The man who will try to clean up BP

By Matthew Bigg and Nick Carey (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-08-09 10:27
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The man who will try to clean up BP

Bob Dudley is not one to wear his disappointment on his sleeve. Even as a kid, "Bobby" as he was then known "was completely unflappable," remembers Charles Brent, Dudley's hometown friend in southern Mississippi in the 1960s. If he tried out for a sports team and got cut, he kept his emotions in check. "Nothing got him upset," said Brent, now a neurosurgeon. "He was often on the bad end of an injustice - where someone was selected instead of him. I never saw him get angry or raise his voice. Or disappointed." Nearly four decades later Bob, no longer Bobby, displayed a similar lack of chagrin when Tony Hayward was selected to become chief executive of oil behemoth BP Plc in 2007, even though many deemed Dudley well - qualified to replace outgoing boss John Browne.

"He was still happy to serve the company as he could," said Dr. Angel Cabrera, president of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, a friend of Dudley's. "There was no acrimony between them."

"He's not the stereotypical aggressive, know-it all CEO type of guy," Cabrera added. "He's a humble man."

Battered by months of blunders and mishaps that began with the April 20 explosion aboard its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers and caused America's worst ever offshore oil spill, BP said last week that Dudley would replace the much-ridiculed Hayward in October.

Supremely calm under pressure. Approachable. Down to earth. Well liked, even by those who should by rights be his enemies. He is also no stranger to hostile environments, having butted heads with an angry Russian government while running a BP joint venture in that country.

And, crucially, he's American - one who often swam in the Gulf as a child, according to Brent. His parents kept a boat in Biloxi, Mississippi.

BP is one of Britain's largest firms, but has 40 percent of its assets, 25 percent of its oil production and 40 percent of its shareholders in the United States.

Of course, the company insists that nationality was not an issue in Dudley's selection. "Bob was not appointed because he is American, he was appointed because he was the best candidate," a spokesman said.

But oil analysts like Fadel Gheit of Oppenheimer & Co say that just as being an American disabled Dudley three years ago, it has now played in his favor with a company eager to repair its badly tar-balled reputation in the United States. "Now, being an American, he's the clear choice," Gheit said.

So far, residents of the Gulf seem to have warmed to Dudley - who was brought in to run cleanup operations in mid-June after a number of image-damaging gaffes by Hayward, a Brit.

"Hayward was inept at public relations and speaking to people in southern Louisiana," said Richard Angelico, 66, of Orleans Parish, Louisiana. "I have not met Dudley but when I see Dudley speak, he seems to be a decent man. I think people would be more comfortable with someone running BP that is from the Deep South."

But local boy or not - Dudley was actually born in New York in 1956 - BP's CEO-in-waiting has a long list of challenges ahead: The oil major must permanently seal the Macondo well, continue to clean up the Gulf, deal with an unfriendly Congress and the Obama administration, plus fight off more than 300 oil spill-related lawsuits.

"Dudley's honeymoon period will be over very quickly," said Andrew Neff, a senior energy analyst at IHS Energy.

Others say that what Dudley, BP's senior management and board of directors must do is overhaul the firm's business on many levels to convince an angry public - not to mention policymakers and shareholders - that the company is finally serious about avoiding future disasters of this kind.

"What BP must show now is leadership, not management," said Richard Torrenzano, CEO of strategic communications firm the Torrenzano Group. "Bob Dudley needs to go down to the Gulf as CEO and spell out very clearly what he intends to do differently."

Wild Man of the Woods

Hattiesburg today is the main city in southern Mississippi, and is nicknamed "Hub City" because it sits on a main road and rail intersection.

A city of some 50,000 with the sleepy air of many southern towns, Hattiesburg boasts a main street that combines expansive plantation architecture and more modern buildings. Residents say the railroad tracks running through the town mark a significant social dividing line.

Bedford Woods, the neighborhood where Dudley spent his formative years, is a series of quiet streets with one or two story houses surrounded by green gardens. The area was a middle-class and white bastion.

Brent said their fathers both taught science at nearby University of Southern Mississippi. They both swam backstroke on a local team and belonged to the Boy Scouts. Their parents were also friends.

Dudley's father was a military veteran and, according to Brent, the son inherited his sense of self-discipline.

After school, the pair chased snakes in the woods but, unlike many southern families, their parents did not teach them how to hunt.

Brent describes a boy with a well-developed sense of humor. At a scout camp in a forest south of Hattiesburg, Brent said the two made Dudley a costume to look like a mythical, child-snatching "Wild Man of the Woods."

One night, as Brent recounted the Wild Man legend to younger scouts around a campfire, Dudley suddenly emerged in costume from the woods and tried to snatch one of the scouts. For nights afterward the other scouts were terrified, said Brent.

"He was always good for a practical joke but there was never anything malicious about it," he recalled. "He would never pick on someone. He was the moral compass for our group."

Brent said they kept in touch when Dudley moved away to Illinois where he attended high school, but they lost contact when Dudley joined oil firm Amoco Corp as a junior executive.

Joel Johnson, now a general civil practice attorney in Hattiesburg, was also on the swim team - the Hub Fins - and described Dudley as a "natural-built swimmer," tall for his age, with a very slender build.

Johnson remembers Dudley being academically gifted but humble.

"He was a chess player in a checkers-playing town," Johnson said. "He didn't lord it over anyone but he was certainly very smart. If he's half a good a person now as he was when he was a kid growing up, we are all going to be in good shape."

But Oppenheimer & Co's Gheit says it would be a mistake to confuse good manners with weakness. "He has a mild manner and a nice smile, but he's a tough guy," he said. "He's not a pushover."