John Browne

John Browne– Lord Browne of Madingley – is proud of his reputation as one of Britain’s great business leaders of the past two decades, having run BP from 1995 to 2007, its golden period of expansion and diversification. But he would also love to be known as an engineer and scientist.

Browne served as president of the Royal Academy of Engineering for five years, is a fellow of the Royal Society and has now emerged as a talented science writer. “I put engineering before science,” he tells me, “because engineers have drawn the short straw in terms of public reputation and recognition. Scientists have enjoyed the better part of the bargain. Science is seen as solving mysteries while engineering is applying the solution to something practical.”

I am talking to Browne about his new book, Seven Elements That Have Changed the World, which blends science, history and reminiscence to tell the stories of the chemical elements that have had the biggest impact: iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium and silicon.

Seven Elements is very different to Browne’s first book, Beyond Business (2010). That was a personal memoir of his BP career, including its end in a scandal about his hitherto hidden gay life. He employed a professional writer, Philippa Anderson, to write it with him. “That first book I could not have written by myself,” Browne says. “At the time I was writing it, just explaining myself was a very difficult thing to do.”

For Seven Elements Browne got professional help, too, including “a great research assistant [Thomas Lewton] who spent a year of his life researching and re-researching all the material in the book”. But this time he wrote the text himself. “The first bit of the writing, when there was nothing there, was terribly hard but then it all came together and I enjoyed the experience.”

We are talking in the Mayfair penthouse premises of Riverstone, the energy-oriented private equity firm where Browne has been a managing partner for six years since leaving BP.

It has a modern, minimalist business decor of blond wood and glass, with a view across Burlington Gardens to the back of the Royal Academy and Burlington Arcade.

Browne, too, is in minimalist business attire, wearing an ultra-crisp white shirt, dark trousers and tie. He looks dapper, to use an old-fashioned term. Browne is slight in build and lithe in movement – as I see when I ask him whether I could have a biscuit with my coffee because I missed lunch.

“I can do better than that. I’ve just come back from Sicily. Would you like marzipan?” he asks. Then he slips into the next-door office and reappears almost instantly with a box containing three exquisite marzipan fruits.

I take a perfectly curved yellow banana and, as I express my appreciation for its appearance and flavour, Browne says: “It’s one of the great products of Sicily, from Taormina, where the Roman theatre is.”

Browne is clearly enjoying life. He seems happy and relaxed, unlike the only other time I interviewed him – in his capacity as president of the British Science Association in 2007 – when he was tense and impatient. His current job at Riverstone, combined with other obligations including chairing the Tate gallery trustees and serving on several advisory boards, still leaves time for fun. “It gives me a nice variety and means I can go to Sicily for a very long weekend or visit my house in Venice,” he says.

A high point in Browne’s year comes on the third Saturday in July, the Festa del Redentore, when Venice puts on one of the world’s great firework displays to celebrate its redemption from the plague in 1577. He always takes a gondola with friends out to the Dogana, Venice’s old customs house, to watch the show – a splendid picture of which adorns Seven Elements.

Indeed the Venice festival opens the longest chapter in the book, on carbon. (Fireworks are one of the vast number of devices fuelled by that element.) Browne’s life-long entanglement with carbon began in 1950s Iran. His father worked for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the original heart of BP, and would often take young John out to visit the oilfields with their flares burning off then-useless natural gas.

“The intense heat, noise and sulphurous fumes were overpowering,” he recalls. “I also vividly remember watching the orange glow of the blowout of the Ahvaz No. 6 oil well burning 50 miles from our house. I was enthralled by the sheer power of oil.”

Browne joined BP in 1966, after graduating in physics from Cambridge university. “I spent a dozen years applying science and engineering in the first part of my career,” he says. “I edged through applied science into reservoir and petroleum engineering. I loved using old data to come up with new ideas. For example, BP had a lot of data about oil flow in Iran, which I took and reanalysed for Alaska.

“We understood the fundamentals very well, without high-speed computers and ready-made algorithms,” he adds. “Those things stay with you for ever. Even today, I will indulge myself and say, ‘I don’t think that’s quite right.’ It’s more a sense test than a detailed study – does this make sense? Have you thought about it this way round?”

Naturally Browne would like to see more scientists and engineers in top corporate and political positions. “Science and engineering is the foundation of so much enterprise,” he says. “It is important that leaders understand the substance of their business and where it can take them.”

Browne’s feeling for science makes him a strong advocate of fighting man-made climate change. In 1997 he broke ranks with the oil industry and announced that BP would take action against climate change, and for the rest of his time as chief executive he invested in solar energy, wind power and biofuels.

John Browne in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, after the 2006 oil spill
John Browne (left) in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, after the 2006 oil spill

More recently, however, BP has been selling off its alternative energy businesses, as it seeks to raise tens of billions of dollars to pay the costs of the financially catastrophic Gulf oil spill in April 2010. Yet Browne insists that he does not feel let down by their sale. “Business is ephemeral,” he says. “If you look at what BP has had to do recently, it’s hardly surprising that it is selling off solar and wind businesses.”

He points out that, as a partner in Riverstone, “I co-head the world’s largest renewable energy fund with $3.5bn in equity.” But in the same capacity he is also helping to finance natural gas exploration, including the controversial shale gas obtained by fracking.

Hardcore climate activists deplore the “dash for gas” because burning gas adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and because it will reduce the take-up of non-carbon energy sources. Browne, of course, has a different view – based, he insists, on science. Natural gas molecules contain a lot of hydrogen atoms bound to the carbon atoms (four hydrogen for each carbon in methane) and the heat generated when they burn comes from the hydrogen (making water) as well as the carbon (making carbon dioxide); coal contains more carbon and less hydrogen than natural gas.

“For an equivalent amount of power generated, a natural gas produces only half the carbon dioxide of coal,” he says. Therefore displacing coal with natural gas helps the fight against climate change. “The chemistry is working and so is the economics.”

Philanthropy is another strand running through the book – business leaders who have made fortunes through carbon (John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil), iron (Andrew Carnegie and US Steel) and silicon (Bill Gates and Microsoft) then gave away much of their money.

On the whole, 19th-century businessmen were more generous than their modern equivalents, Browne says: “They realised business is quite ephemeral but philanthropy done in the right way might be lasting.” He urges more contemporary millionaires and billionaires to follow their lead – and detects signs that some of them are doing so.

“If you listen to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, they want to build a great philanthropic heritage again,” he says. “And even some of the Russian oligarchs want to give some or all of what they have earned back to society.”

Browne himself has set up a charitable trust. “I give away to education and the arts, particularly projects in which I am involved such as the Tate, St John’s College, Cambridge, the Royal Academy of Engineering and women’s education,” he says. “When I leave this earth the trust will contain most of my worldly goods.”

‘Seven Elements That Have Changed the World’ is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20)

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