In a life largely free of regrets, John Browne has two. The first is that he didn’t push harder to make BP a player in the Alberta oil sands. The second is staying in the closet as long as he did.
The two regrets are not unrelated. BP Canada’s pass on the oil sands was an economic decision. The company thought it could make more money on unconventional oil. Mr. Browne’s decision to keep his homosexuality secret, at least in his professional life, was also economic. He thought that if he came out, it would have stopped his rise to the top of one of the world’s biggest oil companies. “I was certain that if people in BP had known I was gay, it would have been the end of my career,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, Beyond Business.
Today, Mr. Browne is surprised that his reluctant outing did not inspire other gay executives to do the same. “As far as I know, there is only one recently appointed, out CEO in the FTSE 100 or S&P 500,” he tells me over our lunchtime non-lunch in west London’s ultra-posh Mayfair district.
I had been looking forward to our lunch, not just because Mr. Browne was – and remains – a big player in an industry that I had covered on and off for my entire career, but because he had offered to take me to one of Mayfair’s private dining clubs.
But when I show up at the RiverStone Europe offices, where he is a partner, he says he had lost his appetite. His voice is hoarse; he picked up a cold in New York. So we hunker down in the sixth-floor meeting room, overlooking the Royal Academy of Arts. Coffee is ordered, and biscuits – cookies to you and me. “Absolutely from my private reserve,” he says about the cookies, laughing.
Mr. Browne – Lord Browne of Madingley, to use his proper title – is short and trim, with the precise manner of a military officer, though he never did military service. His father did. He is articulate and has an amazing range of interests. Over an hour and a half, he talks about everything from shale gas fracking and BP’s Persian roots to Venetian engravings and what it’s like being a writer as well as the public face of the European arm of an American private equity firm. His third book, The Glass Closet, is to be published in June.
Mr. Browne, 65, spent his entire career at BP, the former British Petroleum, and was CEO from 1995 to 2007, when he was felled by the scandal triggered by a lie over how he had met his boyfriend at the time, a Canadian. His top-dog years at BP made him Britain’s best-known executive, largely because he employed a string of ultra-savvy, bottom-of-the-market acquisitions to turn a second-rate player into a global energy powerhouse. At the height of his power, he was dubbed the industry’s “Sun King” by the British press.
Mr. Browne was very much shaped by his father, also called John Browne, and his mother, Paula Wesz, who was of Jewish descent, born in Transylvania when it was part of Hungary, and lived with her son until she died in 2000. The senior Mr. Browne was a career British army officer who worked for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, BP’s predecessor; she was a milliner, designer and translator. Both were education disciplinarians and pushed their son to excel in all subjects.
“My mother was acutely aware of achievement from the very beginning,” Mr. Browne says. “Go to school, work hard, learn an instrument. She said the only thing they can’t take away from you is what’s in your head, so you better fill it up. Everything else is completely temporary. She remembered that people would take their belongings to Auschwitz, which turned out to be another way for the Third Reich to collect wealth.”
His parents met at the end of the Second World War. She had survived the Auschwitz work camp. “She was told to march and miraculously survived,” Mr. Browne says. “My mother was taken to Hamburg and ended up as my father’s interpreter. She spoke Hungarian, Romanian, German and English. They had a great romance and got married.”
The two of them, with young John in tow, had a life of great adventure. Mr. Browne remembers coming home in late 1956 to a mob of exotic strangers, among them an eye surgeon and an opera singer – refugees, as it turned out, from the Hungarian uprising. “My mother was some sort of single-handed resettlement agency for Hungarian refugees,” he says.
Then it was off to Iran, where the senior Mr. Browne worked at the Masjid-i-Suleiman oil field in the west. Young John remembers the famous oil well blowout at Ahvaz in 1958, one whose fires could be seen 80 kilometres away. “I was six years old, looking at the sight of the great explosions,” he says. “There were huge flares of gas you could see at night and you could smell the oil everywhere. It gave me the taste for the oil industry.”
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.