Sunday, February 24, 2008

A day in the life of a Vietnam oil executive

A day in the life of: Simon Lockett
The chief executive of Premier Oil spends much of his time in Asia, nurturing partnerships to develop the region's reserves. By James Moore
Premier Oil has operations in 13 countries but no matter which one he happens to be in, chief executive Simon Lockett sets his alarm clock at the same time. "I am a creature of habit in the morning," he says. While he admits to occasionally resorting to sleeping tablets to beat jet-lag, running a company with such far-flung operations has meant he has learned to sleep well on aeroplanes.
"As long as I get a reasonable amount of sleep on the plane, I am usually OK," he explains. "It is really important to do that. I have seen business people nodding off during meetings and it is not good. People don't get to see you for very long and so you owe it to them to give your best when you are with them."
Perhaps his strict morning routine is what helps him adjust well to new time zones – he says it never changes. He is diabetic so he first checks his blood sugar level, eats a breakfast of cereal and toast and spends 45 minutes in the gym before the working day begins. "I spend probably 30 or 40 per cent of my time travelling but I do the same thing wherever I am."
Today, Mr Lockett, 43, is in Hanoi, Vietnam. A lot is riding on what is a hugely important market for Premier. The British gas and oil production and exploration group, which began life in 1934 as the Trinidad-based Caribbean Oil Company, is investing heavily and plans to spend $1bn over the next few years.
The first job of Mr Lockett's day is to meet the local team after the short drive to Premier's offices, where they will together carry out reviews of existing projects before moving on to more forward-looking exploration work. Premier is developing offshore fields to the south of the country. "Vietnam is becoming increasingly important to us," he says. "Out of our medium-term production target of 50,000 barrels a day, it represents 20 per cent and it should be running at 15 to 20 per cent by 2010."
It's back in the car and a battle with the increasingly congested streets of downtown Hanoi, a testament to the Vietnamese capital's phenomenal recent growth. "Vietnam is booming, and you see the signs of this development everywhere," says Mr Lockett. "People talk about China and India but it is not just about them. Vietnam is a fantastic example of what is going on in Asia too. There is a lot of investment going into the country, particularly from Japan. All the big names are here – Canon, Sony, Toshiba."
Mr Lockett is heading out for a meeting with PetroVietnam, the state-run oil company which is a co-investor with Premier in its Vietnamese projects. He says he has established productive relationships with the company. These businesses are an important part of the industry in most oil-producing nations. "These sort of relationships are what keeps us ahead. It is not just me. It is important that our local business managers and everybody else makes sure we have the right relationships," says Mr Lockett. The get-together is, inevitably, followed by a lunch where the discussionscontinue.
Mr Lockett manages to clear a couple of minutes to make a good morning telephone call to his family back home. He says he tries to do this from whichever of the company's far-flung operating regions he happens to be in. "It's a brief call but I like to be able to say good morning to my wife and children before they head off to school," he adds. "There is a brief window when you can do that. It doesn't always work but I like to do that if I can."
The call is followed by talks with the company's joint-venture partner Santos, an Australian oil exploration company. One of the features of the oil industry is that most new developments tend to involve a number of businesses working in partnership, usually with a state-owned group. "We all compete like hell but we are all in bed together," admits Mr Lockett. "This enables us to pool experts, geologists and the financial risks associated with a project. There are one or two companies that do everything themselves 100 per cent but that is very unusual. For the most part, companies prefer to work in partnership."
With Premier, however, partnership has not yet turned into marriage. The company has grown at a breakneck pace and is now valued at more than £1bn. It sits in the FTSE 250 index of second-tier companies but Mr Lockett has ambitions to see Premier in the FTSE 100 before too long. With the price of oil smashing through the $100 a barrel barrier and the world's continuing – and worrying – thirst for the black stuff, thisambition is probably one the company will achieve if it stays independent.
However, Premier's growth has attracted the attention of predators. The company is a favourite of market gossips, is regularly the subject of takeover rumours and has occasionally looked as though it would walk up the aisle with a suitor. Such a marriage has never been consummated, however, and Mr Lockett does not appear keen for it to happen.
"We don't really need to at the moment," he says. "We are not in a position where we need to merge because we need another company's pipeline. We have projects in development for the next two to three years and we have a good outlook after that. On my next trip I might be drinking coffee in the Middle East. I think our future looks bright."
Mr Lockett returns to his hotel to shower and freshen up before dinner. He admits that he has a passion for Far Eastern food, having worked in the region for several years. "My team will take me somewhere different every time I am here," he says. "I love the combination of different flavours. I have spent a lot of time in this part of the world and South-east Asia has beencentral not just to me, but also to the rest of my team. Three members of our board have lived in Jakarta, Indonesia or Singapore, so it goes to the core ofour business."
After dinner, he will try to make another call home before hooking up to the internet to deal with email correspondence and catch up on events at his beloved Manchester City FC. Like many fans of football teams outside the Premiership's "big four", he has a sense of impending doom about the club's prospects. "It is great that we've got Sven [Goran Eriksson[ as manager, and I'd like to think that we will at least get into Europe, but I can't help thinking that it's all about to go wrong," he says. He once listened to commentary of City's play-off final with Gillingham during the club's unhappy spell in the old Second Division (now League One) over the internet at Singapore airport. However, weekends out of Britain are very unusual. "It doesn't matter where I have been," he says, "on Friday nights I will be on a plane home. I spend my weekends with my family and I am very strict about that. You need something to keep you grounded."
The CV
Name: Simon LockettAge: 43
Job: Chief executive of Premier Oil
Previous jobs: Lab technician, then quality assurance manager at Berwin Polymer Processing, Manchester (1986); business analyst, Shell International Chemicals (1990); commercial analyst, Shell Expo (1992).
Career at Premier Oil: Joined asbusiness development executive in 1994. Was instrumental in Premier's merger with PICT Petroleum and acquisition of Chevron interests in Indonesia. Appointed commercial manager for Indonesia in 1997 and successfully completed cross-border sale of $8bn of natural gas from the West Natuna Fields in Singapore. Became Indonesia commercialdirector in 1998. Appointed manager for Albania 2001, then operations director for whole group in 2004. Appointed chief executive in 2005.
Family life: Married with a sonand daughter.
Education: Sheffield University; Manchester Business School.