Story Originally Appeared in The New York Times
LONDON — Royal Dutch Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, surprised markets on Tuesday by naming Ben van Beurden to succeed Peter Voser as chief executive on Jan. 1.
Mr. van Beurden, a Dutch national who is 55, has headed Shell’s large marketing and refining business since January and has been a key player in its liquefied natural gas business, in which Shell is the world leader among publicly traded oil companies.
He was chosen by Shell’s board over better-known candidates including Andrew Brown, head of exploration and production; Marvin Odum, head of the company’s Americas business; and Simon Henry, the chief financial officer, well-known to investors.
“This will be something of a surprise to analysts who widely expected” Mr. Henry to be chosen, said Peter Hutton, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets in London. “However, it was always clear that Shell would appoint the person it felt had the best combination of skills for the job, not necessarily the best known to the external community.”
Shell shares rose Tuesday in London..
Mr. Voser had said in May that he would step down next year after less than five years in the top job, news that also surprised the markets. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family, which had remained in his native Switzerland while he worked at Shell headquarters in London.
Previously chief financial officer, Mr. Voser had helped stabilize Shell after a scandal over misstating oil and gas reserves. While uncomfortable in the limelight, he is thought to have improved the implementation of big projects like the $20 billion Pearl gas-to-liquids plant in Qatar that have come to distinguish Shell.
The standard spot for chief executives-in-waiting at major oil companies is the exploration and production division, which is usually the big profit earner.
Shell differs from other major oil major companies like BP by stressing big long-term projects that lack the tremendous potential financial rewards of oil exploration but produce steady returns with lower risk.
Liquefied natural gas tends to earn returns in the relatively modest 10 percent to 15 percent range, analysts say, but it produces steady cash flows for decades with little additional capital expenditure.
Shell has invested around $40 billion in the business in recent years. It hopes to cash in on growing use of gas in China and other developing countries.
It is also one of the few companies that is investing large sums in gas-to-liquids plants, the monster installations required to transform natural gas into fuels like diesel. And it is the leader in the still-unproven technology of building gigantic floating vessels to process liquefied natural gas in remote locations.
Mr. van Beurden was involved in the floating vessels at the early stages and is also credited by some with turning around the now-profitable chemicals business when he headed it from 2006 to 2012. He reconfigured Shell’s American chemical plants to use low-priced gas feedstock rather than oil.
In an industry where access to oil and gas is increasingly competitive, Shell hopes a demonstrated ability to design and manage megaprojects will give it a competitive advantage.
Mr. van Beurden’s experience appears tailored to Shell’s strategy. For instance, he has 10 years in Shell’s liquefied natural gas business. That business, along with gas-to-liquids, earned Shell $9.4 billion of its $25.1 billion in profit last year.
“Ben will continue to drive and further develop the strategic agenda that we have set out, to generate competitive returns for our shareholders,” Shell’s chairman, Jorma Ollila, said in a statement Tuesday.