RICHARD KAY: How the virtue signalling £16million boss of BP was brought down by his VERY unvirtuous bachelor lifestyle
The sad truth about the handsome figure forced out of the BP boardroom by his own evasiveness this week is that he could have been someone, someone with an enduring legacy to be proud of.
Bernard Looney was not in the mould of history’s great oil men, tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller or J. Paul Getty, but in the corporate world of 2023 he was the embodiment of the modern chief executive at the helm of one of the industry’s leading names.
His ruthlessness for the bottom line, keeping the ‘cash machine’ (as he once labelled the energy giant) churning while bending the knee to the green lobby with his promises on net-zero targets was a brilliant strategy and all presided over by buckets of Irish charm.
Ah yes, that twinkling charm. If not his ruin it has certainly proved his undoing.
Just a week ago Looney was master of all he surveyed. He was promising not to budge over his pledge to reinvent the company on its headlong dash for sustainable energy sources. And while the eye-watering profits thanks to soaring energy prices continued to roll in, shareholder doubts were placated.
Just a week ago Looney was master of all he surveyed. He was promising not to budge over his pledge to reinvent the company on its headlong dash for sustainable energy sources
The marriage — his first at 47 — to life coach and magazine columnist Jacqueline Hurst was brief. They wed in October 2017, honeymooning in the Maldives, only to separate the following year and finalise their divorce in 2019
At 53, he was being quietly talked about as potentially one of BP’s greats, a worthy successor indeed to Lord Browne of Madingley, the ‘Sun King’ of the oil business who had first identified him as a high-flier.
How ironic then that like John Browne who left after he was found to have lied to a court, the protege should be resigning for his less-than-frank admissions about his private life. While Browne was brought down by untruths about how he met his male lover as he tried to keep his homosexuality hidden from the world, Looney was undone by allegations of liaisons with the opposite sex.
When he joined the company as a callow 21-year-old, office romances were part and parcel of corporate life and were how many met their future partners.
Times have changed. Now mixing work and pleasure is riddled with pitfalls, not to mention dangerously blurred boundaries.
So as he rose up the company ladder from drilling engineer to CEO in under 30 years, it is tempting to wonder if he ever thought about this as he dated colleagues. And what about his fellow BP executives?
As Alex Brummer, the Mail’s City editor reported this week, Looney was known for his colourful personal life even before he was made chief executive in 2020. ‘Indeed,’ he wrote, ‘habitués of social media and the postings of an estranged wife might have established his ‘MeToo’ vulnerabilities.’
Ms Hurst, now 44, tells a painful story about the way, she alleges, Looney cast her aside
No wonder BP staff were musing yesterday that Looney’s activities were hidden in plain sight. So who is the real Bernard Looney?
Is he the farmer’s son who embraced social media with he/him pronouns on his Instagram and carefully curated posts on transgender awareness, diversity and inclusion and contributions to BP’s ‘Pride’ scrapbook?
Or is he the old-fashioned ladies’ man, with a well-known reputation, who misled the board over the amount of what the BP board coyly termed ‘personal relationships he had with work colleagues’ — in other words sex?
A cursory look at his ex-wife’s writings is as good a place as anywhere to start.
The marriage — his first at 47 — to life coach and magazine columnist Jacqueline Hurst was brief. They wed in October 2017, honeymooning in the Maldives, only to separate the following year and finalise their divorce in 2019, three months before Looney was unveiled as BP’s CEO.
There was barely time for Ms Hurst to change her name at Companies House to Mrs Looney before she was changing it back again.
Fast forward to 2022 and her self-published book, How To Do You: The Life Changing Art Of Mastering Your Thoughts And Taking Control Of Your Life, became required reading. In a chapter on anxiety, Ms Hurst, now 44, tells a painful story about the way, she alleges, Looney cast her aside.
Ah yes, that twinkling charm. If not his ruin it has certainly proved his undoing
‘When my husband ended our marriage suddenly and without warning via WhatsApp message, I was naturally devastated,’ she wrote. ‘I learned later that he had only married me because he wanted to get to the next level of seniority in the company he worked for and he had to be married, in order to get the promotion.’
While Looney made no comment, a friend, ungallantly you might think, sneered at the time: ‘He was briefly married during a period in which he wasn’t promoted. So if he married her to get promoted, that didn’t seem to have worked. Maybe he divorced her to get promoted.’
Another promising source to get to grips with Looney’s character is Ms Hurst’s column in men’s monthly GQ for which she was, for five years, resident therapist. In July 2019, she wrote: ‘Having survived an abusive, toxic, traumatic relationship I deeply understand how to help others,’ adding: ‘I was left traumatised and diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).’
Without specifying her experience, she wrote: ‘I didn’t even know I was being gaslighted until after he walked out of the home we shared, finishing with me on WhatsApp, never to see him again.’
Another column in September 2019 includes this observation. ‘I once knew a man who was a pathological liar — it started off with little white lies and ended up in lies so large it became odd. And even worse, obvious. He will soon be caught because lies have a funny way of catching up with you.’
Ms Hurst declines to elaborate on these pronouncements and whether her ex-husband is the man whose past has this week so dramatically caught up with him.
But she has not erased Looney from her social media. In the lead-up to their wedding he appears to have ‘spoiled’ the bride-to-be with endless bunches of flowers, while a clip from the big day shows her at the five-star Connaught Hotel in Mayfair in flowing white trousers and a white asymmetrical top.
So what went wrong? Industry colleagues suggest that years of travel for BP, which had seen him working in Alaska, Vietnam, Scotland, Norway and the Gulf of Mexico, meant Looney was ill-equipped for settling down and domesticity.
Certainly they were an unlikely couple. While Looney grew up one of five children on a small family dairy farm in County Kerry, Ireland, Jacqueline was the indulged daughter of a wealthy and traditional Jewish family and raised in a seven-bedroom house in Mill Hill, North London
Others suggest he never really gave up his bachelor lifestyle.
Certainly they were an unlikely couple. While Looney grew up one of five children on a small family dairy farm in County Kerry, Ireland, Jacqueline was the indulged daughter of a wealthy and traditional Jewish family and raised in a seven-bedroom house in Mill Hill, North London.
Looney, known to his parents and siblings as Bernie, says of the farm: ‘We only had 14 cows, it was pretty much subsistence farming.’
Despite her privileged upbringing Jacqueline has told how her teenage years were marred by drugs, alcohol and anorexia.
Her parents were frequently abroad and she and her elder sister were looked after by nannies. She became addicted to amphetamine pills, then cocaine. She got clean in her 20s and had become a life coach by age 30.
‘From the day I made that change I haven’t looked back,’ she wrote. ‘Over the last 15 years, I’ve studied all over the world and along my path I have come across people desperate for advice and guidance just as I had been years before. They turned to me asking for help.’
One of those who sought her help was MasterChef presenter Gregg Wallace, who suffered anxiety issues when he signed up for Strictly Come Dancing in 2014.
Whether it was these therapeutic skills which drew Bernie Looney to her is unknown. But the break-up provided material for her book. She wrote: ‘Gradually, I realised he was, in fact, giving me an unexpected gift. Instead of viewing the end of my marriage as a huge loss, I was eventually able to feel relief that I’d had a lucky escape.
‘Why would I want to be married to someone who treated me like that?
‘It took time to reach this point but I didn’t want to remain for ever in a state of negativity or anxiety.’
Looney moved on effortlessly from divorce to BP’s top job. His appointment seemed written in the stars. He was earmarked as a ‘turtle’, an elite cadre of young executives mentored by Lord Browne.
At 53, he was being quietly talked about as potentially one of BP’s greats, a worthy successor indeed to Lord Browne of Madingley, the ‘Sun King’ of the oil business who had first identified him as a high-flier
The turtle nickname was a reference to the film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because, as Browne wrote in his autobiography, of ‘their speed and ability to appear whenever they were needed’.
After the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 which killed 11 people and saw the largest marine oil spill in history, Looney was one of those sent out to deal with the disaster.
Smooth and polished, he became known for his safe pair of hands, which now seems an unfortunate description. ‘This is a company that has given me everything I have,’ he said when appointed.
It includes the £16.2 million he has been paid, of which £13 million has been in bonuses and share awards, since February 2020. There are now calls for some of those bonuses to be clawed back.
BP’s board was first told about Looney’s behaviour a year ago following an allegation coming from a whistleblower. After he admitted to a ‘small number’ of relationships with women and made assurances about his future behaviour, it was decided he had not breached the company’s code of conduct.
Looney’s picture features alongside the BP code of conduct manual which details how a conflict of interest may arise if an employee has an ‘intimate relationship with someone whose pay, advancement or management you can influence’.
But further allegations surfaced last week, forcing him to admit he had not been ‘fully transparent’, and quitting his job immediately.
As he contemplates the collapse of his stellar career, it seems unlikely that he will take a leaf out of his old mentor Browne’s book and write a memoir.
On the other hand what a story he could have to tell.
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