The younger Mr. Browne studied physics at Cambridge, toyed with the idea of a career in academia, changed his mind and joined BP in 1969 at age 22. He was promptly expedited to the Alaskan oil rush, where he worked as a trainee petroleum engineer. Until he resigned six years ago, he had never worked at any other company.
Along the way, he had stints in Calgary, San Francisco and Cleveland. The Calgary years, in the late 1970s, convinced Mr. Browne that BP should not be an oil sands player, setting it apart from rivals such as Exxon and Shell. I ask why he and his then second-in-command, Jim Buckee, who would later become CEO of Talisman Energy, BP Canada’s successor, took a pass on the Alberta goo. “We concluded that BP didn’t have all the best bits of acreage, that Imperial and Shell did,” he says. “We just didn’t have enough money to do everything we wanted.”
He now admits that he “absolutely” should have pushed harder in the oil sands and that new technology, such as SAGD – steam-assisted gravity drainage – went a long way to make oil sands production more profitable.
But Mr. Browne will be remembered more for what he bought than what he didn’t. Between the late 1990s and the early part of the past decade, he did three deals that launched BP into the big leagues, all of them done when oil was at rock-bottom prices. BP merged with Amoco and shortly thereafter bought Atlantic Richfield and Burmah Castrol.
BP got even bigger in 2003, when he and the Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman formed the TNK-BP joint venture, creating Russia’s third-largest oil producer. “We made a huge amount of money with TNK-BP,” he says. “We invested about $7-billion [U.S.], plus some tangible assets of $1-billion. The company generated dividends and we sold at a return of five or six times” (BP and its Russian partners had a fallout in the post-Browne era and TNK is now owned by Russia’s Rosneft).
But shade was to fall on the Sun King’s empire too.
In 2005, an explosion at BP’s Texas City Refinery killed 15 and injured 170. An independent report on the tragedy concluded that it was the fault of a safety mishap that could have been avoided. Two years later, Mr. Browne lied about how he met his live-in Canadian lover, which, in fact, was done through an escort agency. He lost his case against the Mail on Sunday newspaper to keep the details of his private life out of the press.
That ended his career at BP and at Goldman Sachs, where he was a director (at BP, he was replaced by Tony Hayward, whose own career would end with the Macondo oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico).
Does he wish he had come out the closet years earlier? “Yes I do, [but] that’s a retrospective fallacy. …It’s not without risk coming out even today.” He won’t say more for fear of front-running his book about “being gay in business.”
Mr. Browne wasn’t down for long after his humiliation at BP. He is chairman of Cuadrilla Resources, the British company, about half-owned by RiverStone, that is leading the (slow) charge into British shale-gas development. He is also chairman of the Tate galleries and the lead non-executive board member of the Cabinet Office, giving him a key role in government business policy. His passion is Venice, where he owns a Grand Canal apartment full of Venetian engravings and photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans and Robert Mapplethorpe.
But it is BP that defined his career, one that both made him the Sun King and blotted out his sun because of fear about exposing his gay life. “BP was a tremendous experience and I don’t think you could follow that,” he says. Indeed, but collecting art and writing books in a sumptuous Venetian apartment isn’t a bad consolation prize.
One employer, BP PLC, for 41 years, ending in 2007.
Turned BP into a global energy giant through takeovers of Amoco, Atlantic Richfield and Burmah Castrol.
Until the Macondo well disaster, BP paid about 10 per cent of all dividends in Britain.
Resigned in 2007, joined Riverstone Holdings, an energy private equity firm.
Chairman of Cuadrilla Resources, a British shale gas driller.
Author of Beyond Business, his memoir, and Seven Elements That Have Changed The World, a science book. His book about being gay in business, The Glass Closet, to be published next year.
All things Venetian. Has owned an apartment on the Grand Canal since 2000.
Collects Venetian engravings from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, pre-Columbian terracotta, photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, Wolfgang Tillmans and Hiroshi Sugimoto and paintings by Ian Davenport.