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Could a Russian be called on to rescue BP?

February 17, 2009

Given the furious reaction of some of Britain’s biggest investors to the Chinalco deal, it was wise for Paul Skinner to pull out of the running for the job as chairman of BP.

The BP board must already have had second thoughts about the Rio chairman. Nonetheless, it leaves the oil giant with a real problem. Even at the best of times the pool of executives a company like BP could draw on in its search to replace Peter Sutherland is very small.

The size, global spread and highly political nature of BP’s business require a certain blend of skills and experience that very few executives can boast.

Now BP has the challenge of trying to recruit an untainted candidate in the middle of the worst economic downturn in decades. The slump has tarnished the reputation of plenty of senior executives besides Mr Skinner.

BP could look to Shell, where Mr Skinner spent most of his career. But Jeroen van der Veer has made clear that he will be retiring behind his geraniums when he steps down in June.

It would be easier if BP could make do with a different kind of chairman – someone who was happy to fly in and out once a month to chair a meeting. But that is not really an option.

Although Sir John Parker, chairman of National Grid, is a serious contender, BP will also need to look further afield. There are a few American and European possibilities. But perhaps, given the importance of its TNK-BP arm, it should consider a Russian. Someone on the right side of Mr Putin, of course.

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