Hydrocarbons before hydrangeas: Vivienne Cox, qualified chemist and no-frills BP executive, talks to Helen Kay about her career mixing oil, people and finance

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I hope you won't portray me as a woman in a man's world,' says Vivienne Cox. She adds, with obvious distaste, that she has heard of press photographers who put hydrangeas in the office to make it look more feminine.

As manager of BP's interests in Nerefco - the Netherlands Refining Company jointly owned by BP and Texaco - she is a woman in a man's world. She is the first woman to head BP's Benelux Refining and Supply, the stand-alone operation responsible for buying crude oil and selling the refined products.

But her sex has nothing to do with why Ms Cox has the job. She is clearly very intelligent and it is to BP's credit that she has been allowed her head. As for hydrangeas, there are none in sight.

She is more preoccupied with her role as manager of the 50 people responsible for purchasing crude oil and controlling the operating parameters that determine output at the Rotterdam-based refinery. Ms Cox and her team monitor the market daily to maximise the value added by the refining process. She decides the proportions of the gasoline fuel oil and naphtha mix.

The task is complicated. First, she must negotiate with her opposite number at Texaco, who looks after the American oil major's interests. Second, both are restricted by impossibility of simply flicking a switch to alter the refining parameters determining the product mix. Like the QEII, a refinery takes time to change course.

So a large component of the job involves managing BP's price exposure and risk. Ms Cox's earlier training stands her in good stead. From 1990 to 1993 she headed the group's commodity derivatives trading team. 'We concentrated on developing a profile in the marketplace as the provider of hedges against risks,' she says. The service initially applied to BP but was extended to third-party customers.

The team became one of the most profitable trading units within the group, although life was far from easy.

'During the Gulf crisis prices rocketed and it was sometimes terrifying,' she admits disarmingly.

Trading options and swaps has taken her a long way from the test- tubes and pipettes of her original training. A student at St Catherine's College, Oxford, in the late 1970s and early '80s, she completed a degree in chemistry and metallurgy before joining BP Chemicals in 1981.

'I'd done a year's research and found that I didn't like working with test tubes, though I did enjoy working with people.' She applied to a number of chemicals companies but liked the people she met at BP. On this unscientific basis her career was born.

She spent the next four years selling speciality chemicals to large industrial customers and slowly developing her trading skills with a series of swaps. She was rewarded with the management of a small resale business, where she handled everything from pricing and sales strategy to the storage and shipping of the product itself. Best of all, she says, was the freedom to build a small empire of her own, a place that gave her 'room to manoeuvre'. Eventually, she moved across to BP Gas (now BP Exploration) where she worked on the financial analysis of long-term natural gas projects.

'I learned a lot about financial techniques, for example, how to do a discounted cash-flow analysis. I just learned as I went along.'

She was involved in negotiating with BP's Forties Field partners on gas sales and with British Gas for the sale of gas from the Miller field.

But a spell of nearly nine months looking at the commercial opportunities for building a gas pipeline in the central North Sea left her disillusioned as she realised that BP's heart was not in the project.

Ms Cox started looking for another job. 'It was the year of the Big Bang and I considered moving into corporate finance within an investment bank,' she says.

She was also quietly on the lookout for a post in BP's financial division. In 1987, just as she was thinking of going, the opportunity came. 'It was one of the great opportunities of my life,' she says.

As one of a small team of staff co-ordinating the sale of BP's shares by the Government, she was involved in the logistics of the operation.

'I set up the Share Information Office to answer all the difficult questions,' she says, adding cheerfully: 'It was like being the Anneka Rice of the business world. I set up the office, recruited the staff and got the office pot plants - all within four days.'

The pot plants - not hydrangeas - did better than BP, which saw a big chunk of shares go to the Kuwait Investment Office, heralding a compulsory buy-back later.

Arguably, Ms Cox did better still. Once the share sale was over, she was transferred to BP's dealing room and a year later, in January 1989, headed off to INSEAD, the top-flight business school in Fontainbleu, near Paris, to do a company-sponsored MBA.

Just a few months earlier she had married but fortunately her husband - another BP employee - was very understanding. He remained supportive when she returned to London in 1990 and took over the then fledgeling risk management business, just as commodity derivatives started to take off.

Three years on, the trading room led to the refinery. In preparation Ms Cox spent three weeks working shifts at BP's refinery in southern France. 'Much of the value is generated by the people who work the night shifts. You can't manage a business unless you understand something of the way those at the bottom think and act,' she says.

Immaculately clad in jacket, scarf and gold earrings, it is hard to imagine that she ever donned overalls. But then she's a lady of many dimensions. When asked about children (she has none), she says coolly: 'I think it would be perfectly possible to job-share.'

(Photograph omitted)