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Unilever Chairman Leaves $162 Billion Role to Run $85 Million Fund

Andrea Felsted
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Unilever Chairman Leaves $162 Billion Role to Run $85 Million Fund

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- And then there were none.

Almost exactly a year after Unilever NV announced the departure of chief executive officer Paul Polman, the consumer goods giant’s chairman Marijn Dekkers is stepping down with immediate effect. Nils Andersen, a non-executive director since 2015, will replace him.

In one sense it’s a natural time for a change. Dekkers has overseen the CEO succession, with Alan Jope starting last January. Unless something goes horribly wrong, that should be off the agenda for some time. Yet it jars that the chairman is leaving the post immediately after filling it for just three years.

Unilever says he wants to concentrate on his responsibilities as founder and chairman of Novalis LifeSciences, an investment and advisory firm for the drugmaking industry. Novalis recently raised $85 million and plans to invest in at least eight companies. The suggestion was that this didn’t leave much time for leading the board of Unilever, whose market value is 147 billion euros ($162 billion).

Dekkers, a former CEO of Bayer AG, will stay as a non-executive director. It’s strange nonetheless that Unilever didn’t wait until its annual shareholder meeting in April before standing him down. It’s hard not to link the wholesale change at the top of the Anglo-Dutch company to its botched attempt to simplify into a single Netherlands-based organization.

After this unification effort was abandoned last year, the future of Unilever’s dual-headed corporate structure is unresolved. Andersen will need to address this, especially if the company wants to spin off its food business or use its shares to make a big acquisition in the U.S. Having two classes of shares makes this more difficult.

That the new chairman is neither British nor Dutch (he’s Danish) is helpful given that the future domicile will probably be on the agenda again. However, hiring an outsider would have been better still for tackling such a profound question; Jope is a Unilever lifer.

The new CEO may now find himself confronted by a stronger chairman given that Dekkers was damaged by the unification debacle. Andersen has relevant experience too: He was chief executive of the brewer Carlsberg A/S between 2001 and 2007.

Jope has a difficult enough task in accelerating sales growth, which has been stubbornly sluggish despite Unilever’s strong portfolio of brands and enviable emerging market exposure. Making a success of the company’s many acquisitions, from fake meat to premium laundry, is another priority. Integrating these businesses, often created by entrepreneurial founders, into the Unilever culture isn’t easy.

Longer term, Jope and Andersen must decide whether to stick with the food business after Unilver sold its spreads arm in 2017, or whether to go all in on the faster growing beauty and personal care brands. If they do decide on radical change, it will need to be better executed than the plan to ditch the British headquarters

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

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