Tony Hayward has had another turbulent summer. His company, Genel Energy, was forced to pull out staff from some of its oilfields in Iraqi Kurdistan last month as Islamic State militants advanced. Over two weeks, its share price fell 25 per cent.
Things are looking a bit better these days. A new, more inclusive Iraqi government was formed last week that it is hoped will pull the country together and defeat Isis. Genel’s evacuated workers have begun to return.
So, crisis averted, this time anyway. But Mr Hayward is unsure whether Iraq has really turned a corner. “Early signs are hopeful but it’s 50:50 whether this is the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end for Iraq,” he says.
Such geopolitical turmoil would shred the nerves of the average British businessman. But Mr Hayward has been through much worse. Four years ago, he was labelled America’s most hated man as his company, BP, battled to contain the worst offshore oil spill in US history. Less than six months after BP’s stricken well began spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico, he resigned.
For a while, Mr Hayward’s prospects looked bleak. But he has staged a remarkable comeback. In 2011 he teamed up with financier Nat Rothschild to take over Genel, the largest oil producer in Kurdistan. And last year, he was made chairman of Glencore, the global commodities group.
It has been a rollercoaster ride, and Mr Hayward, relaxed, tanned and looking younger than his 57 years, says he is having a lot of fun. “Not many people have the chance to . . . lead one of the world’s biggest companies and then become an entrepreneur and almost create something from nothing,” he says.
His sleek office in Mayfair gives few hints of the many zigzags in his fortunes. The walls are bare, apart from two paintings by Bob Dylan (he is, he says, a “life-long fan”). Nevertheless, the past is never far away. On one shelf stands a photo of Bob, the racing yacht he was caught sailing in off the Isle of Wight at the height of the oil spill crisis, sparking outrage. The White House called it one of a “long line of PR gaffes and mistakes”. Mr Hayward later donated Bob to charity: he now has a new, smaller boat, called Black Fun.
Mr Hayward was born in Slough in 1957 into what he describes as a “lower middle class” family. The oldest of seven children, he was educated in a local state grammar school, where his maths teacher, a passionate amateur geologist, infected him with a love of rocks. He was the first in his family to attend university, reading geology at Aston University and later taking a PhD at Edinburgh . The subject of his thesis was the formation of sedimentary basins in Turkey.
In 1982 he joined BP, and on Christmas day that year was on board the rig that discovered the Miller field, which turned out to be one of the most prolific in the North Sea.
For anyone with a desire to travel, BP was a perfect fit in those days and Mr Hayward tested rocks from north Yemen to Papua New Guinea. It was, he says, like “multiple gap years”. At the age of 25 he was given a helicopter and told to do an eight-week field survey of Canada’s Northwest Territories. He clocked up 50,000 miles travelling round China in a Toyota Land Cruiser.
Mr Hayward soon came to the attention of John Browne, BP’s then head of exploration and production, who in 1990 made him one of his “turtles” or executive assistants, an experience he says gave him “amazing exposure” to all aspects of BP’s business.
He gradually moved up the BP hierarchy, and eventually, in 2007, succeeded Lord Browne as CEO.
Mr Hayward was seen as a nuts-and-bolts man, more down to earth than his visionary predecessor. Lord Browne had transformed BP with a series of massive deals but his reputation was tarnished by incidents such as the 2005 explosion and fire at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 people.
Mr Hayward promised to focus “like a laser” on safety, and set about streamlining BP. As oil prices plummeted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, he slashed costs. But that boomeranged against him when the Macondo well blew out, and critics accused him of putting profits before safety – a claim he always denied.
Either way, his reforms were cut short by the disaster. Soon, Mr Hayward became the very public face of BP’s fitful efforts to staunch the flow of oil from the stricken Macondo well and restore the polluted gulf. He was vilified in the US media after telling one TV crew “I’d like my life back”, and was pilloried in Congress. By October, he had been turfed out.
It was, he says, a “surreal” period. But he now acknowledges that he and BP made two key mistakes. Firstly, they did not manage expectations well. The company made four interventions on the runaway well, and most of them failed to stop it leaking oil: Macondo was plugged for good only when a relief well intercepted it in July 2010, a full three months after the disaster occurred.
“We allowed the impression to build that each [intervention] was going to be successful,” he says. “What we should have said was: look, this is very, very bad, and the real answer is the relief well, and it’s going to take four to five months. We’re going to try some other things, but we don’t expect them to work.”
The other mistake, he says, “was allowing a cool, calm, collected British grammar schoolboy to front the communications”. “There was no way in a million years that I was ever going to connect with the citizens of Louisiana and Texas,” he says. “I needed to have a role, but not the leading role.”
Mr Hayward admits that, after leaving BP in October 2010, he “felt a bit lost”. He shared his experience of crisis management with the boards of various big FTSE 100 companies, but spent most of the ensuing months skiing with his children and climbing Kilimanjaro.
In December, while sitting on a chairlift in the French ski resort of Les Arcs, he received a phone call from Mr Rothschild, who asked if he would like to become the CEO of a public company again. After thinking about it for a while, he gave his answer: yes.
The two helped launch a cash shell, Vallares, which raised £1.35bn in a London flotation in June 2011. Three months later, it carried out a reverse takeover of Genel Energy, a Turkish oil explorer active in Kurdistan.
Mr Hayward’s Glencore appointment underlined how well-regarded he still is in the City. But some critics wonder how he can combine his two jobs. “I think he’s spread very thinly,” says one rival oil executive. “Glencore is a full-time job.”
Mr Hayward dismisses that, saying he was used to working 80-hour weeks at BP. But he acknowledges he might take a reduced role at Genel at some point in the future. “I’m 57 years old,” he says. “There comes a time when you move from being CEO to doing other things.”
Genel’s fortunes have mirrored the uneven progress of the region it operates in. Locked in a dispute with the Iraqi government over control of its oil reserves, Kurdistan has built a pipeline to Turkey that allows it to export beyond Baghdad’s control. As the pipeline was completed and exports began, Genel’s share price rose: but as Isis militants came dangerously close to Kurdistan last month, it fell again. It now stands at £8.76, down 12 per cent on the float price of £10.
Some analysts say Genel will always be hostage to the volatile politics of Iraq, a country many fear could break up. Mr Hayward disputes that. “The company is sitting on some spectacularly big assets in Kurdistan with very strongly growing production and cash flow,” he says. “I think it has a great future.”
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