Crisis risk rises at TNK-BP as Fridman quits CEO role

By bne IntelliNews May 29, 2012

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Anglo-Russian joint venture TNK-BP risks entering crisis once more after CEO Mikhail Fridman suddenly quit the role on May 28. The resignation could potentially reopen the vicious corporate conflict that has been simmering at the company for years, and may denote fresh political risk following the Russian government's recent reshuffle.

"Mikhail Fridman has submitted a letter of resignation to TNK-BP's board of directors, notifying his resignation from the position of chief executive officer of the TNK-BP Group," said a company statement, offering no reason for the move.

A BP spokesman said the resignation would have no impact on TNK-BP's operations because the role of Fridman, the oligarch who owns Alfa Group that is part of the Russian side of the joint venture, has "largely been ceremonial," and refused to comment when asked if the resignation is a sign of deteriorating relations between the shareholders of the company.

However, several unnamed sources are quoted in the media claiming that there is now a breakdown in corporate governance at TNK-BP following the resignation of two independent directors from the supervisory board in December. At that point, the supervisory board lost its quorum and has not met since, forcing the company to postpone a decision on its 2011 dividend payout earlier in May.

The usually generous dividend paid by the company has been one of the issues that has provoked the long and bitter fight between Russian holding Alfa-Access-Renova (AAR) and partner BP. However, the long tussle over the 50-50 JV has covered practically every point of operations, and dragged prime ministers and presidents into the mix as it ebbs and flows. The last period of detente started just over a year ago, but now, sources claim, the end of the road is nigh.

A source close to AAR claimed: "The Russian shareholders have lost faith in BP as a partner. This partnership appears to have run its course and we are most likely heading towards some kind of disengagement. It has been increasingly difficult for Mikhail to run the business in this environment," reports The Independent.

In contrast, TNK-BP said in a statement that the company will now be managed by a "group of executives who hold powers of attorney related to their areas of responsibility" and that two other AAR shareholders, German Khan and Viktor Vekselberg, would stay on as executive directors and on the management board.

There is as yet no indication of who could succeed Fridman in the CEO position. However, some claim it makes little difference. One Moscow energy industry insider said of Fridman: "As long as he owns it, he will de facto run it. This is just a way to formally disassociate himself from the management. Looks like preparing the ship for a storm."

Indeed, observers across the board anticipate a new round of corporate warfare between AAR and BP over the troubled joint venture, although it's unclear where the upper hand lies following the political changes that have occurred since the last battle.

Alfa male

Fridman assumed the CEO position in 2009 after a vicious spat between the parity JV shareholders caused the then BP-appointed CEO Bob Dudley to flee Russia. In 2011, the conflict broke out again when BP attempted to enter a strategic partnership with state-controlled oil giant Rosneft to explore the Arctic offshore, only for AAR to successfully claim that the move would breach the shareholders agreement.

Vedomosti joins the speculation that Fridman's move is intended to force BP to buy out AAR of the partnership. That was the plan in 2011, according to most, with negotiations going to the wire before BP finally baulked at the terms of payment on the $36bn that the Russian partners demanded for their 50% stake.

However, there is also speculation that Fridman's move might be connected with Kremlin policy towards the oil and gas sector. President Vladimir Putin's long-serving energy tsar and former deputy PM Igor Sechin was moved back into his role as CEO of Rosneft earlier this month, and is said to be eying consolidation in the sector.

More specifically, the powerful Sechin is thought to have left as head of Russia's largest oil producer partly as a result of the collapse of the proposed BP-Rosneft tie-up in 2011, which Fridman provoked. That was a humiliating climbdown for the official who is a leading force amongst conservative forces who favour strong state control of the economy, losing him face both on the international stage and with Putin, who having given his backing to the deal, sought to distance himself with harsh criticism.

Despite a potential clash of such Titans, however, some analysts suggest that its track record through the years of fighting hints that the move is unlikely to have an immediate impact on TNK-BP's performance, or the attractiveness of its stock. "Fridman seems to have been CEO more in name than in essence, with senior AAR and BP executives having managed the company," write Uralsib analysts. "TNK-BP's experience illustrates that tensions between BP and AAR have no visible impact on the company's operations, and there has been no deterioration in TNK-BP Holding's dividend payouts."

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