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BP ‘turtle’ Brendan Looney out of the company he loved after relationships with staff

BP has seen its shares weather the storm caused by the shock departure of boss Bernard Looney after he admitted failing to disclose the extent of past relationships with colleagues (PA) (PA Archive)
BP has seen its shares weather the storm caused by the shock departure of boss Bernard Looney after he admitted failing to disclose the extent of past relationships with colleagues (PA) (PA Archive)

Bernard Looney was the last of a line of high flying BP super execs nicknamed “the Turtles” after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They were young and ambitious “lifers” mentored by a former CEO John Browne and whose dizzying ascent up the greasy pole took them all the way to the boardroom.

But just as Browne’s BP career ended in ruins in 2007 when it emerged he had lied to a court about his relationship with a man, now Bernard Looney finds himself wondering where it all went wrong.

The 53-year-old lost the job he loved last night working for the only company that had ever employed him – apart from the family farm in Ireland – in the most brutal of circumstances after admitting he had not been fully candid with the board about past relationships with colleagues.

He leaves with huge question marks hanging over him about how he had allowed his personal life to bring his professional career to such an ignominious and abrupt end.

Looney, who lives in Mayfair and earned more than £10 million last year, grew up far from the boardroom cut and thrust of a global multinational. His early years were spent on a small dairy farm near Kenmare, County Kerry in Ireland with just 14 cows and eight acres of arable lands.

He was the only member of the family who went to university, having been encouraged to read everything he could by his mother. “She said if I could read, I could do anything.” Neither of his parents stayed in school beyond the age of 11.

After graduating in engineering from University college Dublin, Looney was hired by BP and moved to London at the age of 20. He started out as a drill engineer in the North Sea in 1991 and spent a year getting his MBA at Stanford University, where he gained his accent described as “alternating between mid-Atlantic and Irish.”.

He also worked in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, where he was part of the team dealing with the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, and Vietnam before getting more senior roles.

Looney later described the traumatic period working on the Deepwater spill that eventually cost the job of his then boss Tony Hayward.

Looney was at the time head of BP’s North Sea operations and was drafted in to help try to come up with a solution to plug the well.

He said: “I was in Houston for 60 days straight helping out. To see what happened was very, very difficult. We will never forget what happened. We always have to have an eye on the past, because that has shaped the company. It was, without doubt, the most challenging time of my career,” he says.

“What you find during times like that is the depth and resources of people in the company and their extraordinary commitment.”

He finally succeeded Bob Dudley as chief executive in February 2020.

He became known as a driven and hard working executive who spends many hours working out in the gym. He was a devoted company man who said in 2018 :”BP is a company that has given me everything I have in my life.”

He certainly enjoyed the trapping of a man paid millions of pounds a year and who once, unwisely, described the business as “a cash machine” when oil prices were high.

Last year it emerged that he had sold a three bedroom flat in Mayfair to the developer Nick Candy for £6.5 million in November 2021. Less than a year later Candy had flipped it for a profit of more than £2 million. At the time the developer said: ““The size of the apartment is perfect,” he says. “It was just a bit tired and run-down; it needed a new kitchen and new bathrooms — it needed to be ‘Candyfied’.”

In October 2017 Looney married the life coach and GQ columnist Jacqueline Hurst, who Masterchef’s Gregg Wallace credited with helping relieve his anxiety before he appeared on last year’s Strictly Come Dancing.

It was to prove a short lived union and the couple divorced without children in 2019 three months before he became BP chief executive.

She later described her relationship with Mr Looney - and how it ended - in painful detail in her self-published book How To Do You: the Life Changing Art of Mastering Your Thoughts and Taking Control of Your Life.

She wrote: ‘When my husband ended our marriage suddenly and without warning via a WhatsApp message, I was naturally devastated.

‘I learned later that he had only married me because he wanted to get to the next level of seniority in the company he worked for and he had to be seen to be married, in order to be given the promotion.

“Unbelievable, I know, but that was the case. Getting my mind - and thoughts -around what had happened took time.”

A friend of Looney defended him, telling the Sunday Times: “He was briefly married during a period in which he wasn’t promoted. So if he married her to get promoted, that didn’t seem to have worked.

After taking control of the CEO role in 2020 Looney has set a new agenda of reaching a net zero target by 2050 and has spoken of a ‘new purpose of reimagining energy for people and our planet’.

One industry source suggested to The Sunday Times he was ‘playing to the woke group’ and said there was ‘a degree of disenfranchisement, as you’d expect’ among BP’s ‘older generation’.

On his watch energy giants were at the centre of a public outcry over profiteering after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil and gas prices soaring. It sparked the cost-of-living crisis for households and record profits for the likes of BP. It reported annual earnings of £23 billion for 2022, the most it made since it began as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1909.

The year before the profit record, Looney compared BP to an ATM, saying: “When the market is strong, when oil prices are strong and when gas prices are strong, this is literally a cash machine.”

But as earnings records fell and payouts to shareholders rose - hitting $14 billion for 2022 in dividends and share buybacks – Looney courted further controversy by watering down his company’s commitments on climate change.

Looney said then that BP’s carbon emissions from its oil and gas operations would fall by between 20% and 30% by 2030 measured from 2019 levels, when its previous target was a drop between 35% and 40%.

He also increased plans for oil and gas output over the next seven years, a move welcomed by investors and advocates for UK-run energy production but slammed by climate change activists.

He also spoke out on diversity and LBGT+ inclusion in the workplace, which irritated some of the old guard but reassured BP that it had the right man at the helm of a £90 billion company that is under scrutiny from all quarters.

The board had already investigated allegations about relationships Looney had with colleagues in May 2022 but found no breach of the company code.

Further allegations surfaced, and investigations continue.

BP said: “Mr. Looney has today informed the company that he now accepts that he was not fully transparent in his previous disclosures.”

He goes immediately, to palpable shock in the City, which knew that, whatever else, Looney loved BP and believed in his mission.