Murray Auchincloss: the quiet man taking centre stage at BP

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This time last year Murray Auchincloss appeared to have little ambition to ever be chief executive of Britain’s most storied oil company. The Canadian former tax analyst had carved out a highly successful, quiet career inside BP, but as finance chief he was destined to be the numbers guy keeping his more flamboyant boss in check.

Then in September that boss, Bernard Looney, resigned after failing to disclose to the board past romantic relationships with BP colleagues. The scandal thrust Auchincloss into the spotlight. Such was the abruptness of Looney’s departure, just days after BP had received a second set of allegations about its boss, that Auchincloss had only 20 minutes’ notice before taking over as interim chief executive, he has told friends.

This week, after a four-month process that some investors say took too long, he was confirmed in the role permanently, and takes up one of the highest profile, most challenging, most unrelenting jobs in British business.

His selection was, on one hand, unsurprising. In its 114-year history BP has never recruited a chief executive from outside the company and Auchincloss was widely viewed as the strongest internal candidate. In other ways though, his appointment is unusual.

Finance chiefs have rarely been appointed to the top job at BP. Whereas Looney was selected in 2019 as the charismatic visionary needed to drive the transformation of the company from oil producer to clean energy provider, colleagues describe Auchincloss as “low-key” and “unassuming”.

“While Murray may not bring the same excitement, he brings exactly the kind of leadership the company needs right now, which is someone who is highly credible, very competent and extraordinarily steady at the helm,” says one former senior BP executive, who worked with Auchincloss for several years.

Born in 1970, the son of a peripatetic Scottish geologist, and educated at the University of Calgary, in the middle of Canada’s oil patch, Auchincloss was perhaps destined for a career in the industry. He joined the US oil company Amoco in 1992, becoming the fourth generation of his family to work in energy.

After starting out in Amoco’s tax department in Chicago, he joined BP when the two companies merged in 1998.

Auchincloss impressed immediately, his former colleagues say, and cycled through a series of finance roles before moving to the chief executive’s office in 2010 — a proving ground for potential BP high-flyers.

As chief of staff he initially worked for Tony Hayward, starting just as a drill rig had exploded in the Gulf of Mexico leading to the biggest-ever oil spill in US waters. Six months later, when Hayward stepped down due to the disaster, Auchincloss stayed on with the next chief executive, Bob Dudley, and became his longest serving chief of staff.

For the next two years Auchincloss travelled to all corners of BP’s business with his boss. He was a tireless aide and became a trusted adviser, Dudley says.

“If I sat down with him and went through the quarterly figures . . . he would tell me if there was a problem,” Dudley tells the FT. “I wasn’t hearing that from others.”

He then spent seven years crunching the numbers for BP’s oil producing upstream business, before he was appointed group chief financial officer in 2020.

The financial flair that Dudley observed has endeared Auchincloss to the company’s institutional investors, many of which welcomed confirmation of his permanent appointment as CEO.

“He has an ability to answer any numerical question with data, without sidestepping, without being political,” says Oswald Clint, a long time oil and gas analyst at research house Bernstein. “You don’t get that with every CFO.”

The job of chief executive, however, requires a broader set of skills, particularly at a time when BP is a lightning rod for criticism in the complex debate over the role of oil and gas companies in the effort to slow climate change. Current and former colleagues, who describe Auchincloss as an introvert, are intrigued to see how he will handle the public-facing challenges of the top job.

In 2020 BP introduced climate targets that went further than competitors. Total returns to BP shareholders have trailed its four main rivals ever since. But any investor betting Auchincloss will back BP away from its green pledges is likely to be disappointed. He was a key architect of the plan and is said to be as committed as Looney to the transformation.

Internally his appointment has been welcomed by staff, some of whom are still shocked by Looney’s sudden departure and the board’s decision in December to claw back up to £32.4mn in pay from their well-liked former boss.

Many employees viewed Auchincloss and Looney as a highly effective team. The board has been at pains to reassure staff that Auchincloss was not involved in its decision on Looney’s pay. Auchincloss is also in a relationship with a BP colleague but, unlike Looney, the company says it was properly disclosed.

If Auchincloss can manage BP’s business, its staff and its investors, he must also manage the board. Three of the previous four BP chief executives have been forced to depart abruptly. Hayward told the FT in November that “successive BP boards” had failed to “stand by their CEO”.

“Board chemistry and board dynamics are very important, and Murray handled all that very well,” says Dudley, who is the only BP chief executive since 1995 who has not been forced to resign.

“He was never a high-maintenance employee,” Dudley adds. “He just worked.”

tom.wilson@ft.com

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