How Bernard Looney’s career at BP unravelled

Bernard Looney spent the last 32 years crafting a near-perfect career at BP. This week it unravelled in a matter of days.

The Irish chief executive resigned with immediate effect on Tuesday evening, shortly after the Financial Times reported that he was due to leave the company after failing to disclose past romantic relationships with colleagues.

His abrupt departure has left BP without the key architect of its energy transition strategy. The FTSE 100 company also now faces questions about the extent and exact nature of Looney’s relationships, and whether his conduct reflects a wider cultural problem inside the 113-year-old energy major.

“Why was there not a clearer message that you don’t jeopardise the wellbeing of the company for this kind of thing?” asked one major shareholder.

BP has declined to detail the nature and number of Looney’s romantic relationships with colleagues. An internal investigation is ongoing, and the company has not said if its results will ever be made public.

Officially, Looney, 53, has resigned for misleading the board. It received an anonymous complaint about his past relationships in May 2022. Looney discussed the complaint at length with the board and then said he had nothing further to disclose, only for the company to receive a new set of allegations as recently as last week.

Current and former BP employees, particularly those based at its London headquarters, said Looney’s history of relationships with colleagues had been quietly discussed for years © Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

From that point, Looney’s tenure at BP unravelled at speed. By Tuesday it had been decided Looney would have to resign but BP’s board and its external crisis communications teams had hoped to have a few more days to craft the messaging, according to people familiar with the matter. Inside the company few people were aware of the fast-evolving situation.

Although the departure rocked the business world, for some investors and BP employees the reason for his departure came as less of a surprise.

Current and former BP employees, particularly those based at its London headquarters near Buckingham Palace, said Looney’s history of romantic relationships with colleagues had been quietly discussed by staff for years.

Looney joined BP in 1991 aged 21 and was married from 2017 to 2019.

One former senior executive, who left BP a few years ago after a long career and who knew Looney but rarely worked directly with him, said he could recall at least four relationships between Looney and other BP employees. While some of those women were junior to Looney in the company, the senior executive said he had no knowledge of any relationships between Looney and women under his direct supervision.

As is common in the appointment of senior executives, BP’s board discussed some of Looney’s past relationships during the CEO selection process. It concluded that there had been nothing inappropriate, that there was no suggestion of abuse of power, and that this personal history would not hinder his ability to do the top job, people familiar with process said.

Others were less confident his romantic life would not present future problems. “We always knew it would come back to bite him,” said one person who has worked with Looney. “It was a question of when.”

Industry executives and investors have raised questions about whether the board conducted the right level of due diligence when appointing Looney as CEO.

BP declined to comment beyond its Tuesday statement. Looney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pressure had already been building on Looney since the first internal investigation in May 2022, which was not publicly disclosed at the time.

Looney had spearheaded the most ambitious transformation strategy in the sector, pledging to move away from oil and gas, while ramping up spending on its so-called “transition growth engines” such as electric vehicle charging and biofuels. But many investors remained unconvinced. BP’s shares have lagged behind its competitors since his appointment in February 2020.

A recent internal company survey even showed that many employees were struggling to understand the strategy. In response, BP started this year with a push to refine and better explain its plans.

Bernard Looney at a presentation on net zero
Shareholders have speculated over whether BP will remain as committed to its transformation without Bernard Looney at the helm. © Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

BP chair Helge Lund has sought to steady the ship this week, reassuring investors in a series of emergency meetings that BP’s strategy and operations would be unaffected.

However, shareholders have speculated over whether BP will remain as committed to its transformation without Looney at the helm.

“It will be interesting if management changes how capital is allocated to the energy transition versus conventional energy,” said one top shareholder.

That could depend on who is named to replace Looney. Lund has ruled himself out as the next CEO and said an internal and external search has begun. Outside of BP executives, Maarten Wetselaar — who missed out on becoming Shell’s CEO to Wael Sawan last year — is seen by analysts as a potential choice.

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Looney had made mis-steps before. In late 2021 he became the target of tabloid anger in the UK after describing BP as “a cash machine”, at a time when many families were struggling with soaring energy bills.

The Sun newspaper, the UK’s biggest-selling, splashed its front page with a story on his downfall this week under the headline “Cost of Loving Crisis”.

Despite the whirlwind resignation, BP staff said the atmosphere at the company’s St. James’s Square headquarters had been “surprisingly calm” this week, noting that many employees had already worked through abrupt removals of CEOs at least twice before.

Lord John Browne resigned as BP chief executive in 2007 after lying to a court over how he met his partner. His successor, Tony Hayward, then left the company in 2010 after a drill rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 people and leading to the biggest ever oil spill in US waters.

Hayward went on to have a career drilling for oil in Iraqi Kurdistan and serving as chair of Glencore, while Lord Browne ultimately received sympathy for his outing as a gay man, and took on a number of senior business and governmental roles.

It is not yet clear what will happen to Looney. In an interview with the FT in 2022, Looney, who has no children, said that BP was his life. “I don’t do much else,” he said.

In the near term he could find himself in a fight with his former employer over millions of pounds in severance pay and clawbacks. After leading BP to a record $28bn in profits last year, Looney’s pay doubled to £10mn including £6mn under a long-term share award.

BP said when it announced his resignation that no decision had been made “in respect of any remuneration payments to be made to Mr Looney”.

One of many off-colour jokes circulating in the oil industry this week is that this could be BP’s biggest clean-up operation since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Looney has hired Mishcon de Reya, the London-based law firm with a rottweiler-like reputation for defending its clients’ interests, according to two people familiar with the situation.

Meanwhile, shareholders and current and former BP employees have been left asking exactly what happened: the company’s statement failed to address many questions, such as whether Looney’s conduct or the relationships he hid from the board were deemed appropriate for a person in his position.

BP has not said whether any of the relationships occurred while Looney was in the top job.

“The problem for any company is it’s just such a bad look,” said one veteran oil industry analyst. “For the public it risks looking like the company in question just doesn’t care.”

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