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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Thoughts on BP

Last night on television news, I saw the owner of a BP-branded gasoline station saying that her sales were way down -- presumably because people are boycotting BP. Problem is, she's an independent business owner. In her state, no "filling stations" (as we used to call them) are owned by the big oil companies. She simply resells what BP's distributor loads into her storage tanks; perhaps the gasoline is traceable to a BP-operated oil well, perhaps not. Her employees and her family will suffer if her business isn't profitable.

I feel for her. Of course, I share the widespread feelings of anger and resentment toward BP, not to mention anger at the U.S. government who freely allowed these deep-ocean wells.

Since moving to Raleigh 23 years ago, I have bought gasoline mainly at the neighborhood shopping center. It was branded Gulf before BP acquired Gulf (and later Amoco). Will I continue to buy there?

The answer is yes, after some reflection. I don't want the neighborhood business to go under, and I don't want their employees (mainly hard-working immigrants from Africa) to lose their jobs. Having lost my own job at Nortel, I'm sensitive to that. It's also unfair to jeopardize jobs at BP's distributors and refineries. They didn't drill the well that blew.

As to the effects of BP's losses on investors, I'm less concerned. At Nortel I had many colleagues in the UK, and I recognize that their pension plans are heavily invested in BP stock. But that's a question of investment prudence. Gail and I own stock in Exxon, but it's not such a high percentage of our assets that we'd be screwed if Exxon went bust tomorrow. It never ceases to amaze me that investors at all levels do not diversify like they should.

Will BP go bust? Too soon to tell. Perhaps it can survive the payouts of claims as well as the loss of profits from this one very prolific well. But will BP survive the destruction of its brand name in the U.S. market? I doubt it. Unlike the native U.S. oil companies like Texaco and Exxon, BP didn't spend on advertising in the 20th century to create a brand name in this market. There is no reservoir of good will for the BP brand. Ironically, BP may have to exit the U.S. market by divesting its gasoline business here -- and then the individual owners of gasoline stations will be freed from an unpopular if not fatal branding.