BP chairman - A media-savvy CEO who became camera shy

LONDON Wed Jun 16, 2010 9:17pm BST

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LONDON (Reuters) - While BP's chief executive takes the heat in the U.S. media for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, his boss, the oil giant's chairman, has received the most criticism from investors and the British business press for keeping a low profile.

But after Wednesday's meeting at the White House with U.S. President Barack Obama, Carl-Henric Svanberg stepped up to the microphone and apologized to the American people on behalf of BP. "I do thank you for the patience that you have during this difficult time," he said.

"I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies who don't care, but that is not the case in BP, we care about the small people," Svanberg said.

He also said BP's board had agreed not to pay dividends this year and promised to make sure damage claims were handled swiftly and fairly.

Svanberg was chief executive of Swedish telecoms groups Ericsson when he was selected as BP's next chairman last June.

In this role and previously as CEO of the world's largest lockmaker, Assa Abloy Group, he earned a reputation as a media-savvy corporate boss.

However, these skills seemed to desert him as BP became the biggest news story in the United States, prompting accusations in business page editorials that he was "invisible."

Analysts and investors suggested the 58-year-old Swede was failing to show CEO Tony Hayward sufficient support.

The BP job, which Svanberg took up in January, was his first in the energy industry and some have blamed inexperience for his failure to establish a clear presence amidst the crisis.

His possibly prophetic view of politics could also explain his reluctance to step into the limelight.

In an interview with BP's company magazine this year, he said while business was focussed on working with people to find solutions, "In the political world, it seems much more brutal, and you are supposed to argue that your opponent is a bad person in all respects."

It could also be a matter of tradition. In Europe, the chairman is a non-executive role, unlike the United States where the CEO often also holds the chairmanship. And so Svanberg did not expect to play an active role in BP's operations.

Svanberg said in the company magazine interview that while some executives he knew had found it difficult to "wind down" from a hands-on role to a non-executive role, he had no such problem.

BACKSEAT ROLE

Svanberg himself told investors on a conference call this month that his backseat role was deliberate -- a strategy to avoid confusion in the public's eyes about who was leading the oil spill response.

It's not just his standing with investors Svanberg needs to restore. Though he will be paid 750,000 pounds ($1.11 million) per year for his chairman's role, his tenure at BP has so far cost him money.

Svanberg bought 750,000 shares at 575 pence each in February, as a sign of his faith in the company.

On April 28, a week after the Deepwater Horizon rig, which was drilling the blown-own well sunk, he bought another 175,000 shares at 619 pence.

His paper loss at the close of Wednesday was 2.3 million pounds.

Svanberg took up his role as CEO of Ericsson -- the role which established his reputation in international business circles -- after the company suffered nine straight quarters of losses.

He added to already heavy layoffs and cut costs sharply. Investors welcomed his performance, but a badly-communicated profit warning in 2007 tarnished his name among financial analysts.

Svanberg was born in Porjus, a village inside the Arctic Circle which bills itself as the best place in the world to watch the Northern Lights.

Svanberg was a keen ice hockey player in younger years and is still, like Hayward, an avid sailor.

He has a Master of Science degree, from the Linkoping Institute of Technology, and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, from the University of Uppsala.

He is divorced with three children. ($1=.6746 Pound)

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

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