CHAPTER 1: John Donovan, Shell’s nightmare

The name of this book is not an ego-driven title dreamt up by me, but the headline of an article by an award-winning newspaper journalist, Christoph Giesen published across the EU in ten languages. It was about my unusual relationship with Royal Dutch Shell. Over a decade of spectacular mutual success followed by two decades of hostilities, including sinister episodes of cloak and dagger activity by Shell against my father and me. The article led to a TV documentary feature aired across the EU.

A broadsheet German daily newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung published a major article about me on 20 March 2012 under the headline “Konzernfeind No. 1.”

The article by Christoph Giesen told the story of my epic feud with the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, a former client of the multinational company I co-founded, Don Marketing.

The English translation of the above newspaper headline: Shell’s enemy No.1

It was republished on 27 March 2012 by the European Journal/VOXeurope in ten languages under the headline: “John Donovan, Shell’s nightmare.

A related TV documentary feature filmed in the UK and Russia was subsequently broadcast across Europe by Deutsche Welle (DW) the leading German TV international public broadcasting channel. It included an interview with former Russian Deputy Minister of the Environment, Oleg Mitvol, named in a Guardian newspaper article as a “Kremlin attack dog.” Film footage of President Putin appears in the feature.

A professional translation of the German-language narration is printed below in italics:

John Donovan: A lone fighter against Shell

Next to the London Eye, the Shell Centre stands tall. Its enemy stands at the door.

“You might find that interesting,” says John Donovan. He distributes flyers to inform people about the oil company’s drilling projects.

“Shell destroys communities,” is what the banner says. An older gentleman and a handful of like-minded people are aggravating one of the world’s largest oil giants.

“We are putting Shell in a tough spot. What we’re doing is embarrassing them by distributing those leaflets. But they can’t do anything about it, because what we say is true and we can prove it.”

John uses the flyers in what is mostly a symbolic gesture to the enemy; he leads the real wave of protest on the internet. A long time ago, John secured the internet domain royaldutchshellplc.com. It sounds like the company’s official webpage, but in reality, it shows its dark side.

Millions of people click on the articles and then discover scandalous details about Shell. For example, about what the company is doing in Nigeria. Oil spills are contaminating the Niger Delta. Donovan was able to prove that Shell cooperated with rebels.

The Englishman is holding up a mirror to Shell. “We want Shell to honour its own business principles. The firm made them in 1976 and people are supposed to believe the promises they made in there that Shell will at all times work with honesty, integrity and openness towards its employees, suppliers and the public. However, in our experience, they do not do this; they are a ruthless, mean oil company. “

John Donovan’s revelations cost Shell billions. In 2005, he wrote an email to the Russian President about Shell’s lax safety standards. This is how Putin learned that the oil drilling project in Siberia, Sakhalin II, could be threatened by an environmental catastrophe. The consequences were expensive.  Shell’s reputation in Moscow dropped, as did its profits. The Russians degraded Shell to a minority partner in its joint venture.

“Yes, Mr. Donovan’s documents really helped us,” Russia’s former deputy environmental minister confirms.

“His evidence proved without a doubt that documents had been forged and that problems had deliberately been kept secret.”

It goes without saying that John Donovan doesn’t buy his petrol from Shell. He did, however, do business with them in the past. John ran petrol stations and thought up advertising slogans for the energy giant. “We used to be something like partners,” says John.

The fight started after a bitter disappointment. “One of their managers had stolen one of our ideas and expected that we wouldn’t sue them because Shell is so rich and powerful. But we didn’t want to let things be and we pursued them in the courts and it’s gone on for two decades ever since.”

John experienced how Shell treats people for himself. That was his motivation for scrutinizing the company. The piles of research in his home in Colchester continue to grow, along with all the information provided to him by insiders. It is a full-time job for the early retiree. The files even fill his old refrigerator – a fitting symbol of the cold war against Shell.   

“We found out what Shell really thinks about us because we have read internal correspondence on the topic. It said that they instituted a global spying operation against us. They even recruited people from Pittsburgh who work for the FBI.”

In comparison, John Donovan is open about his actions. He notifies Shell of his protests; anyone can read his website.

One man, who worked for the opponent for 37 years, says that Donovan is annoying. Patrick Biggs thinks that this is a good thing, however.

“When you have that amount of power, you need to be held accountable. My view is that democratic systems don’t hold multinationals like Shell as accountable as they should. So there’s a gap and it’s into that gap that people like John Donovan will come.”

One senior against Shell. And he still has quite a few things up his sleeve. The energy giant will be subjected to John Donovan’s evil eye for a very long time.

TRANSLATION ENDS

An English language version of the German TV documentary segment was then broadcast across Europe by the European Journal under the title: “Shell’s Enemy No. 1

Greenpeace might take issue with the No. 1 ranking bearing in mind that its activities have achieved greater visibility.

However, in terms of financial impact, the confidential Shell internal information that I supplied to the Russian government concerning the Sakhalin2 gas project in Russia, did, in fact, cost Shell billions of dollars, as has been widely reported.

In October 2006, Petroleum Argus FSU Energy published an interview with Mitvol while he was still on the attack against Shell.

EXTRACT FROM ARGUS FSU ENERGY INTERVIEW WITH OLEG MITVOL

Q: Who will take Sakhalin Energy to court?

A: I will take them. I have documents proving that the Sakhalin Energy management was aware that the company violated technical standards, but carried on trying to meet project deadlines and refused to stop work. I am confident of winning my case in Stockholm.

Q: What documents are these? Where are they from?

A: I have email correspondence between executives in Sakhalin Energy management from 2002.

I received these letters from John Donovan, owner of the anti-Shell website www.royaldutchshellplc.com. I received them on 19 October and forwarded them to Sakhalin Energy with a request for an official reply. But I have not received any reply so far. I presume that they are in shock.

Q: How could you prove that these documents are genuine?

A: They appear genuine and we have special services working to prove this. Once they have been verified, we will have enough evidence to take Sakhalin Energy to court. If we win, the Sakhalin 2 consortium should pay compensation for all the environmental damages – which will come to over $10bn – as well as compensation to the state for loss of revenues caused by the additional delays.

Extract ends

Based on the evidence I supplied, Mitvol later threatened to increase the litigation claim to $30 billion.

Shell was soon persuaded to relinquish its majority holding in the world’s then largest energy project, becoming, instead, a minority partner. It was an utter humiliation for Shell with huge financial consequences.

Mitvol was also mentioned in a related multipage article by Derek Brower, editor-at-large of Petroleum Economist. His article was published in Prospect Magazine in February 2007 under the title “Rise of the gripe site

Extracts

IT IS NOT the kind of place you would expect to find at the centre of a global energy war. John Donovan’s office is in a modest house in a suburb of Colchester. No electronic maps of Europe adorn his walls, as they do the walls of Gazprom’s Moscow control room. And nor are there any butlers bringing cups of tea and expensive biscuits, as you find at Shell’s head office on the Thames. There is just Donovan’s 89-year-old father, Alfred, in the room next door. But it is the home of www.royaldutchshellplc.com, a website which can claim to have cost Shell billions of dollars and helped Vladimir Putin score another victory over western energy interests.

Oleg Mitvol – the deputy head of Rosprirodnadzor, who was entrusted with the job of bringing Sakhalin Energy to heel had by last December accumulated sufficient evidence of Shell’s and its partners’ abuses to lay charges against the consortium amounting to $30bn. There were also threats that the licence to develop the project could be removed. With the green gun at its head, Shell allowed Gazprom to take control of the project giving Russia an immediate share of profits and oversight of costs. Taking the role of the humiliated man seriously, Shell’s head Jeroen van der Veer thanked Putin for helping to resolve the conflict.

What most astonished Shell was the detailed inside knowledge Mitvol had accumulated about the company’s abuses. Some in the company suspected industrial espionage.

But it was actually information that the Donovans of Colchester were passing to Mitvol. EXTRACTS END

Mitvol also featured in a Sunday Times half-page article by Danny Fortson published 19 July 2009 under the headline: “Two men and a website mount vendetta against an oil giant

Extract

In 2005, when the Kremlin was building a case against Shell over the Sakhalin gas project, the Donovans provided confidential documents regarding alleged environmental infractions directly to Oleg Mitvol, the minister who led the case. Shell was ultimately forced to sell a stake to the Russians, leading to billions in lost revenue. Mitvol publicly acknowledged the help provided by the Donovans in building his case.

Extract from a related half page article by Russell Hotten published by The Guardian on 26 October 2009 under the headline: “92-year-old’s website leaves oil giant Shell-shocked

Four years ago Shell was embroiled in a bitter dispute with Russia’s environmental regulator over drilling for gas at Sakhalin Island. It was eventually forced to relinquish its majority stake in the project, costing Shell billions in lost revenue. Later, the regulator, Oleg Mitvol, publicly acknowledged the Donovans’ help in getting information about alleged claims of environmental abuses by Shell. Earlier this year the site disclosed plans for thousands of Shell job losses. And now, Donovan says, he is helping US investigators looking into the award of oilfield drilling licenses, providing them with information leaked to his website.

I was, in fact, dealing with a senior agent from the Inspector General’s Office of the US Department of the Interior keen to receive Shell insider information, which I supplied.

My Shell insider sources have received threats, including alleged death threats, as reported by The Irish Times in April 2011: Gardaí investigate alleged death threats to Corrib whistleblowers

The last message I received from one Sakhalin2 source advised that they had received a credible serious threat. I never heard from that particular insider again.

A press release issued by Shell UK in March 1995 provides some idea of the degree of acrimony and the wide scope of our campaigning activities.

Extract

Mr Donovan and his father have written to the directors of Shell UK and its parent companies stating that they plan to outline the allegations against Shell and its staff to the company’s shareholders, the President of the Board of Trade, a number of publications and to ‘Internet’ users. They have also claimed that they intend to write to media and shareholders calling for the resignation of senior Shell managers, allege that they plan to write a book, have sent publicity material to several Shell locations in the UK and have attempted to assemble negative views of Shell from some retailers. Shell believes these actions are an attempt to sully Shell’s reputation with sensationalist allegations, in the hope that the company may be coerced into settling false claims.

Shell settled a libel case we brought in response to its ill-advised press releases and also settled all of the so-called “false claims,” paying all of our legal costs.

The press release mentioned our intention to bring our allegations to the attention of “Internet users.” A family friend, Nick Gill, an IT expert, has, from the outset of our Internet activities in the mid-nineties, created, maintained and updated all of our Shell focussed websites.

Extract from an article published Monday 28 September 1998 on page 62 of the London Evening Standard newspaper:

Donovan’s site is the work of 19-year-old Nick Gill, who replied to an add for an Internet whizz.

When I use the term “we” and “us” I am generally referring to my father, our former company Don Marketing, Nick Gill and myself. Until his death in 2013, my father was prominently involved in my campaigning activities against Shell.

I have always devoted all of my time and energy to my Shell focused websites. My father and Nick gave me their support whenever needed. Nick still does, for which I am most grateful.

I can state with all due modesty, that we have made an extraordinary impact on Shell.

The most impressive salute you can hope to receive in life is what your most deadly enemy concedes.

This is what one hapless Shell official said in an internal email in March 2007, not knowing we would ever see comments meant for internal consumption only:

John and Alfred Donovan well known in UK/Hague. They perceive Shell played them and so have made it their mission to embarrass, belittle and criticize Shell, which they do quite well. Their website, royaldutchshellplc.com is an excellent source of group news and comment and I recommend it far above what our own group internal comms puts out.

Although nowhere near on a par with the Zulu salute to the brave defenders of Rorke’s Drift depicted in the 1964 film classic, Zulu, the accolade was, nonetheless, extremely gratifying.

Particularly coming from such a mighty opponent.

The hostility with Shell has been in progress for two decades. My association with them via the Internet is so strong that when I checked my name – John Alfred Donovan – on zoominfo.com on 3 July 2014, I was listed (see box) as being the Founder, Owner and Group Chairman of Royal Dutch Shell Plc.

Some may wonder how I have been able to inflict humiliation and damage on Shell and end up being hailed as Shell’s No. 1 enemy? This ebook provides the answers.

My families’ relationship with Shell stretches back nearly 60 years.

My father jointly owned a garage in the county of Essex, with new car showrooms and extensive workshop facilities. He held new car franchises for Standard-Triumph and later, for Chrysler.

My sisters (Lynne and Jessie) and I worked for him from the late 1950’s. Myself, initially on a part-time basis, from when I was a 12-year-old schoolboy.

We all worked as petrol pump attendants. There was no self-service in those days. Goodness knows how much lead we inhaled during those early years filling up countless vehicles of all kinds.

It became a family business that quickly expanded into a small group of garages in East London and Essex.

Shell was one of our suppliers and their local man, John Withers,  was a regular visitor.

I left school at 15. I had no interest in education, no qualifications, or any obvious talent.

I served as a relief petrol station manager for Petrofina when I was 17 and three years later, took the tenancy on a Fina petrol station in Colchester, Essex: Britannia Service Station.

My father suffered long-term ill health resulting from his years serving in the British Army as a regular soldier, including throughout World War 2. He was involved in fighting the Japanese invaders in Burma and received campaign medals and a war disability pension. He was a great admirer of the Gurkha soldiers under his command.

When his health deteriorated, I took over day-to-day management of the garage group with my father in semi-retirement, providing invaluable advice, especially on the creative/marketing front.

We had a genuine flair for devising petrol sales promotions and were delighted to win an award from Chevron for one imaginative competition.

In 1979, with my father’s brother Bob Donovan and a chartered accountant/mathematician friend, Don Redhead (now sadly deceased), we jointly founded a sales promotion company, Don Marketing. It was based in the UK but later had overseas subsidiaries. I was the chief executive and eventually the chairman.

Bob Donovan and our office manager, Valerie Hewitt are shown in a photograph taken in 1979. They were visiting the security printers Rochford Thompson in Newbury, Berks, where one of our high-tech promotions, Freeline Football, was being produced.

We created and supplied marketing campaigns across the retail spectrum. Because of our background, gasoline forecourt promotions were a speciality.

A thirty-minute video from the 1980‘s viewable on YouTube, features a compilation of innovative promotions created by Don Marketing, including instant win forecourt games for Shell. 

My father later played a prominent role in my litigation and campaigning activities against Shell. He passed away in July 2013 at the age of 96. Shell did not have the grace to offer condolences.

I did receive a private message of condolences from a retired very senior person at Shell for which I was very grateful.

LEADING THE WORLD IN PROMOTIONAL GAMES

The above bold claim, made in numerous whole page advertisements in trade magazines, was legitimate. To the best of my knowledge, no company before or since has devised such a wide range of innovative promotional games.

I authored articles about promotional games for magazines such as Marketing Week and have acted as an expert witness in court cases relating to promotional games.

We had business dealings with the major US TV networks. Following negotiations in New York and London with NBC Senior Vice President, Steve Sohmer, I signed an agreement for a joint NBC/Don Marketing project with Ray Timothy, President of NBC Television. Lars H Lenck, President of Don Marketing USA, a former Chevron analyst, was also a signatory to the contract.

We created and supplied on-pack promotions e.g. Cinzano Instant Roulette plus numerous colourful games and contests for breweries, some deliberately designed to spark conversation and debate among pub-goers.

Our gasoline promotions ran at various times on the forecourts of all major petrol brands in the UK and for a short period, we acted as consultants to BP.

However, we became best known for our long association with the Royal Dutch Shell Group, providing a promotional games consultancy service to Shell in the UK and around the world. We devised a variety of trendsetting Shell national promotional campaigns in the 1980′s and early 1990′s. These were all short-term promotions, typically lasting for around 10 weeks.

SHELL MAKE MONEY

We began our relationship with Shell in 1981, entering into a joint written agreement in respect of a Shell Make Money game we had devised. It overcame a legal obstacle that had brought to a premature end a successful earlier promotional game with the same name mounted by Shell in 1967. In 1983, Shell launched our Make Money game in the UK. Because of the spectacular success of this award-winning promotion, we mounted Make Money games for Shell in overseas markets.

We devised and supplied a series of subsequent blockbuster promotions for Shell in the UK and overseas, sometimes with a £4.5 million budget per promotion.

The immediate follow-up to Make Money in the UK was Shell Mastermind, based on a popular BBC TV quiz show known for its challenging questions.

This was followed by Shell Make Merry with a Harrods Christmas fare theme. Six million mince pies, twenty-five thousand Christmas puds plus Wine packs, Gift Packs and ten x £10,000 Harrods shopping sprees were given away as prizes. Because of its novelty, the promotion was the subject of a feature in ITN Channel 4 News on British TV. 

We later created Bruce’s Luck Deal, an “Every Card Can Win” playing card themed scratch card game linked to a popular UK TV personality, Bruce Forsyth. Over 4 million packs of Shell-branded playing cards were among the prizes given away in the UK and Ireland.

Our last promotion for Shell was nearly a decade later in 1991. It was a Star Trek themed “Every Card Can Win” scratch-card game involving a distribution of 100 million game cards.

It is fair to say that the first dozen years of the business relationship between Shell and Don Marketing was very successful for both parties. Not only in the UK but around the world.

(Photo from Marketing Magazine article “Games People Play” dated 18 Sept 1986. John Donovan displayed Shell Singapore “Make Money” game pieces – a national promotion supplied by his company Don Marketing, The same promotion was also conducted in the UK and Ireland.)

We enjoyed a mutually beneficial and trusting relationship.

In the two decades since 1993, the mutual admiration evaporated and the relationship became so acrimonious that The Times newspaper published a City Diary article in 2007 about Shell’s hostile relationship with my family.

Extract:

Since the 1990s, Royal Dutch Shell has been at war with a family who registered a website, royaldutchshellplc.com. The Donovan family, led by 90-year-old Burma veteran Alfred, perhaps quixotically want Shell to change its management. Shell has failed to shut down the site, which has attracted job applications and, allegedly, even a terrorist threat, all of which are dutifully passed on to the company.

Thus, we became widely known for bouts of litigation with Shell – all stemming from the theft of our intellectual property by the ruthless oil giant.

The events set out will hopefully explain the sense of deep injustice that has driven my activities for over two decades.

Basically, I campaign for Shell to operate according to the pledges set forth in its own statement of Business Principles. To me, that does not seem an unreasonable ambition.

I have provided links to cited documents, letters, emails, and articles, all of which are posted online.

It comes from various sources. Discovery in previous litigation with Shell; correspondence with Shell; leaked information; plus legal documents obtained from the US Courts and also information obtained from Shell in response to Subject Access Requests made under the UK Data Protection Act.

Consequently, the reader does not have to accept my word alone for what would otherwise appear to be outrageous tales about an epic battle, still in progress.

I am a long-term Shell shareholder.

Photograph of the late much loved British comedian Bernie Winters and his St Bernard dog Schnorbitz at a major prize award ceremony for a Don Marketing petrol sales promotion, Top Cash. The young ladies(left to right), Mary, Anita, Valerie and Lynne, were all Don Marketing staff.

royaldutchshellplc.com and its sister websites royaldutchshellgroup.com, shellnazihistory.com, royaldutchshell.website, johndonovan.website, shellnews.net, shell2004.com, shellshareholders.org, don-marketing.com and cybergriping.com are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article: royaldutchshellplc.com