Shell ‘shocker’ at chief exec appointment

By on July 11, 2013

Shell has (sort of) raised eyebrows by putting up Ben van Beurden – head of its refining arm – as its next leader, writes Emma Haslett.

Having barely had time to lower its eyebrows after yesterday’s news that WH Smith chief Kate Swann was swanning off to (relatively unknown) food chain operator SSP, the market has another opportunity to practice its ‘surprised’ face: Royal Dutch Shell has appointed Ben van Beurden, currently head of its refining and marketing activities, to succeed Peter Voser as chief executive.

In the context of any other business van Beurden’s appointment would be about as standard as it gets: he’s been at the company since 1983, having graduated in chemical engineering from Delft University of Technology. It’s not as though he’s being parachuted in from, say, the retail industry…

Still, the appointment is surprising for two reasons: firstly, van Beurden wasn’t one of the three execs thought to be in the running for the job. American exploration and production division chief Marvin Odum, upstream operations head Andy Brown and chief financial officer Simon Henry were the names originally expected to be in the running for the role. Perhaps their names just weren’t Dutch enough…

Secondly, van Beurden’s specialism is in the ‘downstream’ side of oil production – making him the first Shell chief exec who isn’t involved in ‘upstream’, ie. the physical act of actually getting oil out of the ground. Shell has been shrinking its downstream division for several years now, which makes the choice of van Beurden doubly mystifying.

He’ll start his new job in January, although Voser, who’s only been in the role since 2009, won’t step down properly until the end of March. Markets seemed to get over their shock pretty quickly: shares rose 0.4% in early trading.

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