Intrigue surrounds Statoil CEO search

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The search for a new chief executive for state oil company Statoil took an intriguing turn this week, involving one of the company’s internal CEO candidates. At issue is whether a non-Norwegian has any chance of leading Norway’s biggest company.

John Knight, an executive vice president at Statoil, got caught up in intrigue surrounding the search for a new Statoil CEO. PHOTO: Statoil

John Knight, an executive vice president at Statoil, got caught up in the intrigue surrounding the search for a new Statoil CEO. PHOTO: Statoil

Speculation has flown for months over who will succeed former Statoil CEO Helge Lund. He resigned last fall to take a much higher-paying job as chief executive of BG Group (formerly British Gas) in London.

There was no debate over whether Lund, as a Norwegian, could take over the helm of a British company, but there’s been plenty of discussion in Norway over whether a British executive, or any non-Norwegian, can take over at Statoil. One practical issue concerns executive pay levels. Even though Norway is known for its high prices, executive pay is relatively low compared to other countries, especially the US and Great Britain. CEO salaries in Norway don’t come close to the multi-million-pound or dollar packages held by executives abroad.

The latest batch of media buzz about Statoil’s CEO search began, however, when Marit Arnstad, a former government oil and energy minister, told newspaper Klassekampen that one of Statoil’s top executives, John Knight, was not a leading candidate to succeed Lund. Many others had thought he was, since he’s worked at Statoil for more than a decade and been in charge of the company’s strategic planning. Knight also is known for guiding Statoil’s international expansion in recent years.

Foreigners need not apply
Arnstad, who also has served as a deputy leader of Statoil’s board, dismissed Knight, however, simply because he’s not Norwegian. “Knight is a clever strategist, but he is British and he thinks like a Brit,” Arnstad, a veteran of Norway’s small rural-oriented Center Party, told Klassekampen. “It’s important that Statoil has a Norwegian boss.”

Arnstad’s blunt and arguably nationalistic assessment of Knight’s candidacy surprised those who have viewed him as among the leading internal candidates. Then Knight himself made the apparent mistake of objecting publicly to her assessment, telling newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week that competence, not nationality, should be the most relevant attribute.

Knight, who unveiled a more climate-friendly image of Statoil this week, told DN he had read the Klassekampen article. “She said that a Brit can’t understand the long history of Statoil,” he told DN, adding that he “personally” can’t accept such a claim. He said he’d even translated a book written by Statoil’s founding CEO Arve Johnsen, simply to better understand the company for which he was working.

Knight, who has made it clear he’s interested in the job as Statoil’s next CEO, also worried that Arnstad had misunderstood his background. “The idea that because I (studied) at Cambridge makes me some sort of British aristocrat isn’t correct,” he said, adding that he actually was the first member of his family to get a university education. He also told DN that he thinks it’s a strange idea to think that someone, on the basis of their passport, can’t be able to deeply understand the history of a nation. “That’s not my experience,” Knight said.

Objections overruled
But then he caught criticism from Wednesday for not only confirming his interest in the top Statoil post but for defending himself against Arnstad’s claims. “He should have kept his mouth shut,” Lars Esholdt, a Danish headhunter who’s worked in Oslo for years, told DN. Both Esholdt and another headhunter, John Egil Mæland of the executive search firm Mercuri Urval, suggested that Knight proved himself to be “un-Norwegian” by both promoting his candidacy and taking on Arnstad.

“We (Norwegians) are a bit more careful, we’re not so high in self-confidence,” Mæland claimed. “Even though we can, in some situations, seem extremely self-confident, we’re not really high on that.” No Norwegian, Mæland added, would announce their own candidacy to such a high-profile post as Statoil CEO.

Esholdt, meanwhile, was more critical of Knight’s self-defense, even though Arnstad’s remarks to Klassekampen were  arguably inappropriate. “He goes out and defends himself against an unfair claim, but that unfair claim could stand for itself,” Esholdt told DN, adding that if Arnstad’s logic were to be followed, Helge Lund wouldn’t be able to be a CEO outside Norway.

“He (Knight) should have stayed quiet instead of reacting emotionally,” Esholdt said, suggesting it raises questions about how Knight would react to much more important issues.

The employment of a new CEO for Statoil, meanwhile, may be drawn out if the board opts for an external candidate. Long quarantine period, pay negotiations and other issues can delay the process, reported newspaper Aftenposten this week, and no new boss expected to be in place before Easter.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund