Unilever Veteran Rises to Top Spot -- WSJ

Fecha : 30/11/2018 @ 02:02
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Unilever Veteran Rises to Top Spot -- WSJ

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By Saabira Chaudhuri 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (November 30, 2018).

Unilever PLC, the maker of Hellmann's mayonnaise and Dove soap, named Alan Jope to replace longtime Chief Executive Paul Polman as it, like the rest of the industry, grapples with a sharp shift in consumer tastes.

The appointment of Mr. Jope, a Unilever lifer who currently heads its beauty and personal-care division, comes amid the company's push under Mr. Polman to bolster that higher-margin business and pivot away from slower-growing food.

The job, which Mr. Jope will start Jan. 1, is one of the highest-profile posts in corporate Europe. The leadership change also is the latest in a series of high-profile departures of consumer-goods bosses -- an unprecedented changing of the guard as the industry faces down a raft of challenges.

Unilever and its peers face increased competition from local brands, rising commodity costs, volatile emerging markets and fierce competition from Amazon.com Inc. and discount chains that are increasingly launching own-label products. On top of this, last year Mr. Polman was forced to fend off an unwelcome $143 billion takeover approach from Kraft Heinz Co.

Unilever hired an executive-search firm last November to help find a successor to Mr. Polman, a former Procter & Gamble Co. and Nestlé SA executive, who has led the company for a decade.

Mr. Jope, a Scotsman, was seen as a leading candidate to be Unilever's next CEO. He has led the company's largest division since 2014, regularly presents to investors, and has experience in emerging and developed markets across both food and personal care. He joined the Anglo-Dutch company as a graduate marketing trainee in 1985.

Mr. Polman -- an outspoken Dutchman with a passion for the planet -- in an email to staff said his work going forward would include helping the private sector on sustainability issues.

Under Mr. Polman's leadership, Unilever has shifted toward faster-growing segments in personal and home care while jettisoning lagging food businesses like spreads and pasta sauce. During his tenure as CEO, Unilever made about 50 acquisitions, according to Chairman Marijn Dekkers. The company has also put more emphasis on sustainability, launching projects in areas including nutrition, gender equality and plastic packaging.

On a call with reporters Thursday, Mr. Dekkers indicated that Mr. Jope would broadly continue the strategy laid out under Mr. Polman but will have to adapt it to meet a fast-changing landscape.

"Consumer preferences are changing continuously on the food and personal and beauty care side so Alan will in his new role face a new set of opportunities and challenges," he said.

Mr. Polman, since fending off the Kraft approach, launched share buybacks, raised margin targets, further shuffled Unilever's portfolio and accelerated a restructuring to make the company more agile. Unilever's stock rose strongly during his tenure and continues to outperform rivals.

But Mr. Polman was often divisive, riling some shareholders by appearing to spend more time thinking about global sustainability issues than Unilever's performance. Mr. Polman derided the investment community as being too focused on the short term.

"In my spare time I happen to be the CEO of Unilever, and in my full-time job I am trying to create a little different form of capitalism," he said at a conference in San Francisco in September.

In a note to clients, Bernstein analyst Andrew Wood said that while some investors disliked Mr. Polman's "preachy" style about sustainability issues and thought he had a "god complex," he thought Mr. Polman had been "an exceptionally good CEO of Unilever."

This fall, Mr. Polman was roundly criticized after ignoring opposition from several prominent British shareholders to his plan to ditch Unilever's London headquarters and consolidate the company's base in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. Ultimately, Unilever scrapped the move in an embarrassing U-turn for Mr. Polman.

Mr. Dekkers on Thursday said the board continues to believe that simplifying Unilever's dual-headed structure will accelerate growth and is in the best interest of shareholders. "We will take our time to consider what's next," he said.

Mr. Jope, 54, is well liked within Unilever. A person who has worked closely with him described Mr. Jope as having a far more amiable style than Mr. Polman, saying he is "warm, very funny and a real people person." Mr. Jope is less focused on financials than Mr. Polman and is more of a "classic marketeer" with experience building brands, the person added. In his spare time, the London-based Mr. Jope goes on long motorbike rides and plays soccer.

Under Mr. Jope, Unilever's personal-care arm bought online razor-delivery startup Dollar Shave Club and made a string of other small deals in areas including high-end skin care. Mr. Jope also expanded Dove, rolling out a new line of baby products from wipes to moisturizers under the brand. He pushed Dove deeper into men's products and launched new brands like Love, Beauty and Planet to appeal to millennials.

Mr. Polman will stay on to assist with the transition through the first half of next year, the company said.

RBC analyst James Edwardes Jones described Mr. Jope as "a deep thinker about his category," saying the incoming CEO's biggest immediate challenge is whether to retain the financial targets set for Unilever under Mr. Polman for 3% to 5% sales growth and an operating margin of 20% by 2020.

"We think these targets are not going to be easy to achieve and constrain Unilever's freedom of action," said Mr. Edwardes Jones.

Mr. Dekkers said there are no indications that Unilever won't achieve its targets. "That's not a confirmation but it's an indication that we are on track," he said.

Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at saabira.chaudhuri@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 30, 2018 02:47 ET (07:47 GMT)

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