Obituary: Sir Eric Drake

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The Independent Online
Eric Drake, as chairman and chief executive of the British Petroleum Company, was in many ways the archetypal oil mogul of his generation. If he had self-doubts, he did not show them. Assertive, at times domineering, he preferred action to debate and was unafraid of confrontation. In his pomp, he ranked with ministers of state, and he would not play second fiddle even in the highest company.

Forty years in a single corporate hierarchy did not make him a dull company man. It was too interesting a time for that, as the Second World War left Britain impoverished, the tide of nationalism swept across Asia and Africa, and Britain gave up her empire, relinquished overseas possessions and accepted a reduced world role.

These developments posed enormous challenges for BP. Unmistakably British, majority-owned by the British government, and owning huge investments of great strategic and economic importance in Middle East oil, BP was directly in the firing line of nationalists, who were determined to wrest control of oil from foreign oil companies. That was the central drama of Drake's time.

The son of a country doctor, Eric Drake was born in Rochester in 1910. He graduated from Pembroke College, Cambridge, with a degree in Law, but a greater fondness for rowing. After qualifying as an accountant, he joined the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1935, and was posted to work in accounts at the Abadan refinery in Iran. This was not to Drake's liking; he was impatient for promotion - denied him despite his forceful (perhaps too forceful) representations.

Eventually, wartime demands for the expansion of the refinery created an opportunity for Drake to progress into general management. He made a success of it, was promoted, and in 1950 became Anglo-Iranian's general manager in Iran. This was a big job, which put Drake in charge of the giant Iranian oilfields and the huge Abadan refinery, by then the largest refinery in the world and Britain's biggest single overseas asset.

Drake was soon in a very hot spot. In 1951 the Iranian prime minister, Muhammad Musaddiq, riding a wave of nationalist anti-British feeling, nationalised Anglo-Iranian's operations in Iran. This precipitated an international crisis, in which the British and American governments became deeply involved, vainly seeking a solution until, in 1953, they resorted to covert support for a coup to depose Musaddiq. In the meantime, Drake had to deal with the tense situation in Abadan. He refused to acknowledge that oil produced by Anglo- Iranian was the property of Iran rather than Anglo-Iranian, was accused of sabotage for which the penalty might have been death and, on the advice of the British Consul, escaped to London via Iraq.

Drake recovered from his ordeal in Iran. After a spell in Australia, and a happy period as Anglo-Iranian's representative in North America, he came home in 1954, the year that Anglo-Iranian was renamed British Petroleum. Put in charge of BP's supply system, he played a prominent part in the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC)'s emergency system for fairly sharing out reduced oil supplies in Western Europe during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956-57.

Drake continued his ascent of the hierarchy, becoming a managing director of BP in 1958, deputy chairman in 1962, and chairman in 1969; a knighthood followed in 1970. He was then caught up again in a major international upheaval. This, time it was not just Iran, but all the main oil-exporting countries, organised in Opec, who sought to take control of their oil resources from the large companies like BP. The height of the crisis came in 1973 when the Arab-Israeli war broke out, the Opec countries dramatically raised the price of oil, and the Arab exporters cut oil supplies to states friendly to their arch-enemy Israel. Amidst fears of an oil shortage the oil companies tried to "equalise the misery" by spreading the cuts across the consuming nations. Drake characteristically resisted political pressures and opposed requests from Edward Heath, the Prime Minister, for BP to supply Britain with oil which was programmed for other countries.

While BP retreated before Opec, Drake's chairmanship was marked by happier developments elsewhere, most notably BP's large-scale entry into the North American oil industry after discovering a giant oilfield in Alaska, and the excitement of new discoveries in the North Sea, from which oil began to flow in 1975, the year of Drake's retirement.

In his eventful working life, Drake was always interested in ships, from oil tankers to dhows, and was for a time President of the British Chamber of Shipping. His favourite recreation was sailing and he was a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron and the Honourable Company of Master Mariners and an Elder Brother of Trinity House. After retiring from BP, he held other directorships, including that of P&O, and sat on numerous committees, governing bodies and the like. None of these, though, could compare in excitement with his time at the helm of BP.

He had a very happy family with his second wife Margaret and their two sons. Her support and interest in people and everything he did was a great source of strength to him.

Arthur Eric Courtney Drake, oil company executive: born Rochester 29 November 1910; CBE 1952; deputy chairman, British Petroleum Co 1963-69, chairman 1969-75; Kt 1970; deputy chairman, P&O 1976-81; married 1935 Rosemary Moore (two daughters), 1950 Margaret Wilson (two sons); died Alresford, Hampshire 31 October 1996.

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