The gas conversion, the big deal and why Shell could turn a tanker round

My Week

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The Independent Online

Companies are shaped by their history. If Shell hadn’t been tripped up by an oil reserves scandal a decade ago, it wouldn’t have invested so heavily in liquefied natural gas to get itself back on the front foot.

This meant that when chief executive Ben van Beurden was casting around for a way to boost Shell’s declining reserves, the £47bn deal to take over BG announced this week made more sense than going after oil-rich BP, a pairing that has been mooted over the years.

Gas shows better prospects after the collapse in the price of crude and, despite management woes, BG has already done a lot of the hard work by investing in fertile territories such as Brazil. In Australia, it built the world’s largest freezer to chill gas trapped in coal seams to make it easier to transport.

For Mr van Beurden, the BG move is career-defining. Only a year ago, he unveiled a programme of sell-offs to boost returns. Now he must prove his industry’s history – of poor cost control and overpriced acquisitions – isn’t always a harbinger of future performance.

Want to improve customer service? Be a customer too

A YouTube video to strike at the heart of any chief executive played at a conference organised by the communications agency The&Partnership, where I went the other day. The song “United Breaks Guitars” has been watched 14 million times since United Airlines allegedly damaged the guitar of musician Dave Carroll while in transit.

It acts as a reminder of what poor customer service can lead to, and Dido Harding gives herself another regular reminder. The boss of the broadband provider TalkTalk told delegates she reads complaining customer emails every night.

The telecoms industry has grown fast. But for all the joy that mobile internet has given customers, confusing tariffs and tricky installations mean that changing supplier or upgrading a handset can be joyless. Only now are operators getting to grips with acceptable service levels. Ms Harding, who joined TalkTalk from Sainsbury’s, says it is harder to get to customers because they are on the end of a phone line, not in a shop.

Staff can see why customers may commend a company to a friend, or damn it, by becoming customers too. Ms Harding told a tale from her early days at the business, when a show of hands among managers showed very few were TalkTalk subscribers. When she suggested they all should sign up, one grumbled that this would involve calling the call centre. “That is the point,” she added.

Reckitt Benckiser neglects to spray Vanish in the boardroom

For a global company engaged in the provision of fast-moving consumer goods, life is pretty slow-moving for several of the directors at the Cillit Bang and Dettol maker Reckitt Benckiser. Chairman Adrian Bellamy has notched up a staggering 18 years’ involvement at the company, including 12 in the chairman’s seat. That is twice as long as the nine-year term after which corporate governance guidelines suggest a director loses his independence from a company.

As Reckitt Benckiser puts it in its annual report, Mr Bellamy was “independent on appointment”. An evaluation last year by the headhunter Egon Zehnder recommended that “the nomination committee should commence the planning process to identify a successor for the chairman’s role”. Fast forward a year and “this process, led by the senior independent director, continues to receive due attention from the non-executive directors and the CEO”.

Don’t expect anything to happen too quickly. Last year’s annual report flagged that, “with continuity in mind”, long-serving directors Ken Hydon and Judith Sprieser would stay on for a year but step down in May 2015 after sitting on the board for 11 years. This year, given that various new board members have arrived, it turns out the pair will “remain on the board for an additional year, to the annual general meeting in May 2016, and continue to serve as the chairs of their respective committees, audit and remuneration”. And to think this is the company whose brands include Vanish.

When all minds are finally open, his job will be over

Rarely do I come across people who are working towards making their own job obsolete. Barely two months after beginning his new role, that is Neil Bentley’s aim. The former deputy director-general of the CBI business lobby group has taken over as chief executive of OUTstanding, a not-for-profit professional network for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers, plus their straight allies.

Over coffee, he argued that employers becoming more LGBT-friendly makes good business sense because staff who feel they must pretend to be someone else in the workplace are far less productive.

Mr Bentley brandished survey results that found 62 per cent of graduates who were out at university dived back into the closet when they started work. Many are more likely to quit jobs if they are unhappy.

OUTstanding aims to get role models talking about how they got on in business. Mr Bentley, who is building an eco-home with his husband in Buckinghamshire, has 35 member companies on board so far, including Barclays and British American Tobacco, but he wants more. Given the time it takes to broaden minds, he thinks OUTstanding is a decade from obsolescence. Let’s hope he can slice a few years off that target.

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