Lame ducks make it hard for firms to fly

Elizabeth Fournier
WHEN Peter Voser leaves Shell next year, his tenure is likely to be looked back on with respect. Promoted to finance chief in 2004 after the company was forced to admit it had dramatically overestimated its proved oil and natural gas reserves, the quiet Swiss boss has led Shell through a reassuringly uneventful four years since he took the top job in 2009.

Bowing out on a three per cent rise in profits yesterday – mainly from new projects and refining – Voser has quietly built the oil giant into a credible liquefied natural gas player, and it makes sense that he now feels ready to step down and spend his pension pot on the change of lifestyle he told investors he was craving yesterday.

So why not do it straight away?

Like Sir John Peace at Experian yesterday, Voser has handed investors a lengthy notice period – he won’t leave until mid-2014 – and no replacement has been immediately named. Sticking around may give him time to find and train his successor, but it also exposes Shell to the sort of uncertainty that shareholders always hate. And until he names an heir, Voser is unlikely to make many major decisions or be in a strong enough position to handle any problems that could arise.

He’s leaving Shell at a crucial time. Like rivals, it is struggling to replace reserves and boost production, and will be feeling the squeeze as the price of oil threatens to fall lower.

Whoever takes over – and all indictors point to an internal promotion – might not have so smooth a ride as Voser. The company would have been better off firming up a succession plan behind the scenes than leaving shareholders wondering who’ll lead them through the next chapter.

That Shell’s shares barely moved yesterday is a testament both to its impressive financials, and to the fact that investors were already half expecting Voser to go. But they would have been expecting it in six months’ time too.

Until they know what’s coming next, they will have very little incentive to put more skin in the game.