BP chief hit by sinking feeling

It is surely a cruel twist that Tony Hayward, the company chief who has always emphasised the importance of his workers' safety, may have his career with the oil giant cut short by what could be the worst oil disaster in US history.

For Tony Hayward, the embattled chief executive of BP, turning 53 last Friday would probably have been the last thing on his mind.

For more than a month now, the scientist turned oil company manager has been grappling with the blowout at BP's deepwater Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. As the whole world knows by now, the accompanying explosion on April 20 sank one of the world's most technically advanced drill ships with the loss of 11 lives, leading to what may be the worst oil spill in US history. Thousands or possibly tens of thousands of barrels of oil a day have been gushing into the ocean since the blowout and are washing ashore along a wide swathe of US coastline, threatening the region's fishing and tourism industries.

Amid mounting public hostility towards BP, Mr Hayward has the job of co-ordinating a monumental operation aimed at stopping the flow of oil and mopping up the spill. But so far, the company's best efforts have fallen frustratingly short of hopes and expectations. Politicians, the public and the company's shareholders are losing patience. "Reputationally and in every other way, we will be judged by the quality, intensity, speed and efficacy of our response," Mr Hayward said last month, in words that are proving prophetic.

It hardly helps that he promised to focus "like a laser" on safety three years ago when he landed BP's top job, succeeding Lord Browne, who stepped down after a series of accidents badly tarnished BP's reputation. But by all accounts, the new boss took the company's safety record personally. In the 1990s, while Mr Hayward was the head of BP's Venezuela unit, a young rig hand was killed in an accident at one of the company's drilling sites there.

"I went to the funeral to pay my respects," he said in a 2005 interview with the journalist and author Judi Bevan. "At the end of the service his mother came up to me and beat me on the chest. 'Why did you let it happen?' she asked. "It changed the way I think about safety. Leaders must make the safety of all who work for them their top priority." Mr Hayward lists his second and third priorities as making all of his staff "feel like they are part of a winning team" and "to conduct BP's business in a way that is in tune with the world".

But now, far from feeling like winners, BP's employees are fretting about their jobs and pensions while its shareholders threaten lawsuits. And as for BP being "in tune with the world", some crisis management experts describe the company's response to its latest disaster as a public relations catastrophe. They have good cause. Mr Hayward has failed to convince the public and many experts that BP was properly prepared to deal with a disaster of this scale and was slow to acknowledge the severity of the accident.

On April 20, he told CNN that his initial reaction was: "How the hell could this happen?" Days later, he told Britain's The Guardian newspaper that the spill was "tiny" in relation to the water diluting it. "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean," Mr Hayward said. "The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." This did nothing to calm his opponents; instead his comments helped cement public opinion against the company.

Yet until the Gulf incident, much of his considerable success as a corporate leader had flowed from his everyman appeal as an energetic, slightly rough-hewn, hands-on manager - quite different from his polished predecessor and not nearly as diplomatic. Lord Browne had been dubbed The Sun King, not just for presiding over a company with a sunburst logo, but also for his autocratic management style, one reminiscent of the French monarch Louis XIV.

Peter Sutherland, the former BP chairman, said Mr Hayward had been "a superb chief executive by common consent, in terms of internal and external perception". Others have described him as "collegiate", "a team player", "bright with a disarming smile", "humble" and as someone standing for a culture of responsibility. "People who work for BP care deeply about the company," Mr Hayward said in 2008. "I think that's because this is a company that tries to do the right thing."

Anthony B Hayward was born on May 21, 1957, in Slough, a utilitarian community in the Thames Valley just west of London with few of the refinements of the adjacent neighbourhood of Windsor, where Queen Elizabeth II of England keeps a castle. His father, the manager of a textile factory, had seven children. Tony, the eldest, grew into an athletic youth who looked out for his brother and sisters and captained his school's football team.

Football remains a passion to this day and Mr Hayward is an ardent fan of West Ham. He also sails, skis and competes in triathlons. After attending grammar school in Windsor, BP's future boss studied geology at Birmingham, choosing the city's Aston University because it had a good football team and his subject because he liked the outdoors. Soon, however, he developed an enthusiasm for unravelling the earth's secrets that matched his love of football.

Obtaining a PhD in geology from the University of Edinburgh, Mr Hayward dropped plans for an academic career in favour of the gritty adventure of life on the front line of the oil industry. He joined BP in 1982, turning down job offers from several rival firms, and was posted to Aberdeen as a rig geologist. That was the first of many field positions that took him from China and Vietnam to Canada and Colombia, where in 1992 he became BP's exploration manager for the country.

From that time on, Mr Hayward was regarded as a "BP lifer". He met his wife Maureen through the company, where she worked as a geophysicist before opting to stay at home to raise the couple's two children Kieren and Tara, now both teenagers. In contrast to the fine artwork that once adorned Lord Browne's spacious office at Britannic House, BP's London headquarters, Mr Hayward's smaller office is decorated with photos of family sailing holidays.

But before his marriage, Mr Hayward had already caught the eye of Lord Browne and had spent two years in London as a BP "turtle", or personal assistant to the BP boss - a position that meant he was being groomed for senior management. Despite being no financial whizz, Mr Hayward was appointed the group treasurer of BP in 2000, mainly to learn about that side of the business. He was named chief executive of exploration and production in 2003.

Along the way, he was at times outspokenly critical of BP's management style and safety culture - a sign that others in the company's upper echelons, even Lord Browne, were tacitly supportive of change. "We have a leadership style that is too directive and doesn't listen sufficiently well," Mr Hayward told an audience in Houston in 2005, shortly after an explosion at BP's Texas City refinery had killed 15 workers.

Two years later, as BP's chief, he said: "I think we have the opportunity to set a new benchmark in industrial safety in our industry and probably more broadly. So that's sort of task number one." Task number two, he added, was "about creating an environment where everyone feels like they have a voice". After an independent inquiry commissioned by the US government into the Texas City accident, Mr Hayward said the scathing findings of the Baker Panel in 2007 had given BP "a road map for a three to five-year journey to transfer our operations globally".

"What I learnt was that we'd become far too introspective at the top. In particular, we weren't listening to the operating people on safety and reliability." In the end, the company may have not had enough time to complete its safety overhaul before the next disaster struck, especially with the global recession intervening to cut resources. A chorus of critics, however, point to BP's record £3.6 billion (Dh19.17bn) of first-quarter profits, claiming Mr Hayward focused too narrowly on the bottom line to move quickly on safety reforms.

In March, Duane Wilson, an independent expert appointed to BP's board by the Baker Panel, found that BP had made "substantial progress" in complying with the panel's recommendations. But Mr Wilson added there were "a number of activities under way that need to be completed or sustained", requiring "continued focus over multiple years". Time ran out too quickly for Mr Hayward. Like the oil slick still spreading in the Gulf, his future is now growing murky.

"In the last two years, it seemed BP had really cleaned up their act," Fadel Gheit, a managing director and oil analyst at Oppenheimer, said last month. "Now it looks like a house of cards that totally collapsed." @Email:tcarlisle@thenational.ae