By Mark Kleinman, City Editor
Investors in a controversial London-listed oil company are demanding that it begins hunting a successor to its chairman in return for backing a £30m fundraising.
Sky News has learnt that several major City institutions have told Gulf Keystone Petroleum that they want to see a replacement identified for Simon Murray, who took over as chairman less than two years ago.
The ultimatum comes amid discussions between Gulf Keystone, which operates in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and prospective buyers of its assets or the whole company.
Payments to oil exporters have faced protracted delays as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been distracted by ongoing unrest in Iraq and the need to devote resources to countering incursions by Islamic State insurgents.
Although Gulf Keystone and other foreign oil companies have begun to receive some multimillion dollar payments, the company's indebtedness has left it facing a financial crunch.
Last month, Gulf Keystone confirmed a Sky News report that it was in talks with prospective buyers, while it has also been pursuing a share placing to raise roughly £30m as an alternative option to secure its future.
Leading City institutions which have fought a long-running battle with the company over pay and governance are now calling on Mr Murray to depart.
A former French Legionnaire and ex-chairman of Glencore, the giant commodities trader, Mr Murray was drafted in as Gulf Keystone's chairman in July 2013 after a protracted fight led by Capital Group and M&G Investments.
The company's former chief executive, Todd Kozel, finally stepped down from the role last year following hints of a further revolt, but the change has failed to appease investors.
A number of independent board members elected as part of a peace deal in 2013 have since been forced out.
Shares in Gulf Keystone have slumped by more than 63% during the last year, valuing it at just £330m, while it continues to carry debts of nearly £400m.
It is unclear whether Gulf Keystone will agree to expedite a succession plan for Mr Murray or whether potential successors have been identified.
The fundraising may yet be a necessity, since a sale of Gulf Keystone is by no means certain.
Exxon Mobil is said to be among the prospective buyers.
In a statement earlier this month, Gulf Keystone said: "Stakeholders are advised that these discussions (with potential buyers) are preliminary and, as such, there can be no certainty that any offers will be received and any transaction concluded, or any certainty as to the terms on which any offer might be made.
"Concurrently, and in view of strategic discussions and its current liquidity position, and with the intention of meeting its existing debt payment obligations, the Company is undertaking a review of its financing options and in that context will engage in discussions with its key stakeholders."
London-listed companies have been hit hard by the fall in the price of crude oil, with Afren among those facing urgent restructurings as they buckle under the financial strain.
Another Kurdistan-focused group, Genel Energy, which is run by Tony Hayward, the former BP chief executive, has also been impacted by the payments delay involving the KRG, although it has a much stronger balance sheet.
The investment banks Deutsche Bank and Perella Weinberg Partners are advising the company on its options.
A Gulf Keystone spokesman declined to comment on Sunday.