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Italy's Oil King Fights to Preserve His Legacy

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01/25/2020 | 08:15am EST

By Sarah McFarlane and Eric Sylvers

By some measures, Claudio Descalzi is one of the most influential chief executives to lead Italian oil giant Eni SpA. But after 39 years with the company -- the last six as CEO -- he is on trial, facing charges that he orchestrated the company's payment of $1.3 billion for drilling rights in Nigeria with the understanding that most of the money would be paid out in bribes.

As Mr. Descalzi fights the charges in a Milan court, he is vying for a third three-year term as Eni's CEO. He defends his tenure leading Italy's second-largest company and denies taking part in any illegal activity. He wants another term, he said, to continue transforming Eni and grooming its future leadership.

"I'm not done," he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

The Italian government, which owns 30% of Eni and picks its chairman and chief executive, will decide whether to renominate the 64-year-old Mr. Descalzi by May. The government declined to comment.

The high-profile court case is a rare example of top managers from Western energy companies facing criminal charges. The trial revolves around Eni and Royal Dutch Shell PLC's joint purchase of drilling rights for a block off the coast of Nigeria in 2011 and has entangled former Shell executives. The companies deny any wrongdoing. The Milan prosecutors who brought the charges declined to comment.

Eni and several current and former top managers have been subject to investigations by Italian prosecutors, who have questioned the company's legal and compliance practices amid increasing global oversight of the oil industry.

The verdict, which could come as early as March, can be appealed twice in the Italian court system. But Mr. Descalzi said that if found guilty, he would likely resign rather than await the outcome of a yearslong appeal process. Mr. Descalzi has cut ties with former longtime loyalists, including Eni's previous head of legal and compliance, whom he fired last year.

Mr. Descalzi made his mark quickly after ascending to the top spot in 2014, from his previous position as chief operating officer of exploration and production, changing an Eni corporate structure that had existed for 25 years so that all business units report directly to the CEO. He did it in a month without consultants -- whom, along with bankers, he avoids when possible.

He orchestrated more than $10 billion in deals by reaching out directly to other CEOs, as he sought to lower Eni's relative exposure to Africa, where it is the biggest Western producer. When Eni sought to sell a stake in a natural gas project, Mr. Descalzi said he sealed the $375 million deal with BP CEO Bob Dudley over coffee at the Hotel Danieli in Venice, where they were attending a conference.

When asked about Mr. Descalzi, Mr. Dudley said he is "straightforward and easy to work with."

In the past decade, Eni has discovered almost 14 billion barrels of oil equivalent, more than double its large American and European peers including Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP, according to consulting firm Rystad Energy. In the 10 years through 2018, Eni had a drilling success rate of 45%, about 10 percentage points higher than the industry average, according to consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

The company's share price, however, has fallen by a quarter during Mr. Descalzi's time as chief executive -- a slightly better performance than Exxon but worse than other industry peers including Shell and BP. Analysts say shareholders don't often reward exploration success immediately because it takes years to start up production.

Eni's willingness to explore in risky places exposed the company and its executives to countries that are known to struggle with corruption. Nigeria, where Eni produces around 100,000 barrels a day of oil equivalent, was in the top 20% of the most corrupt countries in the 2019 Corruption Perception Index, published by charity Transparency International.

While many large energy companies forecast oil demand to drop, Mr. Descalzi expects growth in developing countries to make up for any declines in advanced economies. Still, he has pivoted toward gas and away from oil, as others in the industry have done.

Mr. Descalzi, who joined Eni in 1981 as a petroleum engineer, rose to the top from modest beginnings. He said in the interview that his father was a poet and writer so focused on his creative work that their family sometimes lacked money for food. Christmas and birthdays passed uncelebrated, and Mr. Descalzi said he often wasn't allowed to play. That made forming friendships difficult as a child, and he said he still doesn't have close friends, in part because he travels so often.

"I was fighting every day because we were a very poor family," Mr. Descalzi said. The experience left him determined to carve out a more comfortable and secure life for himself.

Mr. Descalzi, an only child, has four children with his Congolese wife, Marie Madeleine Ingoba, whom he met in France in 1982.

Ms. Ingoba is also wrapped up in legal matters related to Eni. Italian prosecutors are investigating her and Mr. Descalzi for an alleged conflict of interest involving Eni contracts in Congo Republic. No charges have been filed. Prosecutors are looking into whether Ms. Ingoba owned a company that did work for Eni, something that wasn't declared. Mr. Descalzi and prosecutors declined to comment on the probe.

Italian prosecutors also are investigating Ms. Ingoba on possible corruption charges related to the Congo Republic contracts. Her lawyer, Davide Steccanella, said his client is a good person and declined to comment on the probe.

When he isn't working, Mr. Descalzi likes to ride motorcycles -- what he refers to as his only passion -- especially his secondhand, limited edition Harley-Davidson.

"It's freedom, it's fast, I don't have to wait in long queues," said Mr. Descalzi, who doesn't like to sit still and when traveling prefers ordering hotel room service to waiting in restaurants.

"When he says, 'You have to prepare this note; don't worry, give it to me tomorrow,' after a few hours he calls you and says, 'Have you prepared the note?'" said Francesco Gattei, Eni's executive vice president of upstream for the Americas.

Although he can come off as tough, unpretentious and a bit reserved, Mr. Descalzi can be engaging and affable, say analysts who have spent time with him.

"If you're in Africa with him in the middle of the jungle in Congo, at the canteen at an Eni site, the chefs come out and bring the Parmesan to grate over his pasta and give him a hug and high-five him," Bernstein analyst Oswald Clint said.

Write to Sarah McFarlane at sarah.mcfarlane@wsj.com and Eric Sylvers at eric.sylvers@wsj.com

Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
BP PLC 0.82% 486.1 Delayed Quote.3.07%
DOW JONES AFRICA TITANS 50 INDEX 0.07% 537.59 Delayed Quote.-0.01%
ENI SPA 0.09% 13.47 Delayed Quote.-2.80%
EXXON MOBIL CORPORATION -0.67% 66.32 Delayed Quote.-4.96%
LONDON BRENT OIL -2.22% 60.66 Delayed Quote.-6.00%
ROYAL DUTCH SHELL 0.41% 25.91 Delayed Quote.-0.97%
S&P AFRICA 40 INDEX 0.94% 167.62 Delayed Quote.-3.88%
WTI -2.52% 54.24 Delayed Quote.-9.29%
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