Shell chief Ben van Beurden to step down

Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden is to step down after almost a decade in the job, with head of gas and renewables Wael Sawan named to replace him as leader of the energy major.

Thursday’s announcement ends months of speculation over who would succeed van Beurden at the FTSE 100 company.

Big Oil chief executives rarely serve longer than 10 years, and initial preparations for van Beurden’s departure began shortly after Sir Andrew Mackenzie’s installation as chair in May last year, according to people familiar with the matter.

Sawan, who will step up at the end of the year, inherits a company generating record profits but still facing big questions about the strength and pace of its strategy to cut emissions as it shifts away from hydrocarbons to cleaner forms of energy.

Shell reported quarterly earnings of $11.5bn in July, breaking its profit record for the second consecutive quarter.

A dual Lebanese-Canadian national born in Beirut, Sawan has long been viewed as a contender to replace van Beurden. He joined the company in 1997 and previously ran the company’s oil and gas projects in Qatar, its deepwater business from Houston and its upstream division.

Sawan’s appointment last year as head of the group’s integrated gas and renewables business was viewed internally as a sign he was being groomed for the top job.

Gas and renewables is now Shell’s most strategically important division, but an area where Sawan had less experience. He has been a member of Shell’s executive committee since July 2019.

Mackenzie described Sawan as “an exceptional leader” with “strategic clarity” and a “deep understanding” of Shell and the energy sector.

Shell said the board had conducted an extensive external search before appointing from within. Other internal candidates said to have been considered for the top job include Huibert Vigeveno, head of Shell’s downstream business, and Zoe Yujnovich, head of upstream.

Sawan’s appointment is likely to result in another round of reshuffles on Shell’s eight-person executive committee, starting with the selection of a new gas and renewables head.

Biraj Borkhataria, head of oil and gas equity research at RBC Capital Markets, said Sawan was “respected” by the investor community. “The shift is likely to be more of a continuation than revolution of the strategy put in place by van Beurden.”

Van Beurden, who has spent his entire 39-year career at Shell, will continue to advise the board until the end of June, when he will leave the company.

In nine years as chief executive, he oversaw the $52bn acquisition of BG Group, relocated the company’s headquarters to London and overhauled its strategy with a commitment to reduce oil production and slash emissions.

But the Dutch executive has also faced criticism, not least in his native Netherlands, where a court last year ruled that Shell needed to cut emissions faster.

He steered the business through two big downturns and in 2020, after the coronavirus pandemic crushed energy demand, cut Shell’s dividend for the first time since the second world war.

After rallying more than 40 per cent this year, Shell’s share price is up about 10 per cent since van Beurden was appointed in 2014.

“It has been a privilege and an honour to have served Shell for nearly four decades and to lead the company for the past nine years,” van Beurden said.

In an interview with the Financial Times in July, van Beurden declined to discuss succession plans but talked extensively about his legacy.

Sawan, who is based in The Hague, will move to London when he takes over as chief executive.

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