Royal Dutch Shell Group .com

THE LONDON TIMES: Worrying amount of room at the top: “One can understand a certain wariness about taking on the task, given the revelations that have emerged about the culture that allowed Shell to so badly mislead investors” ( 1 April 05


Business Editor's Commentary

By Patience Wheatcroft

April 01, 2005  


SHELL clearly felt that Jeroen van der Veer needed encouragement to take on the chief executive’s job in the wake of the reserves scandal. Few are likely to begrudge the bespectacled Dutchman his bonus if he is eventually seen to have restored order at the company. As if recovering all those lost barrels of oil was not hard enough, he is also having to oversee the massive corporate restructuring which will do away with Shell’s dual UK/Dutch identities and make it a unified business.


The hunt has been going on for several months to find a chairman for this newly unified entity. One can understand a certain wariness about taking on the task, given the revelations that have emerged about the culture that allowed Shell to so badly mislead investors.


Nevertheless, this remains a major international business and yet potential candidates for the chairmanship seem scarce. This may in part be due to Shell’s continued slightly schizoid nature, for, although it will be listed in London, the company will be headquartered in the Hague, with the new chairman expected to operate from there. It is not the favourite choice of location for corporate big cheeses.


But Shell is not the only important company in search of a chairman. Although that other Anglo-Dutch creation, Unilever, has not yet officially embarked on the search, the predictions are that Antony Burgmans, recently deprived of his executive duties, will only remain as chairman until a suitable successor can be found. Currently, the preference is for an outsider to work with chief executive Patrick Cescau, a long-time Unilever man. However, there is one non-executive director who might have the right credentials for the job.


Lord Simon of Highbury, the former BP chairman who briefly joined Mr Blair’s Government as Minister for Competitiveness in Europe, might be able to provide a convenient successor to Mr Burgmans and, although he might not be the completely fresh face that some would like to see at the top of the company, he would satisfy most demands for an independent mind. Loyalty to his previous employer would presumably prevent him offering his services to Shell.


Yet if he were interested in a big chairmanship, there are other options. Pearson is seeking a successor to Lord Stevenson of Coddenham. The business is now centred on education and the company is of the view that its ideal chairman would have credentials that might carry weight with the educational establishment. A spell in the British government might not go amiss.


But if banking has more appeal, then the Royal Bank of Scotland is looking for a suitable successor to Sir George Mathewson. There was an attempt to lure Astra Zeneca’s Sir Tom McKillop to the role but he is too deeply occupied with his day job to contemplate a move to RBS’s luxury new Edinburgh headquarters.


Then there is Marks & Spencer. Paul Myners said that he would remain as acting chairman until the annual meeting in June but as yet there is no hint of a successor. Most businesses now like to have a future chairman spend a few months on the board, getting to know the business, before taking on the job properly. On that basis, M&S would seem to be running out of time.


This is a problem that chief executive Stuart Rose could do without. Like Mr van der Veer, he has troubles enough. Yet he has established a good working relationship with Mr Myners who would, apparently, be prepared to stay in the role if only he were asked. If the company does not do so soon, there might be no shortage of alternatives for him. 


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