Royal Dutch Shell named refining head Ben van Beurden as its new chief executive, picking a man with little board-level experience but broad company exposure and first-hand knowledge of the gas technology it has bet its future on.
Van Beurden, who became head of refining, marketing and chemicals in January, has been at the Anglo-Dutch group for 30 years and spent a decade in the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry.
At 55, the Dutchman is of similar age to Peter Voser, the Swiss national he is replacing, who announced his surprise retirement in May.
Though not widely known outside Europe’s top oil company, van Beurden is respected inside it. He also represents a big part of Voser’s vision of its future as a business in the forefront of oil and gas technology thanks to his experience in LNG, where Shell has become the acknowledged industry leader.
Van Beurden, who a former Shell executive described as “‘The Quiet Man’ within Shell - but enormously determined”, faces an industry-wide battle to replace reserves and control costs. Some shareholders want Shell to reduce investment and keep more for bigger dividends.
Voser told Reuters after his retirement announcement that he was resisting that call.
Like Voser, who will be 55 in August and is leaving in search of a lifestyle change, van Beurden is from the downstream part of the business which wrested control from the upstream oil and gas division in the aftermath of Shell’s reserves accounting crisis of 2003/04.
A chemical engineering graduate, van Beurden had a front seat for the crisis, in which the company was forced to downgrade oil and gas reserves that top executives had over-estimated for years.
He worked between 2002 and 2004 as management assistant to Phil Watts, the head of company who was sacked in the aftermath of the debacle in 2004.
“He (van Beurden) was clearly a high flyer then, and I am not surprised at all that he’s made it all the way to the top,” said a former colleague who no longer works for Shell.
The former executive said the choice of van Beurden showed that Shell wants to improve its operational performance and hold managers to account, particularly in the upstream business.
“(Ben) is recognised as an extremely capable and focused colleague who listens - offending few, rarely excitable and very supportive. Most importantly, his results delivery is always considered, structured and methodical. He will be a steadying hand at the Shell helm in the coming years,” he said.
Van Beurden joined Shell in 1983 and has held engineering, plant management and operations and commercial roles in the Netherlands, Africa, Malaysia, UK and the United States. He has held the role of operations manager of Malaysia LNG and is a former vice president, gas & power, in Mexico.
One of van Beurden’s first tasks will be to oversee a plan to retreat further from Nigeria’s eastern Niger Delta, a thorn in the company’s side for decades through oil spills, theft, sabotage and civil unrest. Shell announced a strategic review of the business in June.
Given that he was relatively new to the top executive level, investors and insiders did not initially consider van Beurden a likely contender. The early focus of attention was on Finance Director Simon Henry and other divisional heads Marvin Odum, Matthias Bichsel, and Andrew Brown.
More recently, though, insiders were saying Henry and Brown lacked breadth of experience. They said Odum was tarnished by Shell’s accidents in Alaska, and Bichsel was too old.
Some insiders had also noted a push to find a Dutch chief executive to reassure investors in the Netherlands. The disgraced Watts and his predecessor in the role were British, like Henry and Brown.
A senior manager at Shell said that Henry was the only one who may have felt he had a chance to be chief executive. Given that he is in his early fifties, he may still be in the frame for future promotion.
Shares in Shell gained 1.4 per cent on Tuesday.
“Van Beurden looks, on paper, an eminently suitable successor to Voser,” said one of the 20 biggest investors in Shell.