Unilever’s chief executive has announced he will step down, after losing a tough fight with shareholders over plans to move the headquarters of one of the world’s largest consumer goods company headquarters to Rotterdam and unify the structure of the Anglo-Dutch behemoth.
Paul Polman, who has run the company for a decade, announced his retirement on 29 November. He will be succeeded by Alan Jope, president of Unilever’s beauty and personal care division.
Mr Polman had been a vocal critic of Brexit. Unilever was one of the first major companies to announce a substantial change in corporate structure following the UK vote to leave the EU, though Mr Polman denied this was his motivation. The dual structure has been in place since the merger of aDutch margarine maker and a UK soap manufacturer in the 1930s.
Had Mr Polman’s plans gone ahead, Unilever would likely have had to relinquish its listing on the London Stock Exchange and would fall out of the FTSE 100 index. The conglomerate, valued at £124bn, is among the largest on the index of blue-chip UK companies. Shareholders were unwilling to concede on these issues.
Mr Polman is notable for being a champion of sustainable business principles and corporate citizenship on the global stage. One of his first actions as CEO was to abolish quarterly reporting within the company, which he believe led to short-sighted decision-making.
In 2012, the company announced the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, an ambitious framework that proposed creating ethical, sustainable and environmentally friendly supply chains and practices for the company. It also envisioned creating healthier, more environmentally-conscious products for consumers.
Unilever has experimented with concepts from smallholder outgrower programmes in Kenya and Tanzania to rejigging product packaging for creams and household items to reduce waste.
Critics point out that the company has fallen short of its own targets. Mr Polman has argued the plan’s goal was expected to be unachievable, and that it respresented a “shift in people’s mindsets”.
“His role in helping to define a new era of responsible capitalism, embodied in the Unilever sustainable living plan, marks him out as one of the most far-sighted business leaders of his generation,” Unilever chairman Marijn Dekkers said in a statement.
Mr Polman plans to continue to work on these issues “in a different capacity – to help address the many environmental and social challenges facing the world”.
Perhaps his biggest legacy will be demonstrating that a global conglomerate can operate from core principles of long-term sustainability while still performing well financially: during his tenure, Unilever has consistently outperformed the UK market.