“The biggest company you’ve never heard of” is a label regularly bandied around but is well-deserved by the global trading firm with a name more suited to a household cleaning product: Vitol.
You will not hear its name at this week’s Opec meeting in Vienna or have heard it quoted on the subject of the significant rise in oil prices over the past four months, but a Saudi oil minister would know the name Vitol as they would Shell or BP.
Its faceless office-block HQ near Victoria station, London, which it shares with other corporate clients, certainly gives little clue that Vitol (pronounced Veetol) can record larger annual revenues than big corporate firms such as Apple or Volkswagen. It sales last year topped $270bn (£186.2bn).
But a Damien Hirst spin painting in the private company’s foyer hints at the wealth-creating potential of the world’s largest energy trader, where staff at one subsidiary are said to have drawn average salaries of £750,000 each in one recent year.
Its chief executive Ian Taylor might be a guest at Chequers, on the board of the Royal Opera House and keen to be counted in favour of the remain campaign, but otherwise he is a man who stays out of the limelight.
The compact, clean-cut and animated Mancunian – estimated by the Sunday Times Rich List to be worth £175m – has broken cover to lobby openly against EU plans to tighten regulation of commodity trading.
He argues: “There is a slight risk that we are being put in the same category as financial derivatives, which will probably mean restrictions on the amount that we can hedge, which will in turn stop us moving so much oil, which in turn will in put the price of energy up in Europe.”
Despite past tax and sanctions scrapes, the 59-year-old is keen for Vitol to be seen as a social good rather than some kind of avaricious wheeler and dealer. “I have got nobody doing spec[ulation]. Everyone thinks we spend our lives taking massive punts. But that is just not what we do,” he said.
“We are a physical distributor of energy from A to B in the right sizes in the right qualities. We spend a huge amount of time, rightly, on safety and product being on specification. We are very proud of the job we try and do.”
Taylor insists that the paper trading by Vitol is only a hedge against the physical trades being undertaken. In fact, he says, the price of oil is neither here nor there for Vitol, which makes much of its profit from the margins between buying and selling.
The business also involves some serious hardware, as well as trading screens in its 40 offices worldwide. At any one time, Vitol has 200 ships on charter or under ownership to move some of the almost 270m tonnes of crude and products handled in a year.
Vitol also has five oil refineries, 2,700 petrol service stations and even a power plant on Humberside. Oil may be the main commodity bought and sold but there is also coal, iron ore and carbon.
Taylor boasts that Vitol was once the biggest mover and shaker in the world of carbon credits until – in his words – the business based round the Emissions Trading Scheme in Europe was “killed” by politicians.
Now that business is banking on a trading scheme in California picking up speed amid wider hopes that the UN climate change deal will finally spur new moves to resuscitate a market collapsed by low prices.
Low prices are also a problem in the crude arena. Taylor is surprisingly bearish, believing that crude that was running along at $100 a barrel prior to 2014 is set for up to a decade at $40-$60.
What of the future of the hydrocarbons that sit at the centre of Vitol’s fortunes? Unsurprisingly, Taylor, who started his post-Oxbridge career with Shell in the late 1970s, does not buy into the “end of the oil era” narrative beloved by environmentalists.
He said: “We still believe that on balance over the next 25 years that oil will be the major transportation fuel in the world and there will be growth – especially per capita, in places such as Africa and India.
“But we see the power sector moving to gas and renewables, the growth in electric cars. Yes, they are likely to come in but will they make sufficient dents in our business so that it is no longer viable? I think, hopefully not.”
“But in some ways I am very encouraged we are seeing renewables and electric cars because it reduces the likelihood of a nasty spike in the price of oil, which is incredibly damaging to developing countries.
“You don’t want big spikes, so if oil demand starts to decline on a relative basis I am not sure that is a bad thing on a macro[economic] basis.”
But it is hard to imagine Vitol itself moving too far from its core competences. The company reinforced its image as a buccaneering business by sending its tankers into Libya at the height of the civil war.
It is also credited with helping Kurdistan reduce its ties with Iraq by providing vessels to carry crude exports originating in the landlocked region, at a time when others were frightened of repercussions from Baghdad.
Taylor has experience of the Middle East, having lived as a child in Iran at one stage when his father worked for ICI, but not all his experiences have ended well.
Vitol was among the 2,200 companies found guilty in the US of providing illicit payments to government officials under the UN oil-for-food programme. Taylor, who joined Vitol in 1985, insists no bribes were ever paid and that the case was politically motivated.
“The payments were surcharges demanded by the state oil company of Iraq [Somo] from all lifters, and were paid to the account of the national Iraqi oil company. They were neither bribes nor kickbacks.”
Vitol has also had scrapes with HM Revenue and Customs over a employee benefit scheme for senior staff it set up but later dismantled. Taylor insists this is a thing of the past and that all 200 UK employees are taxed completely normally: “We are all comfortable paying UK tax.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010