One of the best moments of Tony Hayward’s 28-year career with oil giant BP came before dawn on Christmas 1982.

Hayward says he was aboard a freezing oil platform in the middle of the North Sea as the rig’s drill struck oil. The Miller field was the first major find for Hayward, then a 25-year-old geology PhD from the University of Edinburgh. It became one of BP’s most productive North Sea assets, yielding 345 million barrels of oil over its lifetime.

The worst moments of Hayward’s BP career are far better known. On April 20, 2010, BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform and unleashing the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The disaster erased more than $100 billion from BP’s market value in two months, and the company took a $41 billion charge against income to cover fines, cleanup costs and compensation to gulf fishermen and property owners.

Macondo also cost Hayward his job as BP’s chief executive officer after a string of public relations fiascoes that included his saying “I would like my life back” to reporters while touring an oil-slicked beach in Louisiana.

Although Hayward’s reputation in the United States took a hit after the spill, he is welcome in the oil patch. “People know he was the scapegoat,” says Fadel Gheit, oil and gas analyst at Oppenheimer & Co.

Now, Hayward, 54, is getting his life back. A year after leaving BP, he’s again at the helm of a publicly traded company. He teamed up with financier Nathaniel Roths­child, scion of the banking family, to create Vallares, a shell company that raised $2.15  billion through an initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange on June 17.

Hayward also serves on the board of TNK-BP International, BP’s fractious Russian joint venture. Glencore International, the mining and commodities-trading company that went public in London and Hong Kong in May, raising $10.3 billion, named him its senior non-executive director.

Help wanted

The International Energy Agency forecasts an average price of $103 per barrel in the next five years compared with $79 per barrel in the past five, and experienced executives such as Hayward are in demand.

“High-quality people are not easy to come by,” says Christine Tiscareno, an oil and gas analyst at Standard & Poor’s.

Hayward says he hopes to re-create the excitement of his early career at Vallares, which is seeking oil industry acquisitions in emerging markets.

“I am a geologist, and that remains very much in my blood,” he says. “I love the exploration end of the business.”

As he works to restore his reputation, Hayward could be courting new risks. Vallares, the company he founded with Rothschild, 40, is a blank-check company: It had no assets when it went public. Such firms have stirred controversy by allowing less-than-transparent emerging-markets companies to obtain stock exchange listings in London and the United States.

Given BP’s environmental record, environmentalists are snickering about Hayward’s role at Glencore, whose prospectus included reports of water pollution, hazardous dust and toxic clouds at its mines. Hayward was named to the Glencore board’s health, safety and environment committee.

Charlie Kronick, climate adviser for Greenpeace, says, “These are industries that are increasingly operating at the edge, and when you operate at the edge, there is a good chance you’ll fall off.”

Hayward says Vallares plans to target companies in such places as Russia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. He says the most likely candidates are privately owned, family-controlled companies that lack the ability to raise capital or attract talent.

“For an emerging-market company, privately owned, to come to the London market is a three- or four-year process with no guarantee of success,” Hayward says. “So to have the opportunity to merge with the sort of thing we’ve created can be very attractive.”

Joining Hayward and Rothschild are Julian Metherell, 48, former co-head of British investment banking at Goldman Sachs Group, and Tom Daniel, 46, a fund manager who helped Rothschild start an earlier company. The four partners have committed about $163 million of their own money to the project.

In reverse mergers, a shell company uses its stock to buy an operating company. It winds up with the assets, but the target company’s shareholders gain a controlling interest in the former shell company’s shares.

In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission has warned that reverse mergers allow foreign businesses to bypass the usual listing requirements.

‘Less-quality companies’

“It only makes sense to go the reverse-merger route if there is a reason you could not go the traditional route,” says William Sjostrom, a professor at the University of Arizona’s law school. “That means an underwriter looked under the hood and said no, so you are getting less-quality companies.”

Vallares is modeled on Vallar, a blank-check company Rothschild founded with James Campbell, a veteran mining executive, and took public on the London Stock Exchange last summer, raising $1.2 million. In its prospectus, Vallar said only that it intended to acquire a company in base metals, iron ore or coal mining.

“There are not many people in the world who can raise a billion dollars and say, ‘Hey, we’ll tell you what it’s for later,’ but Nat Rothschild is one of them,” says Richard Knights, an analyst at Liberum Capital in London.

Four months after going public, Vallar acquired stakes in two closely linked Indonesian coal-mining companies in a $3 billion reverse merger. The deal made Bakrie Group, run by the Indonesian family of the same name, Vallar’s largest single shareholder, with a 54.6 percent stake valued at more than $1.8 billion.

PT Bumi Resources, the Bakries’ coal-mining company, thus became the first Indonesian company to in effect obtain a listing on the London Stock Exchange. In July, Vallar changed its name to Bumi.

Investor interest in Hayward’s Vallares was so intense that the company raised $534 million more than planned.

Investors in London and New York show a growing appetite for blank-check companies. Last year, there were seven such IPOs in London, up from none in 2009.

In the United States, 14 such companies have gone public as of mid-August, compared with seven in 2010 and one in 2009, according to SPAC Investments, a research firm that specializes in blank-check companies.

With his focus on emerging markets, Hayward risks tying up with a company that isn’t used to Western standards of governance. One of the firms that Vallares has begun discussing an acquisition with is Genel Enerji, a Turkish firm with oil fields in northern Iraq, says a person familiar with the matter.

The British Financial Services Authority fined Genel chief executive Mehmet Sepil $1.6 million in February 2010 for insider trading involving a previous attempt to sell the company to British-based Heritage Oil. (Sepil admitted making the trades but said he didn’t know doing so was illegal, according to a company statement.) Vallares has also looked at buying stakes in Russian oil companies Bashneft and NK RussNeft, both partially owned by AFK Sistema, the company controlled by billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov. Vallares declined to comment on the potential deals.

Hayward also should be concerned about potential pitfalls at Glencore, says Karina Litvack of F&C Asset Management in London.

“The company faces a challenge in gaining the trust of the outside world in terms of its governance and sustainability record,” Litvack says, because Vallares and Glencore are both looking for investments in the same sector.

Link to Glencore

In addition, Rothschild is a major Glencore bondholder as well as a friend of Glencore chief executive Ivan Glasenberg. “Nat Rothschild is friendly with half the world,” Hayward says with a chuckle. “If there ever was a conflict, I would recuse myself, obviously.” Rothschild declined requests for an interview.

Hayward, the eldest of seven children, was born in Slough, an industrial town west of London. His father was a mid-level manager in a textile mill; his mother, an administrator at Britain’s National Health Service. His undergraduate degree is from Aston University in Birmingham.

Hayward’s big break at BP came in 1990, when John Browne, the company’s head of exploration and production and later its chief executive, tapped him to be a Turtle — a name derived from the cartoon “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Selected in pairs each year, the Turtles served as Browne’s aides-de-camp, standing at his elbow as he negotiated multibillion-dollar deals as well as making sure that his office was stocked with El Rey del Mundo Cuban cigars and bottles of Montrachet.

Hayward was steadily promoted, becoming chief of BP’s exploration and production division, the company’s main profit driver, in 2003. In 2007, when Browne resigned after becoming embroiled in a scandal involving his personal life, the board unanimously chose Hayward to replace him.

Browne had concentrated on megamergers and branding BP with his “beyond petroleum” campaign. Toward the end of his tenure, though, BP was plagued by costly project delays and safety and maintenance flaws. A blast in 2005 at BP’s refinery in Texas killed 15 people and injured more than 170.

In 2006, BP was forced to stop pumping oil from its Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska after oil leaked from a corroded pipeline.

Hayward closed the office Browne had opened for BP’s renewable-energy division and pushed BP into Canadian oil sands. He fired 6,500 workers. He wanted to improve BP’s safety record and strive for operational excellence.

BP’s share price on the London Stock Exchange rebounded 16 percent from the time Hayward became chief executive through April 20, 2010 — the day the Deepwater Horizon exploded.

‘Hit by a bus’

The disaster thrust Hayward into a role for which he was ill-prepared, according to a friend who also worked at BP. Hayward was uncomfortable speaking before crowds and on camera, says the friend, who asked not to be named. Hayward was philosophical about the disaster.

“Sometimes you step off the pavement and get hit by a bus,” he told reporters while announcing his resignation.

Whether Vallares is a success will depend on which company it acquires. Oil fields have been garnering sky-high prices as national oil companies from China, India and Russia expand. In October 2010, China Petroleum & Chemical, known as Sinopec, purchased 40 percent of the Brazilian arm of Spanish oil company Repsol YPF for $7.1 billion — more than $2 billion above analysts’ consensus estimate of the stake’s value.

The ghost of Macondo still dogs Hayward. He’s a defendant in two consolidated class-action lawsuits in the United States resulting from Macondo, which could cost BP $6 billion, according to a Citigroup estimate.

Yet the demand for experienced oil and gas hands is such that reincarnation is always possible. Win or lose with Vallares, Hayward is likely to have plenty more chances to get his life back.

The full version of this Bloomberg Markets story is in the October issue.