THE MT INTERVIEW: Clive Mather

THE MT INTERVIEW: Clive Mather - His employer is as muscular a global capitalist as any, yet the head of Shell UK has the air of a well-bred, studious patrician figure. He cares passionately about issues such as student loans, developing sustainable energy and other issues of corporate social responsibility.

by Chris Blackhurst
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

His employer is as muscular a global capitalist as any, yet the head of Shell UK has the air of a well-bred, studious patrician figure. He cares passionately about issues such as student loans, developing sustainable energy and other issues of corporate social responsibility.

There's something terribly reassuring about Shell. From the moment you leave the hubbub of London behind and enter the quiet confines of the Shell centre on London's South Bank, you begin to relax.

It's as if the rest of the world doesn't exist. The place exudes the air of supreme confidence, of longevity. The decor is understated, all soothing browns and beiges. The pictures on the walls are of oil tankers and drilling platforms. Nothing screams for attention, there are no strident primary colours to threaten the brain. There's nothing flash or achingly modern.

Everything is as it should be - and the way, you suspect, it's always been. Shell is an oil company, these are its offices, they're the offices of an oil company. End of story.

The same applies to the people. They go about their business efficiently and noiselessly. Histrionics, you feel, happen in other organisations.

Here, everyone knows their place and what's expected of them. Suits are sober and straightforward, not designer-trendy.

Don't be fooled, though. There's an arrogance about Shell's London headquarters, a definite feeling of superiority. This is one hell of a company, massive and right on top of its game. Trivial things are for the little people; this firm is all about making money, billions of pounds' worth. Not for nothing did the Economist once describe the enterprise thus: 'If Shell were a school, it would be Eton College. It it were a statesman, it would be De Gaulle.'

That same sense of being born to rule and to do so on its own terms applies today. There are companies and there is Shell. Even Shell's arch-rival BP is looked down upon, mocked for its aggression, seen as a brash upstart, viewed like a wayward child to Shell's solid father. What did the advertisements say? You can be sure of Shell. There it is again, that same mix of comfort and lofty disdain. What the advertisements also implied was: You can't be sure of anyone else.

Sir Philip Watts, Shell's worldwide chairman, has been with the company for 34 years. So too has Clive Mather, Shell's boss in the UK. Their loyalty is commendable, but there's also the suspicion that they've stayed at Shell for so long because there really was little point in going anywhere else.

My first sight of Mather is him coming towards me down a long corridor.

He's tall and angular, his walk is brisk and purposeful. His assistant has already indicated that today is his birthday, so I offer congratulations and ask how many? His reply is charming and disarming.

'I think I'm 56. Let me see, I was born in '47 so I must be.'

Of course he knows how old he is. It's just that he can't help himself.

A lifetime of English reserve, of glad-handing round the world on behalf of Shell has taught him not to press upon the other person, to adopt an air of unworldliness to put them at their ease.

They don't come more English than Mather. From the off, he has an air of the well-bred, studious patrician about him, of being a very intelligent man at the top of a very smart company. His career path has been straight, without deviation or hesitation. If he didn't work for Shell, you think, he'd more likely have joined the Civil Service, say, rather than another business.

With postings in Gabon, Brunei and South Africa on his CV, and with his serious, cerebral manner, he could easily have been in a meeting room in a far-flung embassy or the Foreign Office's main building in Whitehall, rather than the pinnacle of a global, capitalist empire.

He also appears more earnest, more a liberal intellectual than an out-and-out money-grabbing industrialist. He's served on the Equal Opportunities Commission, chairs the Lambeth Education Action Zone Forum and is a committed Christian.

His church, which is of the evangelical kind in Guildford, Surrey, takes up much of his time outside work. His politics are certainly not Thatcherite.

At one point he's extolling the virtues of employee share ownership schemes when he remarks how Mrs Thatcher deserves praise for having created them and, under his breath, adds: '... whatever else one thinks of her.'

In many respects, Mather is the embodiment of the modern, caring, sharing business executive, someone for whom corporate social responsibility comes naturally, who believes passionately in good governance and the need for transparency. His conversation is littered with words like 'integrity' and 'honesty'.

He freely admits to having enjoyed a 'wonderful personal moment' when as a senior Shell manager in South Africa he sold the company's former offices in Johannesburg to Nelson Mandela for his new ANC headquarters.

The fact that the ANC's premises are still known in Jo'burg as Shell House makes him quite proud.

Mandela had just come out of jail and here was Mather negotiating to sell him the building. It was a straight commercial transaction, there was no question of Shell favouring Mandela. 'It was a good deal for us, a good deal for him.' Mather will never forget the degree of humility shown by Mandela, his concern for others. 'We'd had a second round of negotiations and done the deal; on the way out Mandela wandered off, to thank the people who'd brought him tea in the meeting. It just shows how he came to acquire the level of affection he did.'

Mather's spirituality can be traced back to his father, 'a curious and wonderful combination of engineer and artist'. Based in rural Warwickshire, his father ran a building business. Then, on the outbreak of Word War Two, he moved to aero engines. It was a reserved occupation so he served in the Home Guard. When the war ended his father changed jobs, to work for Ford. All the time, though, he had a creative side, as a respected sculptor, specialising in figures carved out of wood.

Mather had three brothers and a sister. One brother died, one is a management consultant and the other ran his own engineering business. His sister managed a hotel for a number of years.

His childhood taught him the need for hard work, of not taking things for granted. 'I was a product of the post-war generation when life was very basic. We had all the essentials but none of the basics.' To their 'everlasting credit', his parents devoted all they had to their children's upbringing and education. Mather passed the 11-plus, went to Warwick School, then to Lincoln College, Oxford, to study Modern History.

'I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to my parents and to the state,' he says. This is also the cue for an expression of anger and regret at today's system of student loans and tuition fees where 'we risk putting off so many people, given the serious risk of indebtedness that goes with it. I wish everybody could have the same opportunities I had - I hate to see the cost preventing it.'

It is this concern for society that separates Mather from many of his commercial peers. Performance and profit are motivators, of course, but he cares deeply about the state we're in and where we're heading. 'We've got to find a formula for higher education. At the moment we're putting people off, particularly people from poorer backgrounds.'

Not for nothing is Mather - in that odd way that Shell organises itself with country chairmen but also leaders of individual activities that cut across territorial boundaries - also the company's head of global learning.

Get him on the subject of education and the fact that Shell can't recruit enough graduates of the right calibre in this country and how that shortfall is rising each year, and it's hard to get him off. Doubtless, there's his age, the realisation that he has nothing to prove any more, that retirement beckons and that's the sort of time people often start worrying about social issues outside their day-to-day job. But in Mather's case, the passion is at the core of his being.

Even his degree, for someone who went into the oil business, was not the normal engineering or science. Saying that, if he could have his time again he'd choose something different, like PPE or Economics. 'I did Modern History because History was my best subject at school, which wasn't the best reason.'

Contemporaries at Oxford were William Waldegrave, Tariq Ali and David Clementi, the banker, with whom he's still in touch. 'Lincoln was a small college, renowned for its fellowship. It was a very happy place to be, although it has to be said, my year was not especially blessed with an array of stars.'

Why Shell? 'I wanted to travel.' He applied only to organisations that offered the opportunity to work abroad: BOAC, Swires and Shell. Of those, he says, Shell had the 'best recruitment process. They offered exactly what I was looking for - a combination of having spells abroad and coming back to the UK.' He shrugs and, ever modest, adds: 'It's worked out well.'

He's a huge advocate of people working overseas, to broaden their experiences and minds. I look at my own children and think how rich their upbringing has been.' He describes Shell as having given him an 'astonishing opportunity'.

He relished the loneliness, the challenge of being based in a strange land. 'It gives you insights about yourself which just otherwise aren't available.' At no stage does Mather mention oil. He doesn't say so but the sense of a serious young graduate wanting to travel, to join any institution that would offer him that opportunity, is a strong one. If it hadn't been Shell, it could have been any other organisation and at that stage he would have been just as happy.

First, though, he had to go the less exotic and much nearer location of Teesport in the north-east. In those days - it was 1969 - Shell 'put people on the front line and left them there'. On his first day at the company's refinery he turned up for work in a suit. The manager said he wouldn't be needing it - he was on the nightshift and the dress was overalls.

He claims to have enjoyed his spells in the UK (later, he worked on the retail side, managing service stations). But it's when he talks about his stints abroad that he is most animated. After two years on Teesport he got his wish and was sent to the Far East, to Brunei. Shell's relations with the Sultanate are a sensitive subject. Company and Sultan have worked hand-in-hand and profited enormously as a result. In Brunei, the young Mather helped launch the first major liquefied natural gas plant. 'It was typical of what Shell tries and does. We've always been at the leading edge of technology and applying that to long-term projects is what we're about.'

Every week since 1972, when the plant came on stream, seven ships full of LNG have left Brunei for Tokyo. 'They will do so this week and the next, and after that,' he says.

Even though he's not a scientist, he loves the thrill of the discovery.

He has a wide-eyed with wonder quality as he describes how they were sitting in the jungle, pumping liquid natural gas, which has to be kept at minus 20 degrees (and they still got vaporisation), which they used to power the actual ships carrying the gas.

When it's put to him that there are critics who claim the company's relationship with the Sultan is too cosy and the ruling royal family have grown phenomenally wealthy while Brunei remains an undemocratic state, his voice takes on a more forceful tone. 'We've learned lessons since 1972, we're much more concerned now with stakeholder empowerment and the outside world and what it expects of you.' Shell has, at its core, he insists, personal values that everyone adheres to and that make up its culture. They are 'integrity, honesty and respect'. They haven't changed down the years, he adds, although today there's a far higher degree of accountability and assessment of personal performance.

Shell in those days was a more laid-back place and, possibly, you imagine him thinking, more civilised and pleasant. 'People at my level today are working managers in every sense. We're there with our lap-tops, bashing out e-mails with the rest of them at London City Airport.'

During his career he's noticed two big changes that have affected the way business is conducted and - you know he wants to say - 'have taken some of the fun away' but his innate decency prevents him from doing so. One is the growth of the power of the City analyst. 'They expose you to ongoing company assessment - even though we knew about share prices, now that knowledge goes right through the organisation.'

If only the City devoted as much thinking to corporate social responsibility, he muses. Besides, staff, thanks to Mrs T and her employee share purchase schemes, now own shares as well.

The second is that so much more is expected of everyone. New technology and emphasis on greater productivity have seen the workforce slashed and Shell's presence in London alone pared from eight offices to a single centre today.

Shell staff are working harder - not that Mather is too bothered. He loves being boss, partly because it enables him to do other things, to make a genuine contribution, to put something back. 'I've always enjoyed the leadership position and I've always ranged across as wide a scale as I can.'

For some, work is a 'treadmill, 24 hours seven days, a week'. He doesn't see it that way. It's almost as if he's got some missionary, higher purpose. 'Oil is a fascinating industry to be in, no day is the same. Problems come big and small, and in different colours. And we matter.' He makes that last statement with relish.

Take Brent Spar. You'd think the furore around the scrapping of the North Sea rig would unsettle Mather, that it would make him ponder - not for the first time - the ethics of the industry he's in. You'd be wrong. The episode - in which Greenpeace was subsequently shown to have exaggerated the threat to the environment - reinforced his belief that Shell is an upstanding corporate citizen. 'People I meet tell me how much they appreciate what we did about Brent Spar in hindsight.' Mind you, make no mistake, 'Brent Spar was a wake-up call for Shell'.

The company, he says, underestimated the row and the influence of the 'stakeholder community'. This is Mather-speak; it could be Blair-speak. He loves the language of New Labour: 'empowerment', 'stakeholder.' But while to some extent the Government has dropped a few of the tags - 'stakeholder' is a dirty word in Labour these days - Mather continues to use them. The reason, possibly, is that, unlike the Government, he really believes in them and, unlike them, after his experience at the top of a plc he knows what he's talking about.

The later investigation into Brent Spar, he stresses, cleared the company.

'You can rely on Shell,' he says, paraphrasing the ad slogan. The crisis made the firm rethink some of its processes and contributed to Shell taking the lead in the development of sustainable energy. So, out of bad came good - a creed that is dear to Mather.

Yes, Shell is in some dodgy countries round the world but, he claims, opponents misjudge the company. He cites three different examples of the sort of decision-making he and his colleagues have to contend with. In South Africa, despite protests, Shell stayed during apartheid. 'We toughed it out and, in hindsight, Nelson Mandela praised us.' In Burma, the company withdrew. 'We didn't feel we could make a difference, so we walked out.' And in Nigeria, where turmoil rages, 'the jury is still out'.

This is very high-minded. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a US oil-man quitting a country because his company can't 'make a difference'. But, claims Mather, that's the Shell way. 'We do try to win friends and influence people. I joined Shell because I thought it was a thoroughly moral company.'

The impression of a band of brothers at the top of Shell, all of whom have been there a long time, all of whom know and trust each other, is certainly one he fosters. But his Shell UK is a much stripped-down organisation - as he puts it, layers and layers of management have gone. 'We now have just four layers, operating, supervisory, manager and boss.'

Much of the change has been brought about by BP. The continuing success of Shell's British head-to-head opponent, latterly under Lord Browne, has irked Mather, Watts and co. Whether by design or fault, BP has allowed a cult of the personality to develop. Its management structure is much more simple to understand than Shell's and BP has proved itself adept at winning industry and media plaudits.

At Shell Centre, there's no escaping the feeling that they regard BP as, well, a bit showy, and some of the adulation excessive. 'BP has added great value and the share price reflects it,' says Mather, between what passes in an Englishman of his reserve as gritted teeth. 'We talk about BP every day,' he admits. But then, he is always looking for the good in everything, so he adds: 'We should be grateful we're blessed with two world-class companies here.'

Has he had a job offer from BP down the years? He has, as it happens. 'I had one, but it would be very hard to go to them now.'

He's right: now he's too ingrained to change. He's spent too long fighting them as the enemy. BP does get under their skin at Shell. 'BP has a very good public image. We've got to overtake them.' But he can't resist a dig. 'It's not about froth, not about slick public relations; we've got to have better underlying performance.'

Mather will drive them on - that's his job. It's hard to discern, though, just how much he enjoys the commercial cut and thrust. He's not an up-and-at-'em, sort of boss. The rough stuff he probably leaves to others.

His presence is a civilising one, in keeping with the traditions of Shell.

He'd rather get together with his rivals to discuss issues like fuel consumption, the destruction of the ozone layer, the draining of fossilised fuels. It's clever, because it makes Mather, and by extension, Shell, appear above the hurly-burly. In his case, though, there's no question of his sentiments not being sincere.

He despairs, for instance, about our education system - not because Shell can't find suitable graduates but because industry as a whole is lacking and suffering. 'We'll get them because we're a global organisation; we can go to China and elsewhere.' But other companies, he points out, are not so blessed: the result is that the whole economy suffers and a downward spiral ensues.

His wish is that society would takes its responsibilities seriously, for future generations, and act not just on education but on a whole spectrum of issues such as public services, pensions and care for the elderly.

'If we don't do something, a whole lot of problems are going to come home to roost. Our children are dependent on us - we need to think things through.'

It may be uncoincidental that he declares himself to have been at his happiest in West Africa on his posting to Gabon. There, as personnel manager, he didn't just oversee the staffing of Shell's operations, he was also in charge of creating an infrastructure to go with them, in a part of the world where there was none. Shell built hospitals, houses and schools for its local and expatriate workers. For Mather, it was nirvana: a blueprint, a blank sheet of paper on which he could design a perfect society, in tandem with his beloved Shell. The pity is that it was Gabon and not Britain. It doesn't stop him trying, though. More credit to him: if everyone was like Mather, business might have a better name.

FIVE TOUGH ISSUES FOR CLIVE MATHER

1. How do you convince the country's increasingly green and sceptical youth that a career in the extractive industries with a company like Shell is for them?

2. As chair of the government/industry steering group on corporate social responsibility, how does Mather convince his business peers and a sceptical public that CSR isn't just corporate wallpaper applied by the PR department?

3. What is the role of a company like Shell in third-world dictatorships? Should Shell be a proactive force for democracy and social change in less developed countries?

4. Is there a conflict between Shell's drive to promote green, renewable energy resources and the millions it pours into an environmentally unfriendly sport like F1?

5. Have multinational businesses like Shell become too detached from the societies in which they operate, and to what extent should they become agents for change?

< MATHER IN A MINUTE 1947: Born 19 September in Warwickshire. Educated at Warwick School. Studies Modern History at Oxford University 1969: Joins Shell straight from university 1972: Posted to Brunei, then Gabon 1984: Returns to UK as retail regional manager 1986: Goes to Shell South Africa, responsible for personnel and public affairs 1997: Appointed director: international in Shell's Corporate Centre 2002: Becomes UK country chairman for Shell.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today