Unilever's Knitting - Networks - Long Term Sustainability

Mergers & Acquisitions - Long Term Profitability - Quality/Price/Service/Innovation


NB caution !! ... we only keep these notes on our interweb so we don't lose them ... just a few bits of prosaic prose for a bit of fun

... so remember any resemblance to relevance may be coincidental !



In 1971, unbeknown to us at the time, we joined a social network of beer drinkers - the overseas circuit - later described by MJC as 'informal networks developed over many years, some based on friendships, others on just a style of working, were special in Unilever and were incredibly effective. Consultants brought in by Mike Perry were surprised to find them, and very much troubled by them when trying to install formal systems'.

The operational expertise, the 'know how' embedded in these networks were -

- diverse, dispersed, tacit & incomplete

- complex, changing, conflicting & scarce

'know how' involved future unintended consequences & responses, all unknowable parts of complex adaptive systems ... we were just passing through ... social networks tamed the bureaucratic kluge at Port Sunlight, they were first described by Andrew Knox at Four Acres, were a life saver underneath the soap pan in Apapa, were applied successfully in factories in Aba & Limbe & then Apapa, they survived the eclipse of the OSC, rescued the Warrington factory from kluge with sharp technology transfer & a focus on the 'cost of value' which bypassed the blockages and let the blood flow ...    

Unilever's Knitting - Networks - Long Term Sustainability

World DevelopmentUnilever was a bit mundane for sophisticates, it just provided a bit of excitement for Global Customers ... but time & again it seemed that excitement was exactly what hum drum folk needed to quench the invasive doom & gloom of the survival arms race.

To others Unilever was a multi local multinational underpinned by adaptive learning and consumer focus. A strategy summed up by Ken Durham's Multi-Local Multinational and the teachings of Floris Maljers about Adaptive Markets ... and still echoed in 2008 by Paul Polman's insistent Sustainability and Who cares Wins via innovation

Investment in sustainable innovation for global customers.

At our retirement beers in 1994 Unilever was fast becoming a global company focused on FMCG, with a limited number of decentralised core competencies (Personal Care, Foods, Home Care, Refreshments) close to consumer markets (Asia, Latin America, North America, Europe). Misfits & underperforming businesses were sold.

But and it was a big but ... in a changing world New Product Development Strategy for commodity brands in mature ex growth European & US markets was reeling from failing failing based on -

increased investment in innovation from R&D in Unilever Research Labs

first to market 

fast global spread

'pumping' sales by increased investment in promotion & advertising

Big Brand investment to compete with DOBs and price competition from powerful retailers

Us OSC folk were convinced Ken Durham & Floris Maljers had it right ... Europe was yesterday and we could see future opportunities were in India, Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria ... and China - population growth in emerging markets -

Adaptive Markets Future growth was in emerging markets and purchased innovations from M&A activity    

But, of course, we were biased? But we knew the Unilever Knitting profit from offering global customers what they wished for - long term sustainability - quality/price/services/innovation - value in values. Customers didn't want a race to the bottom! COP26 was Unilever 20 years ago?            

There was little doubt that the Detergents Coordination centralisation strategy held some sway over the local autonomy of The Overseas Committee ... as Geoffrey Jones suggested,

'In DC P&Gs strong central control was grudgingly admired'

and little doubt that David Fieldhouse had identified the persistence of the -

'tension between central strategic control and decentralised local autonomy' 

But had there been any resolution? Had the 'Overseas Club' culture survived all the reorganisations? Was Ken Durham's 'multi local multi national' in good nick?

It seemed to us that Unilever must stick to the knitting and make our pensions safe ... so we had another round ... more please.

The culture of decentralised local autonomy was strong & persistent and grew within the context of the strategic focus on Big Global Brands within core competences. For sure the centre of gravity was no longer Port Sunlight & Rotterdam, nor a rationalised frustratingly inward looking Europe but rather Unilever had been reestablished as an outward embracing global enterprise ... focused on the long term 'Sustainability' and 'Who Cares Wins' ... operational excellence with local autonomy ... commercial investment in overseas market development ... and investment in innovation based on Unilever's historical strength ... the 'core' core competance Financial Clout -

M&A activity propitious investment in innovation for global customers    

... we were in business not in the soap industry ... we excelled excelled at buying in innovation ... we loved it!

In 2009 the new CEO was a 'stranger', he had a question to answer which was posed facetiously in Strategic Management: Awareness & Change, 2010 -

'So what would a company that moved at the speed of rock erosion do?'

The CEO's answer was to speed up?

Speed was of the essence ... Unilever was to 'stick to the knitting' but with speed & sustainability ... with much less time wasted on the short term and the feuds of the fiefdoms ... and fast, flexible M&A.

The focus questions for a simplified organisation structure ... one boss & one board was -

 What business were we in? What did we do better than our competitors?

We remembered Dick Stevens in the old Overseas Committee Department who insisted we were marketing 'promises of excitement' to middle class global consumers. And MJC who concluded we were in 'business not industry' ... the technology was a bit old hat, but the product had to be of superb quality to justify the 12% indirect charge -

'Cleanliness was next to Godliness and Persil washed whiter; and it showed'

... although Charles Wilson's question was as relevant as ever? -

'Was research an overflowing well of invention or a bottomless pit of expense'?

Unilever GlobalWe had summarised the business strategy overseas in the 1970 over endless convivial pints with Jim L ... every word significant ... and familiar -

profitable projects which created long term sustainable income streams for investment in future goodies

close to aspiring customers discovered and trusted through decentralised local marketing opportunities

focused on centralised strategic core competences in a few global big brands

operational excellence from technology & talented folk who chased profits and cut losses

continuous innovation from inspired brand acquisitions from M&A ... and business driven R&D

social networking clubs which cemented & glued in place a company culture which recruited, developed and retained nothing but the best beer drinkers ...

Such were Unilever's competitive advantages ... it was human capital & beer which secured innovative specialisations, scale and financial clout ... ? 

Every year or so the jargon changed as different folk had a different go but the cement remained firmly in place as the roots of the social club continued to produce the blossoms ...

At the start of the day all we ever tried to do was to solve a few problems so we could sell more promises of excitement. Of course no one said it was easy and most of the 'strategy' descriptions sounded a bit glib & trite ... execution; focus on & invest in successful innovation, grow the good bits, chase profits and cut losses ... but happenings meant different things to different folk?

But we also knew different folk cooperated enthusiastically when mutual benefits were around. And it was when there were no synergies that things just got nasty ... and when things got nasty things were sold as misfits ... and promising innovations purchased.

Maybe the convivial pint had been internationalised and fragmented somewhat into whatever tickled your fancy ... but we had no doubt things were still necessarily convivial? ... the Fat Lady hadn't sung on the 'Overseas Club' ... 'the club' went on regardless, perhaps disguised as a more formal network; a 'Global Unilever Club' bent on the geographical spread of local excitement ... 

Over beers we suggested an alternative description of the act -

'One tent with everybody inside the tent pissing out ... and those outside the tent pissing in were sold off ... and new prospects purchased'.

The Overseas Committee was reorganised out in 1987 and Regional Management introduced ... The Special Committee followed in 1996 and at a stroke resolved the most senior of the Dutch/English fiefdoms at the top of Unilever ... some argued that it took an Irishman to get the Core Strategy right, a Frenchman to operate as a single CEO, and a stranger from Nestlé as a new CEO to pacify the old fighting fiefdoms ... but we were sure that the ghosts from the past were quietly smiling.

Middle Class Bulge Middle Class Bulges 

The bets were on innovation in global markets ... the evidence mounted ... and 'middle class bulges' emerged all over ... and whenever & wherever folk 'got it' a coach & horse was driven through the irrelevant ancient demographics.

As Europe faded & matured, how satisfying that the two companies we knew well ... Hindustan Unilever and Unilever Nigeria, were on a roll!

But don't get it wrong the brand excitement, innovations & acquisitions were still nurtured at the core; Unilever was still a multi local multi national as Ken Durham had planned ... but the markets were on the move. 

In 2010 a search for megatrends for an OU project uncovered an Ernst & Young paper 'Hitting the Sweet Spot', 

'Over the next two decades, the global middle classes are expected to expand by another three billion, coming almost exclusively from the emerging world'.

All 3 billion of them were new consumers massing for innovations like Lux, Dove & Magnum ... and, as yet, unknown unknowns?

And such products were not humdrum trivia ... after all cleanliness was next to godliness ... the middle classes were on the move ... globally.

When we signed up with Jim Marshall in the early 1970s the populations of Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria were 120m, 95m, 60m by 2015 they were 255m, 204m & 181m ... the best move we made was refocusing away from Europe and towards the emerging economies where we had big contributions to make. We eagerly followed the ebbs & flows of Unilever overseas ... which included Stan Idell's protégée Chief Rufus!

Globalisation was a success story which was reconfirmed in 2013 and on 11th July 2013 Unilever PLC announced that,

'pursuant to the voluntary open offer to increase its stake in Hindustan Unilever Limited, based on the shares tendered, the Unilever Group increased its stake from 52.48% to 67.26%'.

On 7th May 2015 Unilever Overseas Holdings announced an offer to increase its equity stake in Unilever Nigeria PLC from 50.10% up to a maximum of 75% ... in 2017 a United Nations report predicted that Nigeria would overtake the United States to become the third-most populous country in the world by 2050.  In 1995 as we retired, Lever Brothers, 40% owned by Unilever merged with Unilever Nigeria Limited, a subsidiary of the Unilever UK. The merger gave Unilever control of the newly merged entity, this was the first time since the indigenisation decree (traumas which we remembered well) was scrapped that a multinational had majority equity in a quoted Nigerian company. In 2001, the company changed its name to Unilever Nigeria Plc.

Of course, as always, there was George Cole's caveat -

'There is only one thing that would really put the breeze up us here - the prospect of declining economic growth'.

Such economic growth depended on -

innovations and


If such growth of 'know how' declined so would Unilever ... and that was about right.

Time & again the economic reality overseas became clearer. Underneath the soap pans in Apapa we had learned a lot about Unilever and World Development and in 1979 we were tickled pink when Sir Arthur Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics. From his studies at The London School of Economics and Manchester University his brilliant Theory of Economic Growth was published in 1955. This model seemed to us to be spot on. Overseas development seemed to be all about -

Lewisian Turning Points and the middle class bulge which followed -

irrepressible instincts of curiosity about bog standard practical survival

The Unilever Website was usually a good read and reconfirmed the global nature of the focused social enterprise -

'Unilever's corporate vision – sustainably helping people to look good, feel good and get more out of life – clearly the business understands consumers and their lives - the spirit of this mission forms a thread that runs throughout our history. We want to speak to talented individuals with integrity who will help us deliver our ambitions across all locations and multiple disciplines'.

Even the FT described Unilever’s culture as always intensely 'collegial' -

'collective responsibility shared by each of a group of colleagues, with minimal supervision from above. Marked by camaraderie; good will among colleagues; friendly and respectful'.

... yes but why no mention of the 'core' core competence and why no mention of convivial pints?!

Mergers & Acquisitions

Mergers & AcqusitionsAs the Bishops, Princes, Generals and Bureaucrats pontificated about their arrogant, plausible, deliberate, rational, purposeful, intentional plans ... Unilever had to get on with the job. As middle class population growth in North America and Europe stabilised and business growth was under pressure from commoditisation and tax & regulation there was a question to ponder ... was Trumpeting Brexit a pro-business reaction to the 'political correctness' of 'Restraints on Trade' and 'Restrictive Practices'?   

The case for business was frustratingly difficult to present because 'profit' was well established as a dirty word in a zero sum worldview. Unilever had tried to describe the 'sustainability' of 'Who Cares Wins' to any one who would listen but, of course, nobody listened, why should they? Unilever was accused of hectoring ... it seemed to us that 'sustainability' of 'Who Cares Wins' was a vote of confidence in the old Overseas Club from our halcyon days of the 1970s ... but we were biased.

We had learned from the early days that Unilever's investment went into the technical excellence of brand marketing and not into production manufactories which soon became old hat and R&D was not value for money. Pricing power came from the excitement of brand innovation.

Innovation relentlessly followed from Unilever's core competence in propitious Mergers & Acquisitions!

Throughout ... Unilever maintained an awesome capacity to finance and integrate propitious acquisitions into a 'global compounding model'. Unilever led by example not by trumpets ... Unilever remained a successful global 'club' bent on their 'knitting' ... innovations that worked were spread globally ... and other innovations that worked were acquired and spread globally.

Unilever increasingly delegated operations to local managements ... as a multi local multinational .. this was the 'compounding model' ... with global relevance as Unilever investments eschewed commoditisation in Europe and went balls down for global innovation.

The Unilever knitting was to actively manage their brand portfolio through mergers & acquisitions and disposals, focused on innovation for the middle class bulges in new emerging markets, wherever they were.

M&A - acquisition of brand innovations ... a host of 'on trend', 'premium' & 'local initiatives' ... Ben & Jerry ice creams, Dollar Save subscriptions, Sundial beauty & personal care USA, Pukka herbals UK, Seventh Generation beauty, personal & home care USA, Carver Korean cosmetics, Murad clinical skin care USA, Dermalogica skincare, Kate Somerville skincare California, Sir Kensington's, Quala beauty & personal care Latin America, Mae Terra organic foods Brazil, Tazo specialty teas USA, Blue Air, Schmidt's Naturals personal care USA, Hourglass luxury cosmetics UK, Living Proof prestige hair care USA, Grom Italian gelatine, REN skincare UK, Alberto Culver, Sara Lee, Betty ice cream Romania ...

Emerging Markets - supporting sustainable structural reforms ... India's '10 pillars of business reform' were good examples -

destroy corruption

lower taxation

lower inflation & honest money

innovative entrepreneurship

invest long term 

sustainable health, energy & water

urban infrastructure

financial inclusion

bankruptcy sifting

Since our retirement in 1994 activity burgeoned -

40% of the sales Unilever had in 1995 were not with the business in 2009 (€17.5bn)

40% of sales in 2009 were from brands acquired since 1995 (€16bn)

It seemed clear to us Unilever was 'buying in' innovation and R&D was very much about Local Market Development.

And, in 2019 we pondered ... it was announced that Unilever had invested in Ahren ... and the exciting intersection of deep technology and deep science ... we wondered?

KraftyCreating Money Out of Nothing, Trumpeting Brexits and 'near death experiences'?

In 2016 there was a salutary, or was it hilarious, lesson confirming the necessity to focus on long term 'Market Development', 'Long Term Sustainability' & 'Who Cares Wins' ... in other words long term bog standard economics rather than short term petty party politics.

Following the 2008 financial crash short term petty party politics had managed to destroy meaningful company balance sheets by two major political follies -

money printing

price / exchange rate manipulation

The value measurement system on Unilever's Balance Sheet had been destroyed ... debt was dirt cheap and sterling share price on the LSE was dirt cheap ... and Kraft Heinz were not fools.

Kraft Heinz with a market value of $150bn made a $143bn offer for the Unilever business ... wot the Dickens? The incomprehensible bid revealed that the gross under valuation of the Unilever business was to be paid for with 'fake money' which had been printed & manipulated in abundance following the 2008 financial crisis. Defence from 'fake' bids required doubling down on real value creation and exposing the errors of manipulation of the fake measurement system on bank Balance Sheets. But fake money was all the rage and nothing to do with 'crafty' Heinz but maybe all to do with Chinese imbalances and arrogant folk, like the Bishops, Princes, Generals & Bureaucrats who claimed they had saved the world from destitution by 'printing money for Africa' ... and all this at a time when folk were still arguing about the 'cause' of the 2008 bubble which was an 'effect' of many 'causes' which turned out itself to be a 'cause' of further troubling 'effects' ... if you follow the drift.

This was an opportunity to promote the value of Unilever's 'Compounding Model' and ignore 'the blame game'. Ordinary folk everywhere wanted the excitement of Dove & Magnums and the pills that cured cancer ... stick to the knitting. Value should always be relevant but when money was 'free & easy' ... how do you measure value? The measurement system became incomprehensily distorted.

The Big Print -

Asset Prices rise

Inequality increases

Zombie bankrupts hog resources

Unemployment rises

Lethal Debt

Fake Noos, Campus Censorship, Polarisation, Blame Games & Hatreds proliferate ...

But how on earth do you communicate such a complex web of moot economic ideas under pressure from an opportunist bid of mouth watering magnitude ... which was nowt but fake money and lethal debt ... it was next to impossible? Central Bankers and Treasury Departments never admitted that they could not 'control' the money supply ... they hadn't a clue ... the 'experts' were groping for understanding ... how do you tell tax payers the truth?

The real environmental problem was the ready availability of 'fake money' which no longer measured value. Balance Sheets everywhere became meaningless fantasies.

Bureaucrats Trumpeting Brexits generated polarised hatreds & blame rather than credits & opportunities ... depending on the different different viewpoints of folk. ('weltanschauungs' ... look it up?)

You can't create money out of nothing ...

Going DutchGoing Dutch   

Such political shenanigans became a focus for all manner of distractions from Unilever's knitting, the M&A strategy focused on equity in real income streams from growing innovations in emerging middle class markets.

Unilever real value required access to London, Rotterdam & New York share listings and associated access to the liquidity & talent pools ... but two separate legal company entities restricted Unilever's core core competence in M&A and added costs, inflexibility and time to deals. Value was enhanced by simplification & flexibility - one structure, consolidating innovations into one global business. Making both acquisitions and divestments and capital raising easier, quicker & cheaper.

Company values of sustainibility and the location of Head Offices was no big deal for a global company and little or nothing to do with the political shenanigans of Trumpeting Brexit, tax bribes, CEOs arrogant legacies nor Dutch/English feuds & fiefdoms.    

However reliable jurisdictions & liquidity for free & fair value M&A and tax were clearly in the mix. Global companies tended to locate -

Head Office where social networking & service synergies were highest & costs lowest and equity liquidity deep

R&D investment where market development was close to customers and 

Global Hubs where there was access to decentralised sustainable networks of human capital. 

Paul PolmanUnilever did not crave sympathetic politicos for 'protection' but tried to identify those jurisdictions which were 'open for business' ... the mantra was -

'you tell us your rules and we will decide our investments'.

The environment for business not only confused protection and success but also confused shareholder value as an alternative to a broader range of stakeholders in corporate decisions ... such were not alternatives ... success itself was real protection ... and success was measured in the company Balance Sheets but then horribly distorted by national tax, borrow & print shenanigans. 

The political question for nation states was fraught; how best to prevent 'aggressive national asset stripping and national tax avoidance'. Unilever itself had a history as a target of such behaviour? But the waters were always mudded by shenanigans. Dutch PM Rutte was an ex Unilever manager who tried to confirm The Netherlands as 'open for business'. A 15 per cent with holding tax on dividends was to be scrapped and a lower corporation tax planned. And significantly Holland also opted out of the sections of the EU takeover directive that covered 'protective' measures, it was up to individual companies to decide if such European rules applied. 'Stichtings' were designed to 'protect' companies ... legal entities connected to businesses which sought to guarantee independence from 'hostile' takeovers ... but such could always 'protect' incumbent managers and did nothing to reassure investors that decisions were motivated by improved operational performance and not motivated by takeover 'protection'?  
... but no mention of political fickleness and the baleful influence of Brussels bureaucrats?)

It did cross our naive minds that there was a supreme paradox. Unilever had had some success and tried long and hard to quell the fighting fiefdoms and ameliorate their destructive activities ... only to find one company efficiencies were sabotaged by shareholders themselves who were neatly divided into rival English and Dutch interest groups which continued the destructive activities!  

We looked at all this hokum from the safe harbour of retirement and ruminated that Unilever (and Jonathan's Genentech in California) were Commercial Businesses not Political Circuses. Unilever's success was hindered by distorted Balance Sheets just as the German success was helped by a fake valuation of the Euro ... however it was gleefully confirmed that our German mates consumed twice as much beer as us Brits as they sealed twice as many deals. May be there was a way out after all ... we drank to that!

Net PositiveCity of London and Unilever - Core Core Competences - Mergers & Acquisitions    

Economic reality, both London and Unilever shared a history of 'know how' in the financing of the synergies of specialisation & scale from torts, trade & technology.

2020 simple flexible structure for M&A activity in the City of London ... Netherlands was a close 2nd but 'public interest' protectionism and illiquidity of forced leaving of the London Index lowered the share price if not the valuation ... ?

Noone can tell lies about the future? 

Reflections on 'sustainability' -

Transformation Unilever: success or failure?

How can you organize your products, services and entire organization in a sustainable way? We often get this question from our customers. They know that it is not enough just to change the strategy or organizational structure. They understand that you have to deal with the existing culture if you want to use, implement and realise new values such as sustainability. People will respond to this and not all will be positive. If you do not involve them properly, you will create your own resistance. The farmers and builders in the Netherlands have recently been on strike against the new measures aimed at achieving a sustainable agriculture and economy.

How is that possible?

The big fight for sustainability

Jeroen Smit wrote the book ‘Het grote gevecht’ about the Dutchman Paul Polman, former ceo of Unilever. The young Polman wants to become a vicar, but is still studying business economics. After his studies, he joined the American result-oriented company Procter & Gamble, where he worked in the financial department, then in the marketing department, and quickly made a career in Europe. He would like to become CEO, but the company chooses a different Dutchman. He leaves the company disappointed and joins the Swiss competitor, Nestlé, as a CFO with the prospect of becoming CEO there. When the CEO of Nestlé leaves however, they do not choose Polman, but someone else. Polman also leaves this company and is asked for the CEO function at Unilever, which he accepts.
Unilever is successful when Polman joins, but lacks a strong growth strategy. In his research into Unilever’s roots, he discovers that the English founder, William Lever, used his soap to improve the hygienic living conditions of the English population. This inspires Polman. He wants to show Unilever that it is possible to make money by doing the right thing. He then formulates his ambition: a doubling of turnover in ten years and a halving of CARBON emissions through the ‘Unilever Sustainable Living Plan’.

 Unilever, history and background

Unilever is an old successful company that was created in 1930 by the merger of British soap manufacturer Lever Brothers and the Dutch Margarine Union. Both products use palm oil as a raw material and they are both sold to consumers with a lot of marketing in stores and supermarkets all over the world.
Unilever had two leaders, two shareholders and is listed on two stock exchanges until 2005. This was four years before Polman took office and it was a result of the merge between the Dutch and the British company. If there is good cooperation, both parts of the company benefit from each others knowledge and contacts in the various markets around the world. For example, the English organisation has good contacts in its home market and English-speaking countries such as America and India. The Dutch organisation has these contacts in the European market and beyond with Indonesia. The disadvantage, however, is that a lot of consultation is required about all decisions, which means that everything goes more slowly. Moreover, both parts want to be in charge and both want the savings to be realised for the other. Of course, they would like to have the investments for the development of new products and new factories in their own country. In this way, the organisation has been optimised for each country and not for the whole world. This is in contrast to the previous multinationals where Polman worked, which focus on the world with their products and can therefore develop global brands much faster and easier.

Polman’s transformation approach for 154,000 employees

Polman begins his term of office by communicating a clear goal: to double Unilever’s turnover in ten years to 80 billion euros and halve the company’s CARBON emissions. He also considers shareholders to be less important than sustainability and therefore focuses on making the company more sustainable. He wants to invest in people and brands. To grow sales, he focuses on the emerging markets such as India, China and Indonesia and also wants to have global products with more than one billion sales.
In order to achieve the cultural shift towards sustainability, Polman invites Unilever’s top 100 to a personal Purpose Leadership programme, led by an external consultant. In four days they have to know what their purpose is in life. Most Unilever leaders do not find this easy and have to go deep for that. They have to determine the reason for their lives, while at work they are paid to achieve the agreed results. They will also receive a second training course on coaching people and a third training course on working together, with a strong focus on achieving results.
In the office they now have to integrate their personal purpose into the Unilever business model. They should be an example of ‘Doing Well by Doing Good’. Not everyone finds this easy. They also have to send a report to Polman, who reads them all personally and gives everyone feedback. Polman also uses this information to put them at locations in the global Unilever organisation that he thinks are good for them. For example, the CEO, Jope, moved from Scotland to China because it would be good for him. About his own role, he says, “The biggest challenge is to maintain my humility.”
Polman communicates his message of sustainability a lot externally and makes new connections with organisations outside Unilever such as the United Nations and NGOs. This gives him a lot of energy. He likes to give numerous lectures, presentations and thinks along with sustainability issues. At one point he even communicates that Unilever is the largest NGO in the world. The people within Unilever are surprised by this statement, but as long as the financial results are good, no one will stop him.

Hostile takeover bid by short term financially driven shareholders

Polman is able to increase its turnover considerably in the first few years, partly by investing heavily and by opening factories in the emerging markets of India, China and Indonesia. But after a few years the turnover does not grow anymore and stops around fifty billion euros. Heinz Kraft made a hostile takeover bid at the beginning of 2017. Polman can reject the offer, but Unilever is now forced to pay out much more money to the shareholders. The shareholders have thus won over sustainability and are once again number one.
In order to keep their profits, the suppliers also have to contribute: they are forced to collect ten percent of their price. The suppliers of palm oil and tea are small farmers. With this discount he not only gets them into their living expenses, but also into everything that they could still conduce to Unilever’s sustainability goals. After ten years of being CEO, Polman leaves Unilever. The company has grown tremendously in terms of turnover, but has not achieved all of its sustainability goals. His attempt to halve the emissions of greenhouse gas and the water footprint has been unsuccessful – Unilever’s footprint per consumer use has even slightly increased.
Did Polman successfully transform Unilever?

How do you create a sustainable transformation?

Lessons from Polman’s approach

A few months after his resignation as CEO, Polman makes a number of observations about his approach in Jeroen Smit’s book -

I have not listened enough to the people around me?

I have not made enough of a real team, my Executive Leadership Team?

I have used a clear top-down approach to change, but how many people have I been able to reach?

I have been communicating a lot outside the company to make sustainability known, but what have I really achieved with that?

I like to work eighty to one hundred hours a week, but not everyone wants that nor is able to do it?

I could have helped my managers become more successful?  

As a pioneer, I was five to ten years ahead of the rest, but was I right?

The financial markets and shareholders have not changed.

'The wicked leader is he who the people despise. The good leader is he who the people revere. The great leader is he who the people say, ‘We did it ourselves’' Lao Zi
As the Chinese philosopher Lao Zi pointed out, it is much better to let people do it themselves and guide them through it, so that they can learn.

Polman has worked very hard himself, but how many Unilever people are now working on sustainability on a daily basis? He brought his message outside Unilever rather than focusing his attention, knowledge and passion on the people in his organisation. The latter could have helped them to develop and realise their own sustainability story.
He could have started a voluntary sustainability programme in which all Unilever employees themselves, on the basis of their internal conviction, belief, mission or purpose, could fill in and realise their own sustainability and that of Unilever, for example in one hour to one day a week. He could have encouraged them to communicate their personal and organisational sustainability actions and stories to everyone. He would not have been alone in his fight, but with a very large group of Unilever sustainability volunteers. Then he would have started an internal movement at Unilever that could have brought much more strength, success and sustainability to Unilever than one man could have achieved on his own, even if he is the CEO.


Unilever always pursued a policy / strategy of long term sustainability & environmental concern @ Sapele, @ Port Sunlight village, @ the Lagos Lagoon, indigenisation & cooperation @ Rotterdam, @ OSC and decentralised global governance & beer clubs everywhere ... without such you could never borrow to invest and -

pay the bills

satisfy customers

recruit, retain & motivate employees

develop reliable suppliers

grow immunity from treachery

... the case for business ... the measurement system was a distraction trying to focus outcomes; ROI ... creating money out of nothing was always anathema ... but was it 'green washing' or was it the real job was keeping your finger on the pulse and solving problems; 'know how' always involved hard work, honesty & thrift focused on torts, trade & technology?

As Jope followed Polman and CEO followed CEO ...

'plus ca change plus la meme chose'

In 2022 a failed £50bn bid for GSK’s consumer health business, later spun out to become London-listed Haleon, was scorned by investors as strategically dubious. Hedge Fund boss hencho Terry Smith claimed yet another misunderstood 'near-death experience' ...

At the end of the day Unilever's survival had been, and always will be?, driven by synergies of specialisation & scale from a focus on a few big brands and secured and developed thru a global M&A expertise ... consolidated in the one company compounding model headquartered in London.  

 Tomorrow? Who knows? We bet on more global M&A?



please help make the story better our memory ain't as good as it was ...

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