Unilever CEO Paul Polman’s Plan to Save the World
Monday, February 20, 2017
He’s remade the consumer goods company as a model of responsibility. Can he prove his model works?
Step out of the frigid drizzle into Unilever’s factory outside Liverpool in northern England, and the brightly lit, automated assembly line gleams in stark contrast to the gloom outside. Thousands of bottles shoot down a conveyor belt with a click-clack sound, in a streak of bright purple. Look more closely, and there is an important detail. The new bottle is squatter than the older, taller style on another assembly line, with a smaller dispenser and a label explaining that this version of Comfort brand fabric conditioner is good for 38 washes, rather than the 33 of the last-generation package. The message is clear: Customers need to help save one of earth’s most precious resources—water.
This might appear to be a clever bit of marketing by one of the world’s biggest consumer product companies, and marketing it surely is. But to Unilever (UL, +14.00%), its updated, concentrated liquid is also a crucial innovation. It’s one of countless tweaks underway by the Anglo-Dutch company in its more than 300 factories across the world, which churn out more than 400 brands for 2.5 billion or so customers—an astonishing one in every three people on the planet. Central to these changes is a message Unilever is determined to convey to its investors, as well as to other companies: Big corporations need to change the way they do business, fast, or they will steadily shrink and die.
To most of Unilever’s customers, the state of the world is probably the last thing on their minds as they push their shopping carts through the supermarket, tossing in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Dove soap, Lipton tea, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, and other Unilever products. It’s hard to imagine that eco-disasters might someday lead to those items disappearing from shelves. But to Unilever, which was born as a solution to a crisis, the potential for calamity seems real enough. The company got its start in the 1880s, right here in this picture-perfect redbrick village near Liverpool called Port Sunlight—named after the world’s first packaged, branded bar of soap and the company’s founding product. It was created in an effort to stop rampant epidemics and child deaths amid the grinding poverty and squalor of Victorian England. Nearly 130 years later, there is still an acute sense at Unilever that the world needs fixing.
The person most responsible for that feeling of urgency is 60-year-old Paul Polman, the tall, soft-spoken Dutchman who has led Unilever as CEO for the past eight years. Folded into an armchair more than 200 miles south of Liverpool, in the company’s London headquarters on the Thames River, Polman rattles off figures more commonly heard in the UN General Assembly than the C-suite of a company with $58 billion in sales. Indeed, this past November the French government pinned a knighthood on him, not for his ability to drive profits but for his vociferous global campaigning to rein in climate change.