Statoil’s CEO quits to take new job

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UPDATED: Helge Lund, who has led Norway’s largest company Statoil for the past decade, abruptly left his post on Wednesday to take over as boss of BG Group (formerly British Gas). Lund’s resignation was voluntary, and Statoil’s board immediately appointed his successor.

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

Helge Lund has left Statoil to accept a new top post as chief executive of British Gas, where he’ll start early next year. PHOTO: Statoil/Ole Jørgen Bratland

“I could have continued for a period, but there is a time for everything,” said Lund in a prepared statement. “Renewal is important, both for Statoil and for me. I came to the conclusion that the time was right for a change.”

Lund is leaving Noway’s top business post at a time of major cost-cutting that he initiated at Statoil, as the boom years fueled by high oil prices taper off. With North Sea crude now selling for 40 percent less than just a few years ago, the entire industry is reassessing exploration and field development projects because of high costs, and entering a period of contraction.

That will now all be handled, at least on a temporary basis, by Eldar Sætre, who was named acting president and chief executive with immediate effect. Sætre has been a member of Statoil’s corporate executive committee since 2003. He was Statoil’s executive vice president and chief financial officer until 2010, when he became the company’s executive vice president of marketing, processing and renewable energy projects. Sætre in turn will be replaced by Tor Martin Anfinnsen.

Tough job
Lund, who can celebrate his 52nd birthday on Thursday along with his new job, has led Statoil through a period of extraordinary growth including major, if somewhat controversial, international expansion. He took over after Statoil’s former chief executive, Olav Fjell, had to leave following a major corruption scandal in Iran, and Lund immediately sought to restore Statoil’s spirits and reputation.

After years of muttering that Norway’s oil fields would soon run dry, Lund launched major new exploration projects on the Norwegian Continental Shelf and the company has made a series of major new discoveries, both in and around existing fields in the North Sea that lie relatively close to Statoil’s home base in Stavanger and in the far reaches of the Arctic. Statoil reported that the company had 12 exploration wells when Lund took over in 2004. This year Statoil plans to complete around 50. Production has nearly doubled during his tenure.

Lund also had to guide the company through the greatest trauma in its history, when Islamic terrorists attacked a gas plant in southern Algeria. Five Statoil employees were killed in the attack. Lund also led the company through its acquisition of Norsk Hydro’s oil and gas division.

‘Made Statoil stronger’
“I would like to thank Helge Lund for his great efforts during his 10-year tenure at Statoil,” said Statoil Chairman Svein Rennemo. “Under his leadership, Statoil has become a stronger company.” He also said that he thinks Eldar Sætre is “the right leader to ensure continuity” at Statoil. Statoil’s board has already formed a sub-committee to search for a permanent replacement to fill the top job at Statoil, which remains state-controlled and thus needs approval from the government as major shareholder.

The position has historically been subject to political considerations. Lund himself had once been a group secretary in Parliament for the Conservative Party (Høyre), before launching his business career, and he was appointed when the Conservatives were part of a center-right government coalition at the time. He chose to resign his Statoil post a year after the Conservatives regained government power, meaning that Norway’s new conservative coalition will be in a position to give the nod to his replacement. Nikolai Astrup, energy spokesman for the Conservatives, regretted Lund’s resignation and said it was important to find his permanent replacement quickly.

Lund, who last spring mentioned that he hadn’t had a full weekend off for years, now may be able to take a break before starting up at British Gas next spring. He claimed on Wednesday, though, that despite what analysts have called the “inhumane pressures” of his job for the past 10 years, he had “the motivation and the energy to take on a new leadership challenge.” He said he found the new job at British Gas, headquartered west of London in Thames Valley Park in Reading, “to be the right one.” The company is much smaller than Statoil but has operations in 24 countries and Lund will earn much more money, with a base salary of GBP 1.5 million (NOK 15 million) but various incentive programs that Norway’s business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported could leave him with as much as GBP 9 million during his first year.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund