THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW - JOHN BROWNE - You can't duck the limelight when shaping the kind of merger that puts your company among the leaders in the global oil industry. So it is little wonder that the surprisingly sensitive chief executive of BP Amoco has emerged as Britain's most admired business leader.
The most admired boss in Britain is a very short, meticulous man who looks like a dark version of Sir Ian McKellen and speaks in the gruff, slightly plummy tones of an old-fashioned Oxbridge don. He lays his leather cigar case out on the table in front of us, then his cigar cutter, then his gold lighter and then a fourth container, sweeteners maybe, for the black coffee he orders. The gold lighter flares as he lights up a small cigar. His large, intricate gold filigree cuff links, the only sign of ostentation on his person, glint as he stirs the cup. Then he begins.
'I was born in 1948 in Hamburg, Germany, which at the time was under the administration of the British government. My father was a professional soldier; he had been in the tank regiment the Black Rats. My mother is from Transylvania, between Hungary and Romania. She was a displaced person. That's all I want to say about that.'
Sir John Browne, chief executive of BP Amoco, gives me a tight smile, watching for my reaction. When he smiles, his face becomes impassive and his eyes dark slits, like gun slots in a concrete pillbox. Before we even begin, I would guess, Browne has his defences up.
Why? Personal stuff, which Browne hates talking about and which fascinates the rest of the oil industry. It has never seen a boss like him, and because he jealously guards the secrets of his background and private life from outsiders, he has become something of a mythical figure within the sector.
Where's he from? What's he really like? Once you reach the top, everyone wants to know. Especially if, like Browne, you lead your $68 billion ( £41.2 billion) turnover company, whose fortunes now hold the largest single influence on the FTSE-100, in an aggressive growth strategy that appears to have transformed not just your business but the whole marketplace.
And then we learn that you live at home with your mum. 'BP, mother and me' ran the headline in a piece on bachelor Browne in a Sunday broadsheet earlier this year, the subtext of which was that, success or not, he was probably a bit of an oddball. Oh dear.
So there we are, sitting in our shirtsleeves up on the fourth floor of BP Amoco's City of London headquarters, Browne, his PR chief and me, worrying about what I can or can't ask this brilliant, wry, scrupulously polite little man. Browne's office and meeting room, laid out at the heart of BP's senior management conclave, are so pin-neat and clean you wouldn't think that anyone had ever worked in them. All is plush beige, spotless surfaces and calm process, a bit like the man himself. Only the sun, shining in over Finsbury Circus, illuminating great squares of the table between us, appears powerful enough to penetrate the operational hub of this vast company.
Browne is used to operating in light and shadow. He reveals just as much of himself as is necessary, say his colleagues, and you would be hard-pushed to guess his feelings on many matters. Chief executive since 1995, when he replaced David (now Lord) Simon (who switched to chairman before leaving to join the Labour Government), Browne has kept his head down and led the business with a rational assiduousness that borders on obsession.
He only occasionally gives interviews, rarely offering himself up for a grilling. Educated as a physicist, retrained as an engineer, he is the first scientist to head BP after years of marketers and shippers and lawyers leading the business. Touchy-feely, as one of his predecessors puts it, is not what he was selected for; he was put in charge of BP to transform it with a rigorous control of process and technology. And control, whether it is of numbers or people or emotions, is what he is very good at.
The BP he took over four years ago was one that had only just sorted itself out after skidding into the red in the early 1990s. Capital expenditure and debt had spun out of control under Simon's predecessor Bob Horton, and real doubts were raised about future direction; in particular, where to get the oil from, how to protect the company from price fluctuation, and how to get a chunk of the burgeoning market for natural gas. Simon rectified the figures. Then Browne, a 30-year company lifer with a reputation as a hardline job-cutter, came in with a brief to implement a fresh strategy: namely, to transform BP from a second-division tryer into a premier league winner.
For two years little seemed to be happening as the company struggled with yo-yoing oil prices. Then 18 months ago, Browne broke cover. He surprised the oil world in August 1998 by announcing a $57 billion agreement to merge with Amoco. He followed that in April this year with an opportunistic move to swallow Atlantic Richfield for $27 billion. He also signalled that the new BP was to be the first major oil company to put environmental issues right at the top of the agenda - instead of pretending they were just a side issue. The moves, which turned BP into the world's second biggest oil and gas producer, prompted fast reactions from rivals, pitching Exxon into Mobil's arms and Chevron into talks with Texaco. Everyone is looking at deals as the market consolidates, and the Americans, having seen two of their titans gobbled up by a Brit, are impressed. Browne, who has spent much of his BP career in America, seems to be one step ahead of the sector there.
Now he has to make the deals work. But already synergy benefits (merging what BP wants, selling and sacking the rest) are working their way through to the bottom line. Presentations to the City this summer wowed analysts ('a great company, a great management' gushed one brokers' report). Obviously, investors love a ruthless rationaliser, especially a Brit who conquers America, and the way in which he appears to have insulated BP profits from oil price fluctuations has won new fans. The mysterious Browne is suddenly so popular in the Square Mile that if he wanted the sun turned off, he could get it (but he wouldn't, of course, as BP is a big investor in solar energy).
But isn't he an unlikely buccaneer? If BP didn't buy, he says quietly, 'our product portfolio would be out of kilter with the likely future demand trends of the world.' Don't mistake shyness for timidity, retort his colleagues.
Browne is an astute deal-maker and has been a committed proponent of growth by acquisition throughout the '90s. Possible targets were discussed as long ago as 1996; events (principally sharp dips in the price of oil) just fell into place for him with neat timing. 'Think of it this way,' says one, explaining Browne's love of deal-making. He's an engineer - he likes things neat and tidy.' Doing deals is his way of putting the marketplace into better order.
Internally, however, Browne has worked hard to persuade the board and his managers that BP must keep changing. The firm prides itself on its collegiate management style, with large gobbits of power dished out to its senior team below chief executive level, so bosses have to rule with a bit of medieval cunning, using strength of personality to chivvy along this potentially fractious group of mini-prince potentates. Simon, gregarious and outgoing, concentrated on motivation and team-building. Browne, quiet, dapper and studious does it by power of intellect, a facility that terrifies some of his own staff and reassures directors who worry about egomaniacal empire-building.
Everything pivots around Browne's ability to absorb vast amounts of information, keeping on top of what is happening everywhere in the company. He takes on an enormous workload, even by the standard of multinational bosses, dealing with company matters 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Americans picked up a rumour that he kept three secretaries working in shifts round the clock - he denies it, but you wouldn't be surprised.
His workaholic nature has always marked him out. His mentor Bob Horton, who plucked him from running the Forties oil field and put him into BP's finance division, says he was astounded by the hours Browne put in. And again when he took him to America to help sort out BP's stake in Standard Oil of Ohio. When Horton reached the top of BP, he made a point of emphasising to senior executives that they must find a balance between their working and private lives. It was aimed at Browne.
Other old hands suggest that BP has probably never had such a good all-rounder as CEO before. 'He is extremely bright, extremely well organised, and is a very good lateral thinker,' says Peter Sutherland, his chairman. Lord Simon, his predecessor, describes him as 'very strong on the numbers side, financially extremely astute, but the same also goes for the technological side. He understands geopolitics and has got the nose for a deal.'
'It's not just John's talent, but his adaptability that has always struck me,' adds another former chairman, Peter Walters. Exploration, production, tax, financial - whatever Browne has turned his hand to on his way up BP, he has excelled at it. That broad range of abilities has made him a prime catch on the non-executive market (he sits on the boards of corporate heavyweights DaimlerChrysler, Intel and SmithKline Beecham).
Even in his private life, as he zips from collecting handmade furniture to pre-Colombian art to Spanish abstract impressionists, his capacity for quick-immersion-total-knowledge seems to know few boundaries.
All of that makes him a daunting manager to report to, one who can quite quickly reach the level of expertise of someone who has been on the job for years. Add to that the non-stop working, the elegantly ascetic lifestyle ('if only he would just get pissed once!' wails one friend) and the determination that only the best will rise at BP, and you can see why everyone says he is 'utterly respected' by his managers, and feared by his rivals.
But not really liked? Unfair, say his friends. Browne is not a cold fish; he is unflaggingly loyal to those he knows well. He is just a person who values control. If you knew more about his background - only child, sent to boarding school young, very academic, parents overseas a lot, close to a devoted mother who lost her family in the second world war - then you would see why.
How much are we allowed to know? This much. Browne says he gets a lot of his character from his father, who also worked at BP. 'He was a very determined man, not that gregarious, and I suppose if I had to choose between two things, I wouldn't put myself in the gregarious camp. Neither is my mother. She is very private.'
While still in the Army, Browne's father was stationed round the world in the last days of the British empire, winding up garrisons, closing things down. Browne stops after telling me this and studies me closely, as if he can see my mind working. He has been shutting down and laying off, first BP's bloated portfolio and now Amoco's, since the mid-80s. Like father, like son? 'I suppose there are parallels,' he sighs, pre-empting me.
Browne travelled the world with his parents. When his father joined Anglo-Iranian Oil (later British Petroleum), he was sent, aged 10, to King's School, Ely. The Brownes hail from Norwich, where his grandmother was a hospital matron (his grandfather was a private in the first world war); that is as much as he knows. He loves the Fens. 'It is the closest thing I have to a home county.'
He was a brilliant student, and won a scholarship to Cambridge. He could believably still be there, dining at high table, working on imaginative new schemes to modernise his laboratories, if his father's advice to try BP hadn't lured him out. He took a year's sabbatical and applied to work in America, thinking a stint in New York would be fun. Instead BP plonked him in Alaska as a trainee petroleum engineer.
To his surprise he loved it and never came back.
America, he says, and Alaska in particular, had a profound effect on him. 'What was interesting was the rapidly increasing professionalism which I encountered there, which was not the case in other parts of BP. Especially as we were working with new blood brought into the company from outside.'
He learnt about cash-flows and margins and negotiating with partners and state hearings. Perhaps most importantly, watching the arguments rage over the pros and cons of building the trans-Alaskan pipeline, he came face to face early on with growing unease about the oil industry's impact on the environment. His decision to deal with that head-on, now he has risen to the very top, has become one of the keynote principles of his leadership.
'These are issues of tremendous complexity,' says Browne, rolling his lighter in his fingers. 'Do you want a clean environment or do you want hydrocarbons? You may see this as a trade-off, but it is a false one.
You have to ask if you want both and in the service of gaining both usually comes technology and better ways of doing things. No form of human action can be risk-free, but you have to look at our industry and say, this is an industry that is going to grow because people like our products, they create a better world for them, they create heat, mobility and light, and people equate that with some form of freedom.'
And yet the industry is mistrusted by many? He hesitates for a second.
'In my opinion the industry hasn't handled it well. It has cried wolf a lot. I remember vividly the question of lead-free petrol, which was going to cost the industry so much money it would never recover. Unfortunately that wasn't true. But the industry has got itself into this equation: consumers want to consume more, they recognise the consequences of consumption, they don't want to shoulder the burden of that themselves, so they transfer it onto the shoulders of the oil and gas companies ... The reality is it's a shared responsibility. We can do a lot but so must consumers.'
It is this quietly balanced approach that has impressed green campaigners, used to oil industry leaders who won't accept that global warming is a problem. Browne, they say, is the first to take green issues seriously, even if, for them, he doesn't go far enough. Likewise qualms about consolidation in the market leading to monopoly. Even after combining with Amoco and Arco, BP only accounts for 3.7% of global crude oil supply. It's not worth discussing.
Browne says his stance on green issues is dictated by BP staff. 'I asked them, how do you feel about it? They felt the following: they worry about global warming, their children talk to them about it, they think the company ought to get on the front foot about this.' Browne asked for suggestions internally on how the company might hit new, greener targets and was deluged with e-mail. 'The number of responses was phenomenal. People believe that this is a principle value of this company: green.'
There is something about the way he refers to BP staff - the affection, the controlled warmth - that surprises me, as if there is a bond that he knows is at odds with his rational (and rationalising) front. Does he think of his staff as family?
For a moment I think I've hit the button. He blushes - it happens a couple of times in the interview, backing the view that he is really a much more sensitive man that he likes to let on. Yet it sits uneasily with the huge rationalisations he is still pushing through the company. 'I think,' he says eventually, 'that you have to use realistic language, um, no one except your family can be family by definition.'
Does he think he would have got to the top with a wife and kids? He pauses.
'I don't know. I think you are always the wrong person to answer this question, it is not as if I have led two separate and independent lives and can compare.' But can't he imagine? No, probably not.
Everyone knows that the only family Browne has is his mother, who shares his apartment by the Thames in Chelsea. Browne has looked after her since his father died of diabetes in 1980. He takes her to BP social events, she knows many of the top staff and there is even speculation that she is a source of power herself, dishing out advice on who she rates and who she doesn't - malicious gossip, no doubt, but you can see that, in the macho oil industry, Browne's loyalty to his mum is taken as unorthodox behaviour.
Rivals speculate quite openly about whether he is gay and some think his insistence on not discussing his private life just makes everyone more intrigued. Colleagues in the past have spent a lot of time fixing him up with potential girlfriends, only to see him always put the company first, as if relationships just get in the way. He had his heart broken in America, they say, and all his mother wants is for him to settle down and produce some grandchildren. None of this comes from Browne himself - who will no doubt be furious that I have written it - but from ex-BP men and the array of people around him who think that, for all his success now, if he doesn't open up, the press will crucify him with innuendo eventually.
But Browne is in a difficult position. His mother, now in her early '80s, reads all the articles about him, and objects to any explanations of their private life which he gives. 'She doesn't like to be talked about. She says, 'I didn't sign up for my son's career!" In particular, she does not want him to discuss the second world war, when nearly all her relatives were wiped out in the Nazi death camps. There are too many painful memories. Does he ever go back to her homeland? 'No,' he says, 'It's all changed a lot since the war.' Then he adds, quietly pleading, 'don't ask me these questions.'
We pause. He looks dreadfully uneasy. OK, what does he spend his money on? He earns close to £20,000 a week. Well, he says, he does a bit of collecting, art and music, and saves the rest. He has only one home - 'I blanch at the idea of running more than one' - but likes to rent houses abroad for holidays with his mother: the Veneto last year, the north of Tuscany next year.
'And I spend money on these,' he smiles, tapping his cigar.
Does he smoke them in America?
'I only smoke them here,' he says, but I'm not sure I believe him.
Who will he leave his money to? He takes a contemplative puff of his small cigar. 'I have always thought that one of the great pleasures of the creation of wealth is to give it away.'
So is that what he will spend his retirement doing? The conversation is like drawing blood from a stone.
'It depends how much I have earned,' he says. 'This is a very performance-driven company. It depends how well the team creates the performance.'
We talk about his paintings and the cost of head office, but I can see he has lost interest. That smile is hardening. He had already warned me my time was nearly up. Getting personal probably accelerated that.
Suddenly he leaps from the table and profers his hand.
'Productivity is the name of the game,' he says. 'Good to see you.' He spins and presses a button on the wall, and the door to his private office slides open, before shutting smoothly behind him. Only the whiff of cigar smoke, like the last vestige of a magician's trick, remains. l
SIR JOHN BROWNE IN A MINUTE
1948 Born 20 February, Hamburg, Germany. Educated King's School, Ely, St John's, Cambridge and Stanford University, USA
1969 Joins BP as graduate trainee. Becomes Group Treasurer and Chief Executive of BP Finance International in 1984
1995 Group chief executive, BP
1998 Following the $57 billion merger of BP and Amoco, appointed group chief executive. Knighted
1999 Leads $27 billion acquisition of Arco
Non-executive director, Intel, member, Daimler-Chrysler supervisory board and a British Museum trustee.