Commentary

Polman Leaving Unilever In Hands Of Jope, A Lifer Who Headed U.S. Unit

Paul Polman, the 62-year-old prime mover of Unilever’s "Sustainable Living Plan" as its CEO for 10 years, is retiring at the end of the year. He will be succeeded by Alan Jope, a 54-year-old Scotsman who has been president of Unilever's beauty and personal care division since 2014. Jope joined the company as a graduate trainee in 1985 and has held leadership posts around the world, including more than a decade in the U.S. in various positions. 

In their headlines, overseas press are playing up Polman’s failed attempt to consolidate Unilever's headquarters in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, two months ago. The company also has headquarters in London, and “investors argued the move could have forced UK shareholders to sell their shares,” Reuter’s Liam Proud writes.

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“Polman quits Unilever after investors snub move,” reads the [London] Times hed. The Times of India is harsher: “Unilever boss steps down after headquarters move fiasco.” But, as the London Times also points out, “the news was not surprising, as Unilever announced last year that it was working with headhunters on planning a succession for Mr. Polman.” 

Polman’s stewardship of the global consumer products giant has been widely hailed not only for its bottom-line successes, but also for his broader vision. 

“Paul is an exceptional business leader who has transformed Unilever, making it one of the best-performing companies in its sector, and one of the most admired businesses in the world. 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 says in the release announcing the transition. 

He also successfully fended off a takeover bid from Kraft Heinz in 2017 and resisted splitting the company in two. Polman will remain with the company for six months to advise Jope.

Speaking with the media on a conference call, “Dekkers indicated that Mr. Jope would broadly continue the strategy laid out under Mr. Polman but will have to adapt it to meet a fast-changing landscape,” Saabira Chaudhuri writes for the Wall Street Journal.

“Consumer preferences are changing continuously on the food and personal and beauty care side, so Alan will in his new role face a new set of opportunities and challenges,” Dekkers said.

Jope apparently is not one to shy away from a challenge.

“Every year he sets off with a pair of friends on long motorcycle journeys to locales with often punishing terrain, like the Sahara desert, Mongolia and Patagonia,” write the Financial Times’ Leila Abboud, Attracta Mooney and Arash Massoudi. They go on to observe that Jope “will need that adventurous spirit if he is to succeed at the helm of the sprawling consumer goods giant, which is present in 180 countries and sells some 400 brands.”

Nor is he camera shy.

“It is an entry that has probably been buried or even omitted from Alan Jope’s CV, but the new boss of Unilever once cozied up with Donald Trump as a judge on the U.S. version of ‘The Apprentice.’ Jope [was] featured in the second series of the long-running reality TV show,” Zoe Wood writes for the Guardian.

Jope “was president of Unilever’s home and personal care business in North America when he appeared in an episode called ‘Intellectual Horsepower’ (missing out on an installment called ‘The Butt Stops Here’ by several weeks) in 2004. He was among the business luminaries called upon…to grill the four remaining contestants on the show,” Wood continues.

Another notable departure from the purported norm: “In a world where chief executives pride themselves on grueling work regimes," points out Wood, "Jope appears to have a different take. 'I don’t define myself by my work at all,’ he said in a 2016 interview with Entrepreneur magazine, adding that his personal philosophy was ‘put your family first.’” 

Polman tells the New York Times’ David Gelles that he believes Jope will continue his efforts to promote sustainability and social responsibility.

“That was one of the main criteria selection of the new CEO,” says  Polman, Gelles writes, “adding that he believed many of those ideals were now embedded in the company."

“A responsible business model makes your brand stronger and improves corporate reputation, and that is reflected in the share price,” he said. “We have a very supportive board who understands that, even when they are tested in cases like Kraft Heinz. And the people and brands who have joined us have come because of the Sustainable Living Plan.”

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