Tony Hayward: Right in the thick of it

Corporate crises don't come much worse than that facing BP after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and it's put the energy giant's low-profile chief executive exactly where he doesn't want to be. Can he survive?

When the Today programme presenter Evan Davis picked up the line to a Florida-based oceanographer yesterday, he only wanted to get the latest on the environmental effects of the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. But in an astonishing display of public contempt for one of the energy industry's biggest players, his interviewee stunned Davis with his own line of enquiry.

"Listen, now that I have a knowledgeable British person on the line, could you just clear something up for me?" Professor Ian MacDonald asked. "This Tiny Hayward person, this head of BP, is he a lord or a duke or a knight? My knowledge of aristocracy is pretty vague."

MacDonald went on to suggest that "Tiny" must be "very important" because of his "astonishing" attempts to play down the true scale of the spill and its effect on the Louisiana coastline. "So where does he sit in your firmament, Lord Tiny Hayward?" MacDonald asked.

The exchange, and MacDonald's wilful mispronunciation of Hayward's name (he persisted with "Tiny" even after a shocked Davis put him right), revealed the growing volume of scorn being poured on a man suddenly cast as US enemy No 1 – the boss of an oil giant that stands accused of complacency in the face of ecological disaster.

Rarely has a corporate figure found himself at the heart of such a dizzying media and political storm. And yet, through it all, Hayward has remained largely inscrutable. Holed up inside the energy giant's dimly lit Houston command centre, watching grainy footage of attempts by robot submarines to plug the gushing well, overseeing the "Top Kill" operation that may or may not have been successful, Hayward has retained his composure even as the pressure has mounted from President Obama.

The pressure on the sea bed, where thick mud has been deployed in an epic wrestling match against rising oil and gas, is felt most keenly at the crisis centre, where a bleary-eyed Hayward has been standing shoulder to shoulder with Stephen Chu, the US Energy Secretary.

Washington has ratcheted up the rhetoric in recent days, placing full responsibility for the disaster at BP's door, while also threatening to push the company aside in the effort to clean up the spill. "I've never experienced a working environment as tense as that," one Hayward associate says. "Chu is there with his sleeves rolled up. Every so often he pops out to make a call. One wonders to whom, but one can guess."

Not that the strain is showing. "I've witnessed long, thoughtful silences and icy stares as the enormity of this has sunk in, but I've never seen Tony crack," the insider says. "He has shown nerves of reinforced steel." He needs them. The Gulf crisis, which began on 20 April when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, operated for BP by a contractor, suffered a catastrophic blowout that killed 11 men. The accident has since led to a spill that may go down as the worst in history – and strike a irrevocable blow to a career that started with a thirst for adventure.

To be sure, Anthony Hayward is no aristocrat, as those with a sharper ear than the Florida oceanographer's will have heard. When the 52-year-old does speak on camera, his accent reveals modest roots. Born in Slough in 1957, he was raised outside Reading, the eldest of seven children. He went to a state grammar school before reading geology at Birmingham University and doing a PhD at Edinburgh.

Hayward has worked for BP since 1982, when he joined the firm at its fusty London headquarters. Later calling himself "an adventurer at heart", the devoted oilman struck out, taking postings in China, Colombia and Venezuela.

Quietly ambitious, Hayward then landed a job in the private office of Lord Browne in 1990. One of the most fêted businessmen of his generation, Browne was the chief executive who directed BP's green rebranding, with its "Beyond Petroleum" slogan and green-flower logo.

While close, the men could not have operated more differently. Browne's regal persona and fondness for high living led to his being dubbed the "Sun King". By contrast, a life in the shadows suited Hayward, despite a desire to succeed Browne that makes his current predicament all the more acute.

BP under Browne was accused of allowing arrogance and a culture of complacency to contribute to a string of setbacks, most notably an explosion at the company's Texas City oil refinery in 2005 that resulted in 15 deaths. In 2006, Hayward publicly criticised the company's leadership, but it was personal scandal that hastened Browne's resignation in 2007, when he was accused of using company funds to keep his Canadian boyfriend, an allegation he has always denied.

Hayward wasted no time in instituting a new, back-to-basics, back-to-petroleum regime, despite the initial grumblings of some high-ranking colleagues that he was too much a Browne protégé to turn the company around. Six weeks after his promotion, in his first interview as BP boss, Hayward set out his priority to the Houston Chronicle. "I think we have the opportunity to set a new benchmark in industrial safety," he said, adding: "We have to have a work environment where people don't get injured or killed, period."

The deadly Deepwater Horizon blast rocked Hayward's safety pledge and dragged a head-down chief executive into the spotlight. As an increasingly hostile American and global media have clamoured for word from a leadership under fire, there has been the occasional gaffe. As the spill worsened, Hayward reportedly asked executives, "What the hell have we done to deserve this?" as if it were BP that was the victim. Later, he told reporters (and this was the quote that angered MacDonald in Florida), "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil ... is tiny in relation to the total water volume."

Those close to Hayward say he survives by deliberately avoiding the 24-hour coverage of the crisis, but the media training that the technocrat from the Thames Valley has received has arguably been insufficient. He has been characterised in some quarters as shaky – the "Bumbler from BP". "It probably wasn't the most diplomatic or polished response," says Hayward's associate of the "drop in the ocean" quote. "But Tony has no patience for bullshit and sometimes he'll just speak his mind, even when it's not the wisest thing to say."

Hayward has received strong support from his wife, Maureen, a geophysicist and former BP employee, with whom he has two children, aged 19 and 15. They share a large house in the Home Counties, from where Hayward, who took home more than £3m in salary and bonus payments last year, travels regularly to Upton Park to watch his beloved West Ham.

Perhaps more surprising, given the villainy of which Hayward stands accused, is the backing of Admiral Thad Allen, a commandant in the US Coastguard who was appointed national incident commander for the Gulf spill just days before he was due to retire. When asked on CNN on Monday if he "trusted BP", the Vietnam veteran and hero of an otherwise disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, said, "I trust Tony Hayward. When I talk to him, I get an answer."

But for Hayward, who was last night still directing the Top Kill operation with one eye on the clock, and perhaps the other on his future, answers – and time – are running out.

A life in brief

Born: 21 May 1957, Slough, Berkshire.

Family: Married to Maureen Hayward, a geophysicist who worked for BP for 10 years. They have two children, Kieran and Tara.

Education: Attended Windsor Grammar School, before reading geology at Birmingham University and taking a PhD at Edinburgh.

Career: Joined BP in 1982 as a rig geologist in Aberdeen. He worked in China and Colombia before becoming president of BP's operations in Venezuela and then head of the exploration and production division from 2003. Became chief executive, succeeding Lord Browne, in 2007.

He says: "It's clear that the defence of the shoreline at this point has not been successful, and I feel devastated by that, absolutely. We're going to clean every drop of oil off the shore, we will remediate any environmental damage, and we will put the Gulf Coast right back to normality as fast as we can."

They say: "I think he has been a superb chief executive by common consent, in terms of internal and external perception. That doesn't change because of this accident." Peter Sutherland, former chairman of BP

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