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BP begins search for new CEO with no clear front-runner

FILE PHOTO: Logo of British Petrol BP is seen at a petrol station in Pienkow

By Dmitry Zhdannikov and Ron Bousso

LONDON (Reuters) -BP CEO Bernard Looney's abrupt resignation has thrown the British oil major into a leadership crisis with no groomed front-runner to succeed him, company and industry sources said on Wednesday.

Several current and former BP insiders were seen as potential candidates to succeed Looney, who resigned as CEO on Tuesday after failing to fully disclose past personal relationships with employees, according to the sources. Looney's exit after three and a half years at the helm and a lifelong career with the 114-year-old energy major prompted BP's board to name Chief Financial Officer Murray Auchincloss as interim CEO. The board has started searching both internally and externally for a new permanent chief, Chairman Helge Lund told staff at a town hall on Wednesday, according to sources in the meeting. During his time in office, Looney focused on defining a long-term strategy for the energy transition to shift BP away from oil and gas to renewable energies. The 53-year-old CEO had not started grooming a successor because he planned to stay in the job for many more years, according to company sources.

Auchincloss, 52, worked closely with Looney in devising BP's energy transition strategy and has advocated a focus on high-return assets to finance the transition, according to two company sources. BP's legacy oil and gas assets boosted profits to a record $28 billion last year.

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The chances, however, were slim that Auchincloss would stay on as a permanent CEO, three company sources told Reuters. "Murray is a great guy and a good, solid CFO. But I doubt he will stay as a CEO," one source close to BP said, adding Auchincloss has never run a business unit. Auchincloss qualified as a financial analyst in the U.S. and worked for Amoco and then for BP after the two firms merged in 1998, always in financial rather than production roles, including in the North Sea to and North America. BP and other majors have had a long tradition of promoting production or refining executives rather than financial specialists into the CEO role.

THE CONTENDERS

Potential internal contenders include Chairman Lund himself, executive vice-president for production and operations Gordon Birrell, and executive vice-president for regions William Lin.

A BP spokesperson declined to comment. Lund was head and shoulders above other candidates as he has been already CEO of companies such as Norway's Equinor and BG prior to its merger with Shell, sources said. But the Norwegian, who turned 60 last year, has acknowledged in private conversations with company sources he might have passed the stage of wanting to return to the high-octane role of a chief executive. Birrell, who turns 60 this year, has run BP's operations in Azerbaijan, Alaska, Canada and the North Sea and was part of the team that investigated the deadly Macondo well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. He has focused on oil and gas for his entire career. American Lin, 55, has spent 25 years at BP, including the chief operating officer role for the oil and gas division.

External candidates include three former BP executives - CEO of Rolls-Royce Tufan Erginbilgic, who previously headed BP's downstream business and Brian Gilvary, chairman of Ineos Energy and Auchincloss' predecessor as BP CFO.

Both Erginbilgic, 60, and Gilvary, 58, lost out to Looney in the race to succeed CEO Bob Dudley in 2020.

Al Cook, CEO of diamonds giant De Beers and previous senior executive at BP and Equinor is also seen as a potential candidate, the three sources said.

Gilvary declined to comment. Erginbilgic and Cook did not reply to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Dmitry ZhdannikovEditing by Marguerita Choy)