Dudley Faces Bumpy Road Ahead

Todd Shriber
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There are plenty of high profile jobs that are ''tough'' jobs for good reasons. The world of sports illustrates this point very nicely. Being the coach of the Notre Dame team football is a tough job. Managing the New York Yankees is probably harder given that the job is performed under the watchful and hard-to-please eye of the New York media. And since I am going to talk about BP, I'll make this relevant to the U.K. and say that the managing the Manchester United football club is far from the easiest gig in the sports world.

Beyond being tough jobs, the commonality that links the leaders of these illustrious teams is that they inherent a culture of pride and winning when they take the helm. The fans of these teams expect success every year. No exceptions. The media will exploit one slack season as a reason to vilify the coach, verbally hanging the team's leader with no remorse. I will dispense with the sports analogies and get to the business version of a tough, but good job. Perhaps the greatest example, at least as far as a U.S. company is concerned is Goldman Sachs.

Love 'em or hate 'em, Goldman Sachs (GS) is adept at making for itself and for its shareholders. Goldman has a winning culture that allows it churn out stellar quarter after quarter for its investors, making the bank and its CEO one part Vito Corleone (because he always made money for his partners) and one part New York Yankees manager because Goldman is always winning and irritating its rivals along the way.

This is a roundabout way of saying that culture matters in business perhaps even more so than it matters in sports. If nothing else, the analogy is relevant and that's why newly anointed BP CEO Robert Dudley has his work cut out for him when he takes the helm of Europe's largest oil company by production volume on October 1. BP sure has an interesting corporate history as Jim highlighted on Monday. The company's corporate culture is another matter altogether.

Now the world knows the signs were all there about BP's corner-cutting culture before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. The 2005 Texas City refinery explosion and the 2006 Alaska pipeline have been thrust back into the spotlight to illustrate BP's negligence in managing its assets and protecting its own employees. Just as it takes years to build a winning culture, a sloppy culture isn't erected overnight either. The bad news for Mr. Dudley is that he will not be able to tear down BP's shoddy culture and resurrect the company's image in expedient fashion. After all, Rome was not built in a day.

Selling $30 billion in assets, as BP plans to do, will not do much to reshape the company's culture. BP currently has $250 billion in assets, so parting with $30 billion creates a smaller company, giving Mr. Dudley less to babysit. Elevating an American to CEO may be viewed as shrewd move by some, but Washington will probably view it as transparent. By the Obama Administration's own admission, it does not really care who runs BP (BP) as long as the company makes things right in the Gulf.

So asset sales and an American at the helm are merely gambits, though probably necessary, that do not represent a shift in BP's corporate culture. It is unreasonable to expect things to change overnight, but Mr. Dudley had better keep his eye on the culture ball if he wants to institute real change that benefits BP's employees and shareholders.