Browne's departure from BP should serve as a lesson

Vol 10, PW 26 (03 May 07) People & Policy

Abuse of power, it seems, is not confined to the Indian public sector.

Even supposedly squeaky-clean blue chip multinational oil companies are prone to the occasional transgression. Take this week’s shock news that Lord John Browne, the iconic, hugely respected and undeniably gifted chief executive of BP, has resigned ahead of schedule amid allegations of gifts, favours and free shopping trips to Venice at company expense for his Canadian male companion Jeff Chevalier.

For the past five months Browne fought a legal battle to stop Britain’s Mail on Sunday newspaper publishing allegations made by Chevalier about their four-year relationship, but on (Tuesday) 1st May he lost the fight and resigned the same day in a blaze of publicity. One of the more bizarre episodes to surface in London’s High Court is that Browne used BP staff to help Chevalier set up a company dealing in cell phone ring tones, no doubt convinced it was one of BP’s core competences, alongside exploration and refining.

Browne, along with Dave Allen, BP Group Managing Director, and Richard Balzer, a BP consultant, were all named as directors of Swissplace Ltd, set up to help Chevalier. Less trivial, but equally damaging, is that Chevalier was allowed to use a BP laptop and benefited from a lavish lifestyle, that included BP staff running errands for him and occasionally delivering him cash, normal in India but frowned on in most western companies.

Worse, Browne’s biggest mistake, and one he later admitted with deep regret, is that he lied at an earlier court hearing by saying he first met Chevalier in a London park and not, as was the case, through a male escort agency. From an Indian perspective, most directors and company CEOs of state owned and private companies will no doubt greet Browne’s departure with confusion because in India helping friends and family at company expense is part of the job profile, as we all know.

At BP’s office in Delhi, meanwhile, expect business as usual. “Most people here don’t even know who we are,â€‌ says one source.

“They think BP stands for Bharat Petroleum.â€‌