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New Shell CEO Is a Smart Diplomat Who Faces Historic Challenges

New Shell CEO Is a Smart Diplomat Who Faces Historic Challenges

(Bloomberg) — Shell Plc’s next CEO is seen as natural choice who will follow the course laid out by his predecessor — straight into a series of historic challenges.

Wael Sawan, the head of gas and renewables who will take Shell’s top job on Jan. 1, will have to make good on the company’s promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions without sacrificing profits from fossil fuels. He must also navigate the political fallout from a deepening energy crisis that has put the industry’s windfall profits in the cross-hairs of European governments.

It’s a difficult balancing act, but people who have worked alongside Sawan or followed his career predict he will rise to the challenge.

“He’s got a huge amount of social intelligence, a critical prerequisite in an energy system that is fast becoming more complex and politically charged,” said Christyan Malek, global head of energy strategy at JPMorgan Chase & Co. who has known Sawan for years. “He’s going to be able to traverse the various stakeholders.”

When the current Shell Chief Executive Officer Ben van Beurden steps down at year-end, he will bequeath a sprawling oil and gas giant that is only just beginning a decades-long strategic shift from carbon-based fuels to cleaner sources of energy.

Sawan’s main job will be to “continue to convince investors that Shell can pull this off,” said Oswald Clint, an analyst at Sanford C Bernstein Ltd. “His priorities are to understand the legacy strength of Shell selling oil and gas and that they as engineers must engineer new lower-carbon products and maximize sales.”

Sawan is a 25-year Shell veteran whose current job is focused on expanding the company’s liquefied natural gas and renewable power businesses. Under his leadership it acquired solar developer Savion in the US and Sprng Energy in India. His prior job was running Shell’s upstream unit, which is more focused on development of oil resources.

“He brings a good balance of ‘old’ fossil fuels and ‘new’ renewables,” said Martin Lambert, a senior research fellow and head of hydrogen research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, who previously worked for more than three decades at Shell “So I wouldn’t expect a dramatic shift in Shell’s strategy.”

People who have worked with Sawan described him as a smart strategic thinker with a cool head. His master’s degree in chemical engineering from McGill University in Montreal and an MBA from Harvard Business School, and deep technical knowledge of Shell’s operations make him an “authentic nerd,” according to one former colleague.

He is also fluent in English, Arabic and French, with strong interpersonal skills that will make him a good diplomat who will be able to communicate with Shell’s sprawling workforce, shareholders and governments, according to Malek.

The CEO of a company like Shell is a lightning rod, and Sawan won’t be spared criticism from environmental groups. The company is still subject to a Dutch court’s ruling that it’s not cutting emissions fast enough.

“It’s a critical decade for the climate in general, but also for Shell,” said Tessa Khan, an environmental lawyer and head of the advocacy group Uplift. “We’re not optimistic Sawan’s up to the task.”

Sawan’s elevation to the top job probably won’t bring an acceleration of the clean energy expansion, said Biraj Borkhataria, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

“You can’t say, ‘Oh Shell is going to go full power on renewables on the back of this’,” Borkhataria said. “I don’t think you’ll expect wholesale changes to the strategy, it’s more of a continuation.”

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