Profile: Major surgery at BP: Can the smooth manoeuvring of David Simon succeed where the Thatcherite style of Bob Horton failed? David Bowen reports

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WHEN David Simon, the new chief executive of BP, spoke at the half-year results meeting on Thursday, two words sprang to mind: John Major. The light voice, the matter-of-fact delivery, the one-word put-downs, all were prime ministerial. The first impression of a man delivering some of the worst news the City has heard this year is: clever, but a bit smug. Pure John Major.

People who have worked with Mr Simon deliver a kinder message. Clever, certainly, but much more. 'A really lovely person, very smooth and very nice.' 'A good operator who made sensible decisions', 'a remarkably nice guy'. The tributes are endless.

Nevertheless, the Major comparison is accurate in one important way. Simon is, everyone agrees, a safe option. And he follows someone who was not. Bob Horton resigned in June after the non-executive directors lost faith in him, and as Lord Ashburton, the new non-executive chairman, made clear on Thursday, it was his personality that was the problem. 'What we believed the company needed was a change in the style of its leadership,' he said.

Simon will bring that. He and the abrasive Horton were jockeying for the chairmanship (then executive) for several years before Horton won in March 1990. 'Bob was always seen as the more brilliant guy,' a former employee says. 'But it was clear he would either be a brilliant success - or not. David is a safer pair of hands.'

David Simon was born in London five weeks before war broke out in 1939. His father was an engineer, and he was sent to Christ's Hospital, the public school, before going on to Caius College, Cambridge, with the help of a BP grant. He read languages - he is strongest in French, but speaks others - and moved straight into BP's European marketing division.

BP decided early that business education was a good thing, and was involved with the European Institute of Business Administration, Insead, from the beginning. Simon was one of the first to take a BP-sponsored MBA there. According to a contemporary: 'He was very much admired as having a first-class brain.'

He spent five years in the supply department, before moving back to a number of Europe-based jobs. He was head of marketing for BP Netherlands in the early Seventies, and for BP Oil in the UK 10 years later. In between he was marketing co-ordinator for Europe, spending much of his time dealing with the Brussels bureaucrats.

The first indication that he was on course for the top came in 1982, when he was made managing director of BP Oil International. This was when BP was struggling to change itself from a government-owned bureaucracy to a commercial beast, and Simon's task was to bring order to its refinery operations. This he accomplished quietly but efficiently - 'Hatchet' Horton was not the only axeman in BP.

By the mid-Eighties it was clear that Simon and Horton (who was making a name for himself in the United States) were pulling ahead of the pack in the race to succeed Sir Peter Walters as chairman.

But what should have been a spur for Simon turned into a hurdle. As chairman of BP Finance International, he was closely involved in the operation to float the BP shares the government still owned in 1987. Although he worked well with the Treasury mandarins, the float was timed impeccably to coincide with Black Monday, and was a disaster.

While this did little to help him win the race, his chances were also hindered by his more emollient character. 'Horton made it clear that he would not stay on if Simon became chairman, whereas Simon was prepared to serve as deputy,' one insider says.

There was some surprise that he did agree to become deputy chairman and chief operating officer (an American title introduced by Horton) when Sir Peter retired in March 1990. He had not been short of job offers: in 1989 he was first choice for the chairmanship of British Rail (a job he found easy to refuse, not least because he was earning three times the pounds 92,000 it then paid) and he was also apparently approached for the top job at British Gas.

The board was keen to keep him as a counterweight to Horton, and he signed a contract keeping him at the group, apparently until 1993. Insiders do not believe he was waiting for Horton to fall off his perch, preferring to put his decision down to loyalty to BP. Although, as one says: 'It turned out to be a shrewd decision.'

Horton described his personality and Simon's as 'complementary'. There was certainly tension between them. Simon was particularly irritated by Horton's penchant for personal publicity, which contrasted with his own low-profile style. Part of this came from Horton's preference for the direct American style, which contrasted with Simon's more subtle Europeanness. The Major-Thatcher parallel comes once again to mind.

As with many people who married early and were swept up in a jet-setting, business-dining life, Simon's marriage - to a Norwegian who half- owns a bookshop - has fallen apart. He has another partner, and is thought likely to remarry.

He has a passion for sport - above all golf - and is fond of sporting analogies. In his talk to staff when he took over at the beginning of July, he used the football European Cup to raise morale, and perhaps to have a dig at his predecessor. 'Rather like Denmark has shown us, a good team can always be worth at least two goals more than a bunch of talented, highly paid individuals,' he said.

Now he is at the top and, it is said, he has got there without making enemies within BP. How did he do it?

'His skill is dynamic positioning,' says one oil man. 'That is what we call the ability of an oil rig to stay exactly over the hole. I would say David knows what his target is and he will always get to it.'

Sir Allen Sheppard lured Simon on to the board of Grand Metropolitan. 'David,' he says, 'has the qualities one wants in an outstanding non-executive director. His strategic perspective, coupled with an acute analytical ability, make it possible for him to assess a situation with great clarity.'

He is clearly a subtle, pragmatic operator, who will get his own way by careful manoeuvring, although - as his conversion to a dividend cut shows - he can also change his mind. Simon has the flexibility that Horton lacks, and with which BP - a vast organisation that is only slowly shaking off its bureaucratic culture - is undoubtedly happier.

BP has got itself into a terrible hole. It has tried the Thatcher approach to pull itself out of it, and that failed. Now it is giving itself a dose of John Major. If that fails too, Simon will find himself as abused as Horton is now. But at least he will have kept such a low profile that he will be much more difficult to shoot down.

(Photograph omitted)