 billion (Dh470.87bn), but take a glance at BP's share price performance. Over the past five years, the company's investors, in an era of historically high oil prices, have had difficulty just keeping their heads above water.

The main reason has been a string of high-profile setbacks that have pushed BP into the headlines, for negative reasons, far more frequently than is healthy for any company, let alone one operating in the politically charged environment of the global energy business.

The biggest disaster, of course, was the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago that made BP a target for the global environmental lobby, and vengeful American politicians.

There was some good news on this recently. BP reached a settlement with some US authorities this month to pay out US$4.5bn (Dh16.52bn) for the damage caused by the oil spill, thus calming investors who feared the amount could have been much more.

But the bad news is that BP still faces claims from US federal, state and local agencies that could add up to much larger numbers.

Deepwater has left BP a tainted organisation in the United States, its biggest market and, according to recent analysis by the International Energy Agency, likely to become the world's biggest energy producer by 2017. "Debarring" BP from future US business remains a distinct possibility.

Jump from the US to Russia, currently the world's second-biggest oil producer, and the situation becomes even murkier.

BP has managed to extricate itself from the troublesome partnership with TNK (at a profit, it should be said) and has emerged as a shareholder in Rosneft, the national oil company in which Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, takes a close personal interest.

It was good to get out of TNK, and to have such a friend as Mr Putin, but some shareholders worry about being a minority shareholder in a Russian state-owned company, however top-notch the friends are.

Trouble with another international alliance went relatively little noticed recently. In an extraordinary public outburst, the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, savaged BP for allegedly failing to meet agreed production levels from its operations in the Caspian.

Mr Aliyev said the shortfall had resulted in an $8bn loss to the Azerbaijan state, and muttered darkly about "action" against BP if the situation was not rectified.

In the UAE, BP's decades-old relationship with the Emirates is looking distinctly wobbly after it was not invited to participate in the bidding for the next phase in the development of Abu Dhabi's huge onshore oilfields.

BP will point to its huge existing reserves, some 17 billion barrels of oil, and its admirable efforts to exploit other opportunities in the global energy industry.

But the troubles are mounting, and it will require clear strategic vision to ensure BP does not join the list of extinct corporate dinosaurs.

fkane@thenational.ae