Royal Dutch Shell Group .com

The Daily Telegraph: Supertanker crew rearranges deckchairs slightly


City comment

Edited by Neil Collins (Filed: 04/03/2004)


There were three names on the bottom of yesterday's gem of a press release from Shell and between them they were authorised to say just 16 words, by way of addition to the reshuffle of the politburo the company announced at lunchtime. For all the enlightenment they offered, they might have been speaking (double) Dutch.


Shell is a discomforting reminder that some things never change. Other companies may feel the need to explain the summary resignation of their chairman, or to respond to suggestions that having a committee of managing directors sounds like a throwback to a gentler era, but not Shell.


Sir Philip Watts is tossed overboard without a word of regret or thanks, a Dutchman succeeds him, following the Royal Dutch/Shell tradition, the rest of the officers on the bridge shuffle round a bit and the supertanker sails serenely on. A pity, though, about Walter van de Vijver, who had taken over from Sir Philip as boss of exploration and had been seen as a rising star. He's overboard too. Perhaps he feels partly responsible for the blunder over the oil reserves.


But what's this? An "interim non-executive chairman" of Shell Transport (the British Siamese twin company whose shares you can trade) has appeared, in the shape of Lord Oxburgh. Here's the tough outsider who will restore discipline and a comprehensible line of command.


Well, maybe. The 69-year-old former Rector of Imperial College and winner of the Geological Society's Bigsby medal should be able to tell the difference between proven and probable oil reserves, but is ill-equipped for boardroom infighting. Then there's that curious little word "interim". Is this a hint that Shell is not entirely deaf to the outside world and that yesterday's shuffle is the first move in a two-step reform? Some Shell Kremlinologists think so.


The need for reform is elegantly demonstrated by the dance of Malcolm Brinded, the senior Brit in the Anglo-Dutch executive mix, who steps down from the board of Royal Dutch, only to pop up immediately for election to the Shell board, and to become vice-chairman of the committee of managing directors.


The committee's new chairman, Jeroen van der Veer, is 56 and comes from chemicals, which is now considered so important that responsibility for it is being merged into the oil products business. The new set-up is no solution to Shell's problems, which have conspired to cause muddle during a time of plenty for oil companies. The board deserves a rough passage at next month's annual meeting.

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