Article - Issue 28, September 2006

Lord Browne of Madingley FREng

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Lord Browne at the opening of BP's new trading floor at 20 Canada Square

Lord Browne at the opening of BP's new trading floor at 20 Canada Square

An academic career beckoned until Lord Browne was asked by his father,“Why not get a proper job?” Following this advice, he went on to become one of the UK’s most respected businessmen and its best paid engineer. Michael Kenward spent an hour with BP’s Chief Executive who, in July 2006, became the new President of The Royal Academy of Engineering.

What can you ask the man who has already received the royal treatment – being lightly grilled by Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs – and who is constantly on the receiving end of a myriad of questions from journalists? You could always spend 60 minutes talking about music – one of the passions of Lord Browne, as proved in his eclectic choice of music to while away the hours of a castaway.

You certainly wouldn’t want to quiz Lord Browne about investments in Russia’s oil industry, or retirement plans. These questions have already filled many recent column inches about the man who has been Chief Executive of BP for the past 11 years. And you wouldn’t be likely to get an answer, on the grounds that this information has to go to shareholders before he can let mere journalists in on the news. Why not, then, talk about engineering? After all, John Browne is the new President of The Royal Academy of Engineering and for some reason his engineering background rarely features in all of those words written about him.

Seeds are sown

It doesn’t take long to realise that engineering is as much a passion for John as his enthusiasm for music, especially opera, or for business. And yet he didn’t set out to become an engineer, nor to work in the oil business, even though he first visited oil fields when his father, who was with BP in Iran, took him “to the office” to visit the drilling sites where he worked.

John, as he explained to Sue Lawley, was fascinated by those visits to the oil fields, not least when they caught fire. But that did not set him off in deliberate pursuit of the qualifications needed to become an ‘oil man’. Like most schoolchildren with an interest in science back then, John started down the usual road. “You studied mathematics, physics and chemistry,”he explains. He loved mathematics and physics. So he chose to study physics at Cambridge where, on graduating with a first class degree, his original plan was to get into research.

“I really liked it. There were plenty of interesting problems to solve.” It was the mixture of theory and experiment, the opportunity to understand physics and “develop the way the world might be” that hooked John.

Penchant for research

Perhaps it was the family connection to oil, or the fact that he had an industrial scholarship from BP, that prompted John’s choice of research subject. “I was particularly intrigued by geophysics and the then relatively new theories of continental drift and seafloor spreading,” he explains. Geophysics had everything that John wanted from research; a chance to combine theory and experiment. “My strong suit was mathematics, but I adored just doing things that were very practical.”

John even had his research project lined up. But then parental advice prompted a rethink. His father, says John, viewed research as a luxury rather than a real job. So, Browne senior posed the question,“If you haven't worked how do you know you won’t like it?” He topped this off with what John describes as “great advice from a parent”. Be practical and think about what you really want to do, then try out things before you decide.

It may say something about John, or how children treated their parents 40 years ago, that he actually listened to his father. “I went off and got a job with BP,” he says. This was meant to be a short-term move, so he took a sabbatical and put a PhD on hold. After two years at BP he spoke to Edward Bullard, one of the foremost geophysicists of his day and head of the Cambridge department. His advice to John:“I think you are making the right choice here. You seem to love what you are doing. Carry on.”

A steep learning curve

By then John had started the transition into engineering, a career that he simply had not considered before joining BP. “I was given a job which was actually about engineering.” By his own admission, back then John didn't understand what engineering was about. “I held the view then that engineers simply used nomograms and tables, and physicists thought.” It didn’t take him long to realise that he had got the wrong end of the stick, and he turned out to be a quick learner.

“What I liked about the job I was given was that I had to learn about how things were done.” So he spent half his time in the office and the other half in the field, learning about things like drilling oil wells and finding ways to work out the productivity of an oil well. “I learnt a lot of things in the field.”

This was at a time before oil companies – or any other business come to that – could muster large teams of computer experts who could quickly rush in and write complex models of important processes. So when BP was looking for someone, anyone, who had worked with computers, John volunteered. He had come across these newfangled gadgets at Cambridge and found them intriguing. John became one of BP’s first computer ‘experts’ when he set out to improve the analysis of what went on inside an oil reservoir, calculating things like the pressure build up in a well. As he puts it,“I knocked up something for them to use”.

Problem solving

As well as learning about the use of computers, John was becoming something of an expert in reservoirs. So when a reservoir in Alaska turned out to be “a bit more complicated than we thought” he was part of the team enlisted to figure out how much the field would produce and how to connect wells to the gathering centres.

This work led deeper and deeper into engineering challenges. “I began to get involved with engineering problems.” This wasn't something that you could do without a bit more formal training so it was back to community college in Alaska, “just to get some basic understanding,” he explains. It wasn't all course work though. “I had some great mentors as well. I began to learn and learn and learn, to talk to people, to meet people and to try to understand what we were doing.”

“I became a reservoir engineer.” But computing was still a large part of the picture. “I spent a period building the most gigantic computer model of the largest oil field in America.”

At the time, computers had yet to become the ‘bread and butter’ kit that they are now. Such was the reliability of the hardware then that computers wouldn’t run for long before crashing. “You wrote everything on the basis that the machine would fail. You would never want to start again. So you would dump your memory so that you could pick up from where you were.”

Spreading BP’s wings

John went on to hold various posts in exploration and production in Anchorage, New York, San Francisco, London and Canada. Appointed BP’s Chief Executive in 1995, he was at the helm during the company’s transition from being essentially a British business with interests throughout the world – mostly in the Middle East – to a global company whose major market is now in the USA. The most significant move on this front was the merger with Amoco Corporation in 1998.

Does engineering still feature in the work of someone running such a large global business? And one where succession planning seems to be more interesting to observers than where the next drop of oil will come from? John is adamant. “Absolutely. People might not realise it,” he says, but “BP, at its most fundamental, is of course a technological company. What we are doing is using leading edge science and engineering to make things possible that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.”

Take the Gulf of Mexico. BP began to think about this area in the 1980s, when the company realised that “we had a terrible position in the United States except for Alaska. It really wasn't worth very much. With my team, we said that chances are there is lots of oil and gas in the very deep water of the Gulf of Mexico. We should go and explore. There was one problem. If we found anything we didn’t have the technology to develop it.”

Well, they did find oil. And that was just the beginning. After calculating how much oil might be out there they had to devise ways to get it out. “Now we are on the verge of producing half a million barrels a day from the deep-water Gulf of Mexico. The stuff we are doing, nobody else has done.”

Engineering solutions

This is where the power of engineering comes in. “If you can see the beginnings of something, you know it can be extended. You don't know how, but when you have got a real objective it is amazing what engineering, backed up with good science, can do for you.”

That is why John insists that engineering is still important to him as CEO of BP. His role, he explains, is as much as anything to ask questions. This may well mean asking people to explain to him things that he does not understand. That’s a good way to “expose the risks,” as he puts it. Here, he insists, the idea is not to demotivate people, but to ask the questions that they have to answer if projects are to succeed. The idea, he continues, is “to understand ‘what happens if…?’ Have we thought about everything? I do that with reservoirs, with construction projects, bits of kit. All the things that I have learnt about over my career.”

There’s another reason for pushing the engineers. They can, says John, be reluctant to push themselves. “By showing a genuine interest in what they do, I believe it expands their capability by giving them more confidence and more profile.”

This is a wider issue, he says. Engineers generally need to be more visible in the world. And this is one of the few areas where he is prepared to express a view on his hopes as the new President of The Royal Academy of Engineering. “Most business starts with a scientific idea and ends up with something that serves human needs at the other end and makes money.” A lot of people sit between the idea and the needs, especially engineers. “They look to the science and they look to the human needs. Engineering is that piece of business that makes so many things possible.”

Positive thinking

It doesn't help, he feels, that engineers are also trained to be cautious. “In some ways the training of engineers is primarily not to make a fuss and secondly to think not only of the opportunity but also the risk. This can be off-putting for a lot of people.” So look out for the new president to actively promote the good things that engineering does for society. Is the new president willing to give more clues as to what he wants to achieve? “I always say to myself that statements made when you take over something are not wise.” So first there will be a lot of listening to people to see what they think should happen. He does admit though that he’d like the Academy to find a new home. “We need something that speaks for what the Academy stands for. I would call it a ‘house’ rather than an office or a headquarters. There aren’t that many things that are the visible expression of the Academy. It should be somewhere where people are proud to come.”

You can get some inkling of what his other priorities will be by asking John what possessed him to take on the presidency. “Well, I was asked” is the first response. Sure, but you get asked to do many things, and you turn down most of them. “I owe a considerable debt to this profession,” he explains. “I see that in the Fellowship widely. People are giving back because they have been successful in the profession.”

Not a retiring man

Actually, the subject of giving back raises the retirement question, albeit not his own fate after he leaves BP at the end of 2008. ‘Retired’ engineers have a lot to give back to their profession. “I resist the idea that people retire. They don't. They simply keep changing jobs.”

The challenge, and one that BP has tackled with schemes to retain the expertise of its ‘senior’ engineers without keeping them on the treadmill, is to find ways to allow experienced engineers to continue to contribute. “If we can get the approach right to people who want to extend their working life,” he explains,“then I believe we can access an enormous well of experience.” For example, they can play an important role in teaching future generations of engineers. “The good news is that the large bulk of people with experience enjoy teaching those who don’t have experience. They like the idea of passing on knowledge.”

Lord Browne may not have himself in mind when he says this, but he isn't the sort of person to retire to his large CD collection – all stored on a computer for easy transfer to his iPod – and sit on his hands. John’s rare combination of achievements in engineering and business puts him in a good position to make the case to future generations that the profession offers just about everything that youngsters could want. Wealth, power, the chance to travel, and of course the opportunity to do something to change the world for the better.

Browne on green energy

John Browne rejects the notion that it is too late to do anything about global warming. “There are things that we can do that will mitigate the effects of climate change,” he insists. The challenge is to persuade politicians, and the public, that this is not simply a case of agony today for a better tomorrow, an argument that simply won’t wear with most people. It is not obvious, he says, that taking measures to deal with CO2 emissions will reduce world growth. Develop these technologies and “you create new industries, you create new technologies and so forth.”

The challenge is to create markets in which new technologies come about. “It is not sufficient to say that technology will take care of it.” As things stand now,“there is a rather unlevel playing field” for energy technologies. If it is cheaper to keep burning coal, for example, then where is the incentive to do otherwise? “Unless you internalise the cost of carbon into the delivered cost of energy, then you can’t compare one with the other.”

BP itself is active in renewables, solar and wind. It is also pushing ahead with biofuels and hydrogen. “Our focus is to create hydrogen for power stations, ideally from low grade hydrocarbons, coal heaver oils, and to find ways of storing or using the carbon dioxide.” The point about using hydrogen as a carrier is that “it is better to separate the carbon out before you do something, rather than to capture it at the other end. Simply as an engineering principle it is easier. So we are looking at ways of creating carbon-free energy from hydrocarbons.” In other words, the hydrogen economy is a way of sustaining BP’s current business.

The same is true of biofuels. “We are one of the world’s largest sellers of biofuels at the moment. We have put half a billion dollars aside to set up a biotechnology research centre specifically related to biofuels.” Here BP wants to have the option to travel down the biofuel road should it be viable in the market.

“We are participating in wind, solar and hydrogen, as well as well as continuing our normal business of oil and gas. That will always be a part of the mix. This is a matter of changing the number of choices that people have of how to get their energy and where they get their energy from.”

“We do business in alternative energies for power generation already. People say it is very small. Of course it is small compared with our oil and gas business. It has just started. But it will be fed by BP’s commitment according to its success. This is the rule of good business.”

Achievements

Born 1948. Joins BP as a university apprentice 1966. Gains a First in Physics from Cambridge University 1969. And an MS in Business from Stanford University, CA 1982. Between 1969 and 1983, holds a variety of exploration and production posts in Anchorage, New York, San Francisco, London and Canada. Becomes Group Treasurer and Chief Executive of BP Finance International 1984. Takes up post of Executive Vice President of Standard Oil Company 1986. Following the BP/Standard merger he is appointed Chief Executive Officer of Standard Oil Production Company 1987. Becomes Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of BP Exploration 1989. Becomes Managing Director of BP plc 1991. Elected a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering 1993. Appointed Group Chief Executive of BP 1995. Trustee of British Museum 1995–2005. Made a non-Executive Director of Intel 1997. Following the merger of BP and Amoco, becomes Group Chief Executive of BP Amoco 1998. Knighted 1998. Awarded the Prince Philip Medal by the Academy 1999. Made a non-Executive Director of Goldman Sachs 2001. Presented with the Ernest C Arbuckle Award by Stanford Business School 2001. Made a life peer 2001. Made a Fellow of the Royal Society 2006. Elected President of The Royal Academy of Engineering 2006.

Biography – Michael Kenward OBE

Michael Kenward has been a freelance writer for the past 15 years and is currently a member of the Ingenia Editorial Board. He is Editor-at-Large of Science|Business online magazine. Prior to this he worked on the New Scientist for 20 years and was editor of the magazine in the 1980s.

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