The Times: What will they dig up at Shell?
Business Editor's Commentary
By Patience Wheatcroft
9 April 04
WHEN you start digging, you never know what you will find — bodies or buried treasure, perhaps?
Shell is about to dig up its basement on the South Bank, hoping to turn an ugly concrete podium into a retail and leisure complex. The giant wheel on the Thames has turned Shell’s windswept precinct into a potential honeypot and the company will sacrifice its ground floor and cellar to the developers.
A small boon to shareholders, who have had little to celebrate recently. However, the staff, whose morale is not exactly tip-top, may have mixed feelings if the JCBs dig up the magnificent gymnasium and swimming pool that lie beneath the Shell Centre tower.
Hard luck, you might think, but any civil engineer will tell you that digging up foundations is always a sensitive process. Shell’s internal upheaval claimed another victim yesterday in the replacement of the exploration division’s chief bean-counter. The new man looks like good news and, reassuringly, is evidence that a company like Shell, for all its faults and internal baggage, can still produce quality people.
With his laconic and unruffled delivery, Simon Henry took the weight of investor ire during the infamous January reserves announcement. An insular organisation, Shell people are not known for their ease in dealing with the outside world, even on a friendly basis, but the new E&P chief financial officer got through his baptism in the fire of investor opinion with aplomb.
That suggests that the internal excavators need to ask larger questions than the obvious — whodunnit? When the bodies have been found and the coroner pronounces the verdict, the developers must inevitably resume their building project. For that to happen at Shell, the right people need to be in the right jobs.
It is not clear that they are yet. Shell has spent the past decade putting the wrong people in pole position — squabbling careerists and dull time-servers. Shell needs to find a way of blocking their promotion and finding the pearls.