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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Profitable times for BP
By Will Smale
BBC News Online business reporter

BP staff at work. Pic from BP website
BP staff at work on a pipeline
These are exciting days at UK oil giant BP.

The world's second largest oil producer has just reported first quarter profits of $4.72bbn (2.64bn), a 17% increase on the same period last year, and at the top end of market expectations.

And while its success has undoubtedly been boosted by the current sky-high oil and petrol prices - the highest since before the first Gulf War in 1990 - BP must take most of the credit for itself.

While Anglo-Dutch rival Shell has been badly floundering with one reserves downgrade after another during 2004, oil analysts say BP has been motoring ahead as an example of industry best practice and a dream come true for its shareholders.

Under the stewardship of chief executive Lord Browne, not only is it as profitable as it ever has been, its oil reserves also appear watertight.

Its restructuring plans are ahead of the rest of the industry, and it has started a giant shares buyback that could net shareholders a 2.76bn windfall.

Major restructuring

"You have to hand it to BP," said Peter Hitchens, oil analyst at brokerage Cheuvreux.

"Yes, the high oil prices have helped, but BP's results are a very good performance at the top end of expectations."

The current success at BP can be traced back 12 years.

Then, in 1992, the situation at BP was markedly different.

It badly overestimated the then-price of oil, and was forced to halve its dividend, while its chief executive fell on his sword.

Trend setter

However, BP quickly learnt from its mistakes and began a lock, stock, and barrel reorganisation to create what is today one of the leanest and keenest companies. Not just in the oil sector, but overall.

"BP did get things badly wrong back in 1992, but it certainly learnt from the mistakes and put them right," said Mr Hitchens.

But far from resting on its laurels after turning the corner, the company's constant trimming continues, with the announcement it is planning to float-off half its chemicals arm as a separate company.

For while its chemicals divisions remain profitable, they are nowhere near the levels of its main oil businesses.

Mr Hitchens believes other oil companies will now follow BP's lead and sell off some of their own chemicals subsidiaries.

"It is a good move, and BP is definitely ahead of the game on this." he said.

Cash rich

In fact, so lean and profitable has BP become today, that Mr Hitchens says the recently announced share buyback indicates the company has almost so much free cash floating around that it doesn't know what to do with it.

"What is BP going to spent all its money on? I can't see anything around that it wants to take over at present," he said.

"So, it is buying back some of its own shares."

Paul Mumford, fund manger at Cavendish Asset Management also welcomed the sell off of BP's chemicals division.

Looking at BP overall, he said: "It's nice to see an oil company that's doing well for a change."

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