The Times: Gripping performance in the spotlight
By Carl Mortished
February 06, 2004
THE play was bad, the set was drab and the audience was hostile but Sir Philip Watts yesterday gave what was probably the best performance of his life.
Had he a better story to tell, Shell’s chairman might have won over most of the analysts and fund managers who turned up to yesterday’s presentation, held at the modest venue of the Tower Thistle Hotel to the east of the City, looking for blood in the shadow of London’s most famous execution grounds.
Gone was the defensiveness, the irritation and impatience that have spoilt his previous encounters with the world outside Shell.
The chairman’s robust, no-nonsense approach to external relations has alienated some, for whom a meeting with Shell had come to resemble a dressing-down by the commanding officer rather than a discussion about matters of mutual interest. But yesterday was different. Instead of his usual brisk march to the top table, flanked by deputies and clutching notes, Sir Phil walked alone and empty-handed on to the stage looking every bit the vicar addressing a congregation of the bereaved.
It was a cunning move. Speaking without notes and peering into the bright lights, he looked a bit sad. “I was looking forward to today’s results,” he said.
He briefly recited a litany of achievements — cash generation, record earnings and landmark projects — but quickly, before losing the patience of his listeners, he mentioned the oil reserves. And his audience leaned forward, hungry for the kill.
Sir Phil’s apology for his absence at the January 9 announcement was full but not abject.
“I can come up with a perfectly logical explanation but the fact of the matter is it was a mistake.
“I regret that and I am sorry I wasn’t there. I’m sorry I got it wrong.”
There was the briefest of pauses and then gruff (but thoroughly tamed) Sir Phil was back telling us how the company was dealing with the problem.
It looked well rehearsed but was, in truth, all the better for it.
Poker-faced and sitting very straight in her chair, Judy Boynton, the American finance director, kept to her script of cash flows and unit costs while it was left to Walter van der Vijver, the exploration director, to turn over stones and explain the missing 3.9 billion barrels of oil and gas which it was forced last month to remove from its balance sheet.
There were a lot of wriggling worms, almost a decade of misrepresentations in Nigeria, Oman and Australia but Mr Van de Vijver offered no hostages.
In an ordinary company, those responsible would walk the plank, but at Shell everyone is responsible and no one is to blame.