BP boss: Sometimes you get hit by a bus

By Sarah Arnott

Tony Hayward's poorly chosen words in the weeks since the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico have hastened his fall from grace.

But yesterday, on his final day as BP chief executive, he got it right.

"Sometimes you step off the pavement and you get hit by a bus," a stunned Hayward told the media in London, neatly summing up the events that have brought to a close his 30-year stint in the oil industry.

Three months after explosion that killed 11 people and unleashed the worst oil spill in US history, Hayward is to step down from his job as BP chief executive, to be replaced by a US colleague, Bob Dudley.

The announcement of the "mutual agreement" between Hayward and BP came as little surprise after a series of gaffes left Hayward branded "the most hated and clueless man in America".

But there was no hiding his heartbreak, despite a severance package worth up to £12m ($NZ25.5m) and a non-executive place on the board of BP's Russian joint venture TNK-BP. After stressing that the loss of life in the rig disaster put all subsequent events into context, an exhausted-looking Hayward said the announcement of his departure was "a very sad day for me personally".

"My entire career has been at BP. I love the company and everything it stands for," he said, describing the move as a "practical matter" after he was "demonised and vilified" in the US. "BP can't move on as a company in the US with me as its leader," he said. "I don't know if that will assuage the politicians or not but it is the right thing to stand down."

Hayward made some huge PR errors in the aftermath of the disaster that has pumped more than five million barrels of oil into the Gulf and tarred beaches from Texas to Florida. The first sign of trouble was his early suggestion the environmental impact was likely to be "very, very modest".

A later quip that he "would like his life back", and a day off to go yacht-racing with his son, were even worse. And at a mammoth grilling by the US Congress Energy Committee he was lambasted as evasive and difficult, with one committee member accusing him of avoiding his responsibility and "kicking the can down the road".

But despite his obvious deflation, Hayward mounted an unapologetic defence of BP's "unprecedented" response to the disaster, saying it has been a "model" of corporate responsibility that "not many other companies could have contemplated, let alone done".

He also pointed to the successes - the "extraordinary engineering feat" of the latest efforts to cap the well, the scale of the clean-up and the claims process for compensation. "Was I even close to perfect? Absolutely not. With the benefit of hindsight, would I have done things differently? Of course. But would I change fundamentally what BP did and the role I played? No," Hayward said.

And he could not resist a final side-swipe at the US political establishment that has gone after him with such savagery. He will not be appearing at another Congressional hearing, on Thursday, to answer allegations that BP lobbied for the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi to help it win oil contracts in Libya. "I have a busy week so we are sending someone else," he said.

The tragedy at the Macondo well makes a mockery of Hayward's promise, when he took the top job three years ago, to focus "laser-like" on safety. But company insiders and industry commentators alike agree he has made progress in transforming the buccaneering culture fostered by his predecessor, Lord Browne.

The task of addressing BP's safety record now moves to Dudley, who takes over on 1 October. His brief will be to take the company forward: selling off $US30bn-worth of assets to fund compensation claims, dealing with the fall-out from official investigations into the disaster and rehabilitating BP's deeply tarnished image in the US.

Carl-Henric Svarnberg, the BP Chairman, yesterday paid tribute to the out-going boss. "[Tony Hayward] has done a good job at BP all through almost 30 years and also as chief executive."

Svarnberg also denied that Dudley's US nationality was the deciding factor in his appointment, describing him as an unusually well-travelled "international man" after 30 years in the oil industry, including three in China and nine in Russia.

Dudley added his voice to the commendations of Hayward's leadership. "I have the greatest admiration for Tony Hayward - for what he has done as chief executive, how he has transformed the company and his unwavering dedication to ensure BP met it commitments to the people of the US Gulf coast," Dudley said.

With Greenpeace activists closing down petrol stations across London in protest at BP's environmental record, he also took the opportunity to stress his awareness of the challenges ahead.

"These kinds of changes don't happen overnight ... but now we've had this incident we need to accelerate those changes," he said. But the final word was for Hayward.

"Whether it is fair or not is not the point," he said of his departure. "The fact is that life isn't fair. We all know that."

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