The departure of Lord Browne of Madingley from BP at the end of 2008 leaves two burning questions hanging in the air: who will replace the man christened the sun king and where will he cast his imposing shadow next?
BP's legendary chief executive declined to shed much light on either issue yesterday but over the next two and a half years both will inevitably become the subject of increasingly fervent - even fevered - speculation.
Like Tesco's Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth before him, Lord Browne will be a hard act to follow. By the time he retires from BP he will have been at the helm of Britain's biggest company for 13 and a half years. Whatever Lord Browne does in his remaining 30 months, his legacy is surely already intact, courtesy of the two transforming takeover deals he engineered in the late 1990s and the move into Russia he spearheaded three years ago.
If Lord Browne has his way - and he is certain to play a pivotal role in the succession planning - then his successor will come from within the company. One of Lord Browne's closest colleagues went further and said he would remove his trousers and run naked through St James's if BP chose to bring in a new chief executive from outside.
The most Lord Browne would volunteer yesterday was that the list of internal candidates runs to "more than three" and the standard among his would-be replacements was "very strong indeed".
The two candidates reckoned to be front runners to slip into Lord Browne's shoes are Tony Hayward, the head of BP's exploration and production division, and John Manzoni, who runs its downstream refining and marketing business. Both were promoted to the BP board three years ago, along with another potential successor, the executive director Iain Conn. A fourth internal candidate is Robert Dudley, the chief executive of BP's Russian joint venture company TNK-BP, which is destined to play an increasingly significant role within the group. To put the Russian business into perspective, it accounts for a quarter of group production, more than half its reserves and is as big a company in its own right as BP was before the Amoco and Atlantic Richfield acquisitions.
At the quarterly press conferences BP holds to announce its results, Lord Browne is wont to put Mr Hayward and Mr Manzoni through their paces by inviting them to take the floor and answer some horrible googly of a question. It is almost as if they are auditioning for the job. Mr Conn, by contrast, is less well-known to the press or investors, while Mr Dudley is usually in Moscow.
Of course BP could break with tradition and go either for its first woman chief executive or its first chief executive from outside. In that case, Vivienne Cox, recently promoted to executive management as head of gas, power and renewables, might enter the frame, as could Frank Chapman, the highly rated chief executive of the smaller oil and gas exploration company, BG.
Peter Sutherland, BP's chairman, is known to want to look inside and outside for a successor to Lord Browne although some executives within the company believe this is merely a way of "benchmarking" the chosen internal candidate to satisfy the board that he - or she - is best in class.
Whoever BP picks, investors will expect it to get on with the job and announce the succession sooner rather than later, given the damage caused by the feud which has erupted in the past few days between Mr Sutherland and his chief executive over whether Lord Browne could stay on beyond 60. "We have no strong feelings about who should succeed Browne but we would like to see evidence that the BP board is on top of the issue," one major institutional investor said.
BP, however, is torn between a natural desire to end the uncertainty and an equally powerful urge not to lose some talented executives prematurely. As one executive put it: "We don't want people walking off site by announcing the successor too early."
Lord Browne has made it plain that come the end of 2008 he will sever all ties with BP, rather than seeking to hang on in some titular capacity. But where he will end up is anyone's guess. He has ruled out a move into politics, another energy company or anything which would entail him mastering a foreign language.
There was the merest hint that he might opt for a role which allowed him to pay something back to society, having enjoyed the seven-figure salary and tremendous perks that go with running an oil major for more than a decade. "There are plenty of things I could do but I've got to like it, it's got to have a purpose and it's got to make a difference," he said.
Five front runners for the top job...
BP's energetic head of exploration and production joined in 1982 and was appointed to the board three years ago. A geologist by training, he has long been seen as the front runner to succeed Lord Browne.
Another BP lifer, he joined 23 years ago, rising to head of refining and marketing. A tough cookie and an engineer by training, he has defended BP against allegations of profiteering at the expense of motorists.
The least well-known of the trio of young turks appointed to the board three years ago. As executive director, he is in charge of a mixed bag and has regional responsibility for almost everything outside the US.
Chief executive of TNK-BP, the Russian joint venture. Less well-known among London investors, but a key figure in BP and likely to become more important as the company pushes further east.
Deputy chief executive of exploration and production and a relatively late entrant in the race for the chief executive's post. He joined BP in 1980 and has spent nearly all his time in E&P, which may count against him.
... and two outsiders
The only woman on the executive management committee. Joined BP 25 years ago and is executive vice-president in charge of gas, power and renewables. Insiders say she has the ability - does she have the ambition?
Highly regarded chief executive of BG. He has held the top job there for six years and has made such an impressive fist of it that BG is regularly touted as a takeover target for one of the oil majors.Reuse content