Beyond Business: An Inspirational Memoir from a Visionary Leader
By John Browne
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20, 336 pages
FT Bookshop price: £16
After the fall, the rehabilitation. That familiar arc in the lives of disgraced public figures is now being traced by Lord Browne, unceremoniously bundled out of BP after he was forced to resign as chief executive in May 2007, and now starting to rebuild his profile.
In interviews with sympathetic journalists, he has for the first time opened up about his private life – in particular his sexuality – giving an insight into the pressure for secrecy that led him to lie to a judge when an ex-boyfriend threatened to expose their relationship.
Meanwhile, the passage of time has helped to put Browne’s record into perspective: the successes that made him for several years Britain’s most admired business leader, as well as the failures.
Now there is Beyond Business, the memoir in which he gives his ghost-written version: “how I learnt about leadership in a tough industry”.
An uneasy hybrid of industrial history and celebrity confessional, it is not entirely successful, either as a memoir or as a justification for his career. As Browne ruefully admits in his introduction, “The book I have now written is very different from the one I had originally planned.”
It shows. In person, Browne is fascinating, full of charm and erudition. On the page, not enough of that brilliance survives. The writing about his personal life, and his downfall, makes awkward, often uncomfortable reading.
The book’s strength is Browne’s enthusiasm for his “adventure in oil”. The industry was in his blood: his father worked for one of British Petroleum’s contractors in Iran in the 1950s. His mother, with whom he had a “special bond”, and who lived with him from 1980 until her death in 2000, wanted him to have “more than my father had ever had”.
The best passages in the book show how he set about realising that ambition, as BP rose from state-controlled middleweight to the first rank of international oil companies. Dramatic events, such as the huge deals with Amoco and Arco, and the creation of Russian joint venture TNK-BP, are reported from inside the boardroom. The wildness of new oil frontiers such as Alaska in the 1960s and Azerbaijan in the 1990s is vividly evoked.
There is also a revelation, in the news that Browne twice talked to chief executives of Royal Dutch Shell about a possible merger, once in 1996 and again in 2004-05. That deal remains the dream of every investment banker in the oil business.
Yet the book yields disappointments too. Browne has what one might call a tin ear for character, and has little of interest to report from his dealings with the world’s most powerful leaders, which included drinking whisky in the small hours with Margaret Thatcher and playing with Vladimir Putin’s dog.
Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, encountered in a tent in a carefully concealed location in the middle of the desert, is “seasoned”; Arnold Schwarzenegger is “relaxed and accessible”. Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, is at one point said to have been “inscrutable”.
Another failing is Browne’s treatment of his final years as chief executive. He does not shirk the tough subjects – there is a damning quote from the independent report on the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, which killed 15 people – but he does not reflect on his own individual part in BP’s safety culture.
Earlier in the book, he takes the credit for transforming BP “into Britain’s leading business and a global giant”. But when it comes to Texas City, he expresses regret for a collective failure: “we might have avoided that accident”. This is later followed by an assertion that “you must be morally responsible for the consequences of every decision you make and never pass the buck.”
After that tragedy, the lie that accelerated Browne’s exit – he was already due to stand down – seems trivial. His deceit over how he met his ex-boyfriend was foolish, but his wish to protect his privacy wholly understandable. The account of his last few months at BP is hard to read; the emotion is clearly still raw. Browne cannot even bring himself to name Peter Sutherland, BP’s chairman for 12 years from 1997, who “was keen to move things on very quickly” to remove him in 2007.
The lessons of his career, despatched in a rather cursory 11-page final chapter, are not enormously illuminating. Browne’s strengths were always of analysis, vision and ambition, rather than inspirational leadership.
For all the plaudits and the triumphs, he somehow does not seem entirely suited to the role of superstar chief executive. He could easily have followed an academic career, which, when he was educated at Cambridge in the 1960s, was seen as the only suitable occupation for the brightest students. He observes of his enthusiasm for the work of David Hockney that “he reflected a life – at least in my fantasy at the time [the 1970s] – I would have liked to have led.”
Now that is the life he has: chairman of the Tate galleries and president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. “On the whole,” he writes, “I have a much freer and more enjoyable life.”
Ed Crooks is the FT’s energy editor