Statoil boss now ‘more shy’

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Helge Lund, chief executive officer of Norwegian oil company Statoil, is having an even busier week than normal as he runs the country’s biggest international firm and oversees its high-profile presence at one of the largest oil industry exhibitions in the world. He told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), though, that the demands of his job have actually made him more shy over the years, and he scoffed at the idea he may someday want to run for political office.

Statoil Chief Executive Helge Lund may often wish he could hide behind sunglasses and go incognito, but he seems to remain keen on running Norway's biggest company. PHOTO: Statoil/Eva Sleire

The pressure on him is constant and Lund, like most CEOs, works long days and travels worldwide. He took over as Statoil’s top boss eight years ago, and since has become a business celebrity in Norway because of the importance of his position in a country that’s derived much of its economic strength from its oil and gas resources.

Lund, age 49, doesn’t like talking much about himself, but he told DN that sometimes he seeks refuge from all the pressure and celebrity in the peaceful forests of Norway.

“My way of tackling it is that I’ve become more shy,” Lund admitted to DN. “I get so much attention in this job for better or worse, that I want to just be on a trail in Nordmarka (the hills and forest bordering Oslo’s north side) to walk or run where I can be free.”

The outdoors in Norway, perhaps especially the forests called marka that surround most cities and towns, are to Norwegians what the onsen (natural hot springs) are to the Japanese: An equalizing factor where everyone is basically viewed the same without regard to titles or jobs, and where they can relax.

Far from the forest this week, Lund is spending his days at the large ONS 2012 exhibition in Statoil’s home base of Stavanger estimating the size of new oil discoveries, greeting dignitaries and other top oil industry executives from all over the world, making speeches, being a corporate host and even escorting some journalists out to a drilling rig in the North Sea. He’s obligated to be sociable and up-to-speed on all major issues in a company with global interests, operating in a business that many people love to hate and criticize. Sometimes he seems to feel that he just can’t win, as Statoil is blasted for everything from participating in the Canadian oil sands project, to extracting gas from shale oil, to actively seeking more oil drilling rights off the scenic Norwegian coast – all at the same time the company is expected to keep spewing out both oil, gas and profits to keep Norway’s strong economy humming.

Statoil's Lund in a more familiar pose. PHOTO: Statoil/Ole Jørgen Bratland

Lund feels an enormous responsibility to continue creating value from the oil and gas industry in Norway, while also trying to keep the company environmentally responsible. He calls it a “paradox” that politicians around the world haven’t fully seen the value of the shale gas companies like Statoil are extracting. He claims the oil companies have the technology now to do it, don’t need subsidies like other energy producers do, and that more use of gas will lower the amount of carbon dioxide being emitted from, for example, coal-fired plants. He think carbon-capture programs will continue to take decades to develop because they’re not cost-effective. The Norwegian government has been working on its for years already.

Lund has also been under heated criticism from Statoil employees who accuse him of cutting their pension benefits, while he and other top company executives receive generous pension packages. “I’m surprised over how controversial it is for Statoil to adapt to efficiency improvements that are completely normal in other companies,” he said. “In addition to our obligation to create value for shareholders, the state is the biggest beneficiary of what we create through more efficient operations and increase competitive strength. If we save NOK 1,000 through efficiency, the state (and thus Norwegian citizens as a whole) gets NOK 780.”

No sacrifice, no political ambitions
Despite the constant pressure, frequent frustration and fact that his job “takes a lot” of his life, Lund rejected the suggestion that he has to make “sacrifices.” He stresses that he has chosen the kind of life he has, and that it’s been “fun” to combine growth on the Norwegian continental shelf while also expanding internationally. He’s proud that Statoil has dramatically expanded production and will double internationally again by 2020. He gives much of the credit for that to a merger between Statoil and the oil and gas interests formerly held by another Norwegian industrial firm, Norsk Hydro, which provided the muscle needed.

He admits that his “choice” of holding a high-power job like Statoil CEO “has had an impact on those around me,” but he didn’t want to expand on the theme. He claimed he hasn’t changed his lifestyle since taking over as CEO in 2004. “I use the free time I have with family and friends. If there’s still something called Gutteklubben Grei in Norway (rather like an “old boys’ club” where the movers and shakers meet), I’m not a member of it,” Lund told DN. “I don’t spend much time going fox-hunting with bankers. That’s not my style.”

He said he nearly laughed at a recent report in the Financial Times that he may be ready for a political career when his time in Statoil is over. “I definitely have no such ambitions or plans,” Lund told DN.

‘Meaningful’
Asked how long he thinks an oil company CEO should sit, he said that depends “on the situation and the challenges.” The long-term nature of the oil business suggests it’s not “meaningful” to only hold the job a few years. His own tenure, he stressed, is a matter for Statoil’s board.

Personally, he noted, he needs to feel he has “the energy and ability” to lead the organization.

“No one is going to carry me out of my chair at Statoil,” he told DN. “I don’t need to be CEO of Statoil. As long as I have something to contribute and the board thinks I’m doing an OK job, then I think it’s meaningful.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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