Gulf Oil President James E. Lee, named this week to become chairman of the nation's fifth-largest petroleum firm later this year, believes oil consumers can look forward this decade to a "buyer's market" with adequate supplies and oil prices rising about as fast as those of other goods.
But good news for oil users isn't necessarily the same for oil companies, Lee and Gulf Chairman Jerry McAfee, who retires in November, acknowledged in a wide-ranging 90-minute interview last week at Gulf headquarters here that current market conditions are squeezing the company. A partial transcript of the interview will appear in The Washington Post's Sunday Business & Finance section.
Earnings at Gulf fell in the first quarter and although final figures are unavailable, probably did so in the second quarter, compared with the same periods in 1980. Some analysts expect the company to suffer a 10 percent to 15 percent drop in profits for the full year.Gulf earned $1.4 billion on revenues of $28.8 billion last year.
With its stock selling for $37.50, more that $13 below its book value, Gulf executives are concerned the company might be vulnerable to a takeover attempt such as is being waged over Concco. In defensive actions this week, McAfee announces Gulf was increasing its quarterly dividend by 12 percent, to 70 cents a share, which should please stockholders. The company also plans to repurchase 5.1 percent of its outstanding common stock, a move that will increase the value of each remaining share and make any takeover attempt more costly.
McAfee and Lee have worked closely for the six years McAfee has been chairman, and analysts expect the succession to have little immediate impact on the policies of Gulf, such as concentrating its exploration and production efforts in the United States, continuing to reduce refining capacity and dropped refined product sales in geographic areas where it has no significant share of the market.
Lee said in this newly competitive world of the 1980s, heating oil and gasoline dealers will be able "to choose their suppliers as they wish, largely on the basis of price, [and] customers are not going to have to worry about picking out any particular service station, afraid that they wouldn't get the products because there was a shortage."
Consumers can be optimistic these days, Lee said, because oil exporting countries "have been burned enough now by their previous action [in raising prices] that they may well be willing to live for quite some time with just maintaining their buying power where it is today.
"If they get to the point where they want to tighten up production . . . they could do it. But I just believe that certainly the wiser heads in the producting coutries are seeing what they brought on themselves today by the previous actions. They just got too greedy too fast."
As a consequence of the big jump in oil prices in 1979 and 1980, oil demand has fallen sharply. McAfee said Gulf, which had been buying more than 500,000 barrels a day from Kuwait, dropped to 75,000 barrels daily last year. Then Kuwait "unilaterally" sought to change the contract. Now Gulf is buying only 50,000 barrels a day at "a slightly lower price," he said.
"We are seeing a classic example of the operation of the free market, and it's wonderful," McAfee declared. The Nigerian's have "got the choice of being more realistic in their pricing or suffering the consequences" of reduced oil sales.
McAfee said Gulf, in effect, faces the same kind of choices. "We're fighting exactly the same battle in this country on our own product side. We've got to make the same decision every day. . . Do we drop the price and try to move more oil or do we maintain the price and hope to move enough to make up the difference?" he said.
The two executives said Gulf was fairing well in this new more competitive environment in which oil prices no longer are under federal government controls. But they acknowledged the profit squeeze.
With competition hitting retail markets, first, and with some suppliers such as Nigeria refusing still to cut oil prices, Gulf's refining and marketing division lost money in both the last quarter of 1980 and the first quarter of 1981. In the second quarter, McAfee said, "there was a change for the better." While figures for the full three months are not yet available, "it would appear that we'll still be under water but not as badly as we were in the first quarter." May and June operations were in the black, Lee said at a press conference this week.