BP’s Browne: Respected Oilman Laid Low by Private Life

LONDON ~ BP chief executive John Browne was for over a decade the widely respected head of one of the world’s biggest oil companies, but was brought down unexpectedly this week by a legal row over his private life.

The 59-year-old – Lord Browne of Madingley, to give him his formal title, since he was made a life peer in 2001 – won widespread plaudits for transforming BP from a struggling organization during his 12-year stewardship.

But little was known about his private life, beyond the fact that he was unmarried, until a British newspaper won a court battle to reveal details about his four-year relationship with a Canadian man.

After his education at Cambridge and Stanford Business School, Browne joined BP in 1966 as a lowly apprentice, but rapidly worked his way up through various posts in the United States and Canada to become CEO for exploration in 1989.

He was named group chief executive in June 1995.

As head of BP, Browne acquired US energy groups Amoco and Arco during the late 1990s, and created the Russian joint venture TNK-BP three years ago.

Browne had long been expected to stay on at BP until 2008, when he will be 60, but in January, the company said he would bow out 18 months ahead of schedule.

The surprise announcement came as Browne faced problems including the fallout from a 2005 blast at the Texas City refinery in the United States in which 15 people were killed and 180 injured.

A US government probe in March blamed the accident on a lax safety culture across the board at BP, which cultivated an environmentally friendly image under Browne.

He was due to be replaced by Tony Hayward, BP’s head of exploration and production, on August 1. With Tuesday’s announcement, Howard’s appointment became immediate.

His resignation was announced after he lost a legal battle to keep private allegations made by his former partner Jeff Chevalier, who shared Browne’s life for four years.

Browne’s tenure saw a five-fold increase in the company’s market capitalization to £104.6 billion and profits to US$22.3 billion. The group’s share price has risen more than 250 percent.

In a statement, Browne categorically denied any improper conduct relating to BP, but voiced regret at the way events had turned out.

“For the past 41 years of my career at BP, I have kept my private life separate from my business life. I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter, to be kept private,” he said.

“It is a matter of personal disappointment that a newspaper group has now decided that allegations about my personal life should be made public.”

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