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Unilever Board Begins Succession Process To Replace CEO Polman, A Sustainability Champion

Unilever CEO Paul Polman wants to save the world. But now he may have to pay closer attention to saving his own job.
Unilever CEO Paul Polman

Unilever CEO Paul Polman wants to save the world. But now he may have to pay closer attention to saving his own job.

The Anglo-Dutch packaged-goods giant has kicked off its search for a new CEO to replace Polman, said reports over the last several days, by hiring search firm Egon Zehnder International. But earlier, Polman told the Financial Times that he intends to remain in his post throughout 2018.

It isn’t clear if the succession machinations are simply the result of a relatively new chairman of the board, Marijn Dekkers, settling in at Unilever and beginning a routine process – or if directors and investors alike believe Polman may have run out of magic in trying to streamline and reinvigorate a conglomerate whose brands include Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Dove beauty products, Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Lipton tea.

Over the several years since he became Unilever’s CEO in 2009, Polman has emerged as one of the marquee business leaders who sees his job in much broader terms than simply producing returns for Unilever shareholders. He has put his company in the vanguard of corporations that are attacking, operationally and rhetorically, global problems ranging from climate change to income equity.

“I am really more interested in development of solutions to global problems than the nitty-gritty of Unilever operations. I never wanted to be a CEO, and I don’t really care about that.”

The French government even recently knighted him for his climate-change efforts.

“I am really more interested in development” of solutions to global problems than the nitty-gritty of Unilever operations, Polman, whose $58-billion company employs nearly 170,000 people to sell its 400 brands, told Fortune recently. “I never wanted to be a CEO, and I don’t really care about that.”

But whether he likes being CEO or not, Polman faces plenty of stiff challenges in his job as it is traditionally defined.

Like many other traditional mass-market CPG titans, Unilever has been hit by growing millennial indifference to its traditional food and personal-care brands, as startups run rings around the old industry. So Polman has had to sell off dying brands such as margarines and to make Unilever into an acquirer of small companies, because even the company’s $1-billion-plus annual R&D budget couldn’t keep up with that sort of innovation.

Uneven global economies also have played havoc with Unilever’s results. And in reporting third-quarter results that were disappointing to analysts, Polman cited one-time extraordinary negative factors such as the hurricanes in Florida and Texas.

But many investors certainly are wary of dynamics that essentially remain from earlier this year, when Kraft Heinz made a surprise $143-billion offer to acquire Unilever. Polman rebuffed it, with the help of patriotic British politicians who didn’t want the company to be taken over by Americans.

Yet the prospect of a takeover by Kraft Heinz temporarily excited investors who saw that Unilever’s challenges under Polman were substantial enough to invite a hostile acquisition attempt involving none other than one of the world’s leading financiers, Warren Buffett.

Time will tell whether Polman will be able to pull up the arrow on Unilever’s results and remake the company at the same time that his gaze clearly is on the world’s overall problems. But the clock may be ticking.


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