Royal Dutch Shell surprised the oil industry by choosing Ben van Beurden, the low-profile head of its refining and marketing division, to succeed Peter Voser as chief executive.
The 55-year-old Shell “lifer” was not on the shortlist of executives touted as potential successors to Mr Voser when he announced in May plans to step down from the Anglo-Dutch oil and gas group.
Little-known outside of the Shell C-suite, Mr van Beurden is credited with turning round Shell’s struggling chemicals division. He also worked for a third of his 30-year Shell career in its liquefied natural gas business, which has become a crucial driver of the group’s growth.
But the Dutch national will face a number of challenges as he takes up the reins at Shell. These include a US business dragged down by low natural gas prices as a result of the shale boom, rising costs at LNG projects in Australia, and embarrassing setbacks in its Arctic exploration campaign off the coast of Alaska.
Like all the majors, Shell is also struggling to increase production amid intensifying competition for the world’s last remaining untapped reserves of oil. Many think Mr van Beurden may be forced to jettison the company’s ambitious goal of increasing output to 4m barrels of oil equivalent a day by 2017, compared with 3.3m boe/d last year.
There has also been some concern among investors about the high turnover of CEOs at a company trying to deliver a 5-10 year investment strategy. Mr van Beurden will become Shell’s fourth CEO in 12 years. In contrast, Rex Tillerson has been head of ExxonMobil for seven years, and Christophe de Margerie has run France’s Total since 2007.
Jorma Ollila, Shell’s chairman, said Mr van Beurden had been chosen after a comprehensive internal and external search, adding that he had “deep knowledge of the industry and proven executive experience across a range of Shell businesses”.
A chemical engineering graduate from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Mr van Beurden joined Shell in 1983.
“This guy is a Shell technical whizz who knows the business from the ground up,” said one analyst.
But he only joined Shell’s executive committee at the start of this year, when he was named head of the company’s downstream division.
“It’s a rapid ascent to the CEO role at a relatively late stage in his career,” said Neill Morton, an oil analyst at Investec.
Shareholders and analysts had touted a list of potential successors led by Simon Henry, the group’s chief financial officer. Other names in the frame were Marvin Odum, who heads Shell’s exploration and production – or upstream – division in the Americas; Andy Brown, who runs all other upstream operations; and Matthias Bichsel, the company’s projects and technology director.
Mr van Beurden takes up the post at the start of next year, although Mr Voser will not leave the group until the end of March.
Shares in Shell closed up 1.5 per cent at £21.62 in London.