Russian challenge may tempt BP chief to stay on

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Lord Browne of Madingley will this week brief the City on BP's expansion into Russia amid growing speculation that the oil giant's investment in the region may tempt him to stay on at the helm of the company beyond 60.

The BP chief executive has already said that he intends to remain in the job until he reaches the normal company retirement age in 2008. But there is now talk within City circles of Lord Browne continuing beyond 60 or perhaps switching into the role of non-executive chairman, for which there is no set retirement age.

Lord Browne has been chief executive since 1995 and will be 56 next February - meaning that he would have another four years to go in the job.

But observers point out that, under his leadership, BP has undergone a complete transformation, first with the Amoco and Atlantic Richfield takeovers and then with the move into Russia, and Lord Browne may wish to stay on to oversee the integration of the much-changed company. BP's acquisition of a 50 per cent stake in Russia's third-largest oil company TNK earlier this year has cost $6.75bn (£4bn), and its investment in the region is due to rise to about $8bn when the TNK-BP joint venture completes the acquisition of the smaller oil company Slavneft.

BP appeared to trigger the race to succeed Lord Browne at the beginning of the year, when it appointed three young pretenders to the board and announced the retirement of its long-standing deputy chief executive Rodney Chase. Of the three new managing directors appointed in January, John Manzoni, 43, chief executive of refining and marketing, and Tony Hayward, chief executive of exploration and production, were seen as front-runners.

BP insiders still believe Lord Browne will retire at 60. "All things being equal it is very unlikely indeed that he will go beyond that age," said one. "But you never know. Things could change and the board could take a different view. He is willing to serve for as long as the company wants him."

The insider discounted the idea of Lord Browne stepping up to the chairmanship - as has happened at other major companies including, last week, Barclays. BP's current chairman is Peter Sutherland, the former European Commissioner and presently non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs.

Lord Browne, meanwhile, will face a tough grilling when he briefs the financial community on Thursday on the TNK joint venture, a deal which ties up 13 per cent of BP's capital employed. Industry observers claim there have been culture clashes from day one - right up to the relationship between the top two executives, BP's Robert Dudley and TNK's German Khan. BP has also had to lower its original estimate of TNK's reserves to 3.2 billion barrels whilst it is also paying a big premium for its share of the Slavneft stake compared with what TNK paid at privatisation.

But a BP executive brushed aside the concerns, saying BP's total investment was small against its market capitalisation of £96bn. "It would be amazing if there weren't disagreements in joint ventures like this but they get resolved. That's what the board is there for," he added.