Unilever Launches Search for New CEO

By Saabira Chaudhuri Features Dow Jones Newswires

Unilever PLC has kicked off the search for a new chief executive, according to a person familiar with the matter -- initiating what is expected to be a monthslong process to replace longtime head Paul Polman.

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The search at Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch packaged-goods giant that makes household staples such as Hellmann's mayonnaise and Dove soap, comes at time when sweeping changes in tastes are buffeting the consumer-goods industry as a whole. It also follows close on the heels of Kraft Heinz Co.'s surprise $143 billion bid for Unilever.

Mr. Polman successfully fended off that approach, but afterward acknowledged Unilever hadn't done a good enough job boosting shareholder returns. He has initiated stock buybacks, raised margin targets and is exploring options for the company's underperforming margarine and spreads business.

Mr. Polman has been Unilever's CEO since 2009 and he has publicly said he expected to run the company for between five and 10 years. He also has recently said he has no plans to leave Unilever before the end of 2018, and it is possible he will stay on in his current role through next year. He could leave beforehand depending on the outcome of the search, according to another person familiar with the matter.

Mr. Polman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Unilever appointed a new chairman to its board, Marijin Dekkers, in 2016. Now that he is settled in that role, the company felt it could start the CEO search, this person said.

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The start of the search was first reported by Britain's Sky News.

Mr. Polman, a Dutchman, is credited with turning the consumer-goods and packaged-food company into a giant in personal-care products, with big acquisitions like Alberto Culver, the hair and beauty care brand, and Dollar Shave Club, the online razor delivery startup. Apart from his deal making, he was known for a public focus on sustainability -- a stance that won him measured praise from environmentalists but at times ruffled critical investors, who called it a distraction.

More recently, he has had to steer Unilever through an industry slowdown attributable to shifting consumer preferences. Many shoppers have abandoned the big, global brands made by Unilever and its competitors, such as home and personal-care giant Procter & Gamble Co. and packaged-food firm Nestlé SA.

Instead, the companies have sought out smaller, niche brands, which have been able to effectively market themselves on social media or managed to reach consumers directly through new e-commerce distribution channels. They have increasingly catered to a pivot among many shoppers toward healthier, simpler or locally produced products.

Unilever has recently had to weather headwinds in some of its biggest markets, like India and Brazil, where macroeconomic disruption has capped spending. The company in recent quarters has driven growth mainly by raising prices rather than boosting volumes.

In its search for a new CEO, Unilever has a strong internal bench from which to draw, analysts said. Those include Alan Jope, who leads the company's personal-care business. Another contender, North American boss Kees Kruythoff, is slated to take over as head of home care early next year. Chief Financial Officer Graeme Pitkethly is another possibility, analysts said.

The job is one of the highest-profile positions in corporate Europe. Bernstein analyst Andrew Wood said outsiders could include a number of executives leading some of the continent's biggest companies -- including British grocery chain Tesco PLC Chief Executive Dave Lewis and Kasper Rorsted, former CEO of German consumer-goods giant Henkel AG and now boss at Adidas AG.

--Robert Wall contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 24, 2017 16:18 ET (21:18 GMT)