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Wed, Nov 21, 2001 - Page 21 News List

Analysts believe Phillips-Conoco merger is critical

PETROLEUM Touted optimistically as a deal made in heaven, the US-based companies may need to cooperate just to remain competitive

AP , NEW YORK

While executives promoted their US$15.6 billion deal to unite Phillips Petroleum Co and Conoco Inc as a merger of equals, analysts described the combination as a deal done to survive.

If Phillips and Conoco hadn't decided to join forces, analysts said Monday, they risked losing market share to competitors in an unhealthy business climate for all but the largest petroleum companies.

"This is absolutely a matter of survival -- survival not necessarily to thrive, but to guarantee they will survive," said Fadel Gheit, an analyst at Fahnestock & Co. "If oil and gas prices collapse, smaller companies will be swept away."

Oil prices have already plunged to their lowest level in more than two years despite efforts by OPEC to trim production and stop the free fall. Gas is now selling for less than US$1 a gallon in some parts of the country and is averaging US$1.23 a gallon at stations nationwide, according to the Lundberg Survey.

In a conference call with analysts Monday, top Phillips and Conoco officials said the merger will allow them to save at least US$750 million annually, in part through the elimination of an unspecified number of jobs from the combined company's roster of 58,000 employees.

Phillips chairman James Mulva said it's too soon to say how many positions will be cut, but Gheit predicted about 10 percent of the work force would be eliminated.

"You cannot say you are cutting costs if you cut less than 5 percent," Gheit said "And if you want to be aggressive with a sharp knife you can cut 15 to 20 percent, which I see as unlikely."

The combined company will be the country's top refiner and a gas retailing giant, with about 17,000 filling stations nationwide. Conoco sells gasoline, diesel fuel, and other petroleum products at 5,000 outlets in the US, while Phillips sells fuel at more than 12,000 stations under brands such as Phillips 66, Circle K, and 76.

The all-stock deal, announced Sunday, gives the new company -- named ConocoPhillips -- a US$35 billion market value. It puts it in the No. 3 position behind Exxon Mobil Corp and ChevronTexaco Corp in the US, and ranks it sixth-largest in the world.

ConocoPhillips will likely have reserves of 8.7 billion barrels of oil equivalent and daily production of 1.7 million barrels.

Officials took pains Monday to describe the deal as a merger of equals, though under its terms, Phillips shareholders will end up with a 56.6 percent stake in the new company and Conoco shareholders will own 43.4 percent.

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