John Browne knows a thing or two about cost-cutting. As BP’s boss for 12 years starting in 1995, he oversaw an ambitious expansion program that transformed the company’s fortunes while trimming staff. In the words of his successor, Tony Hayward, Browne’s management style “made a virtue of doing more for less.” Of course, Browne’s zealous approach—which allegedly involved scrimping on safety and maintenance—has been widely blamed for BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as an earlier explosion at a Texas oil refinery that killed 15, and a massive 2006 Alaska pipeline spillage.
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But Browne’s BP past hasn’t stopped the cash-strapped British government from wooing him for his skills as a corporate ax man. Already, Browne has taken charge of an official review of university funding, and the Conservative-led coalition government recently recruited him to help find $9.5 billion in public-spending cuts. “All of this is about corner-cutting to maximize profitability, whatever the risk,” says Labour M.P. and former environment minister Michael Meacher, one of a growing chorus of critics who question whether Britain should be run like a public company—especially one with a track record like BP’s.