Total seeks new boss as Russia, France probe CEO plane crash

22nd October 2014, Comments 0 comments

French oil giant Total was scrambling Wednesday to find a new boss after its chief executive Christophe de Margerie was killed in Moscow when his private jet hit a snowplough on takeoff.

Executives were meeting to decide who could take over the helm of one of the world's biggest energy companies.

In Moscow, French investigators joined a local team to probe Monday night's accident, which Russian experts said was caused by criminal negligence on the part of senior airport officials.

Questions rose over the safety of the Vnukovo airport used primarily by VIPs, as Russian media reported that an intern was in charge of directing air traffic at the time of the crash.

The snowplough driver, who was accused by investigators of having been drunk on the job, meanwhile said he drove on to the runway after losing his bearings.

After the shock at the sudden death of their charismatic 63-year-old boss, known by the affectionate nickname "Big Moustache", managers at Total sought to reassure investors and the industry that a smooth succession is under way.

"The group is set up to ensure the proper continuity of its governance and its activities, to deal with this tragic event," Total's secretary general Jean-Jacques Guilbaud said.

In keeping with Total's tradition, the new boss will likely be recruited internally.

Union sources say honorary chairman Thierry Desmarest, 68, could be tapped in the interim, as he was the man who had prepared De Margerie for the job in the first place.

Desmarest held both the chairman and chief executive posts from 1995 to 2007, before handing over the CEO job to De Margerie. He stayed on as chairman until 2010.

But a longer term solution would have to be found for the group which employs 100,000 people and posted revenues of 189.5 billion euros in 2013.

Possible candidates include Patrick Pouyanne, the head of the refining and chemicals division, as well as Philippe Boisseau, in charge of supply marketing and new energies.

- 'Lost my bearings' -

In Moscow, the grey-haired driver of the snowplough said he could not understand how he drove into the path of the plane, acording to a video broadcast Wednesday by Russia's Channel One state television.

Vladimir Martynenkov, still wearing his airport uniform, told investigators: "When I lost my bearings, I myself didn't notice when I drove onto the runway -- that is, let's say I drove out."

Investigators had said the driver was drunk, but Martynenkov speaks clearly and looks calm in footage, apparently shot on a cellphone.

His lawyer told state television that Martynenkov does not drink because of a heart condition but could have consumed a remedy that contained "a few drops" of alcohol.

The driver has been detained for 48 hours and a Moscow court was to rule later Wednesday whether he can be formally arrested.

- 'Great friend of Russia' -

De Margerie had been chief executive of Total, Europe's third-largest oil company after Shell and BP, since 2007 and spent his entire 40-year career there.

A descendant of a family of diplomats and business leaders, De Margerie was the grandson of Pierre Taittinger, founder of the eponymous champagne and the luxury goods dynasty.

Married with three children and highly regarded within the oil industry, he was known for his jolly nature.

Not one to shy from controversy, De Margerie was an outspoken critic of Western sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

Even as relations between the West and Russia deteriorated to the worst since the Cold War, the French oil boss had criticised the sanctions, calling them "a dead-end" and urging "constructive dialogue" instead.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described De Margerie as "a true friend of our country, whom we will remember with the greatest warmth".

The value of De Margerie's commitment to business with Russia was highlighted by local media.

"Now Moscow has lost an important informal channel of comunications with the political and business elite of Europe," business daily Vedomosti said.

Kommersant business daily quoted a source close to Total saying: "In recent times, Christophe de Margerie was practically the only one left in Total who called for developing business in Russia."

© 2014 AFP

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