Company profile: Consumer goods giant Unilever

Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise is one of Unilever's best-known brands. Picture: Unilever
London-based Unilever, famous for brands like Ben & Jerry's, Dove and Marmite, remains one of the biggest consumer goods organisations in the world

Unilever, the consumer goods giant responsible for famous brands like Dove, Hellmann’s Mayonnaise and Marmite, has just reported its latest financial results. 

Figures show the London-headquartered company enjoyed sales of more than US$33.35 billion in the six months up to the end of June. 

While the number of goods Unilever sold from January to June fell by 2.5%, underlying sales growth was 9.1% for the first of half of 2023 and 7.9% for the second quarter. 

This is thanks pretty much entirely to rising prices which, in turn, have forced supermarkets to put up their own prices, driving up inflation as a result.

Unilever's base in London. Picture: Unilever

Underlying sales growth for the home care division stood at 10.8%, but the ice cream section of the business suffered a 5.2% decline in the number of goods sold. 

Unilever, which reported an underlying operating margin of 17.1%, has endured a challenging few years and  is still adjusting to a major restructure which saw the business split into five divisions.

Unilever: A history of growth and expansion

Unilever in its current form was officially established in 1930 following the merger of Lever Brothers, a British soap maker, and Margarine Unie which, as its name suggests, produced margarine from the Netherlands. It was described in The Economist at the time as “one of the biggest industrial amalgamations in European history”. 

During the Second World War years of 1939-1945, Unilever was effectively broken up, with all businesses in German and Japanese-occupied territory cut off from central operations in London and Rotterdam. The result of this was the development of a corporate structure which sees local Unilever businesses act with a high level of independence.

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This same period saw Unilever ventured into frozen food products and Birds Eye was soon added to the firm’s portfolio in 1946. 

The 1950s provided plenty of opportunity for expansion thanks to new mass markets for consumer goods, like Asia and Africa. 

Back on British soil, Unilever aired its first-ever advertisement on commercial television, for Gibbs SR toothpaste, while post-war rationing was paving the way for new foods like Birds Eye’s fish finger. In the same decade, Dove launched its revolutionary new soap bar and remains one of Unilever’s biggest brands. 

Over the ensuing decades, Unilever continued to launch a host of new products which went on to become household names, including Cif scouring cream, Impulse deodorant and Lipton

Hard economic conditions meant the 1970s was a difficult decade but, by 1977, the organisation employed almost 177,000 people in 200 offices and factories across the nine nations in the European Economic Community.

A collection of Unilever's best-known products. Picture: Unilever

The early-1980s saw a bold change of strategy. Bosses decided to refocus on core product areas and sold most of the subsidiary business. The result was a series of large acquisitions and divestments, which allowed expansion into the US and Eastern Europe. 

Unilever’s Code of Business Principles, published in the mid-1990s, continues to play a key role in setting out how the company ensures compliance with laws and regulations, protects its brands and reputation, and prevents harm to people or the environment.

Amid a continued process of sales and acquisitions, the company began the new millennium by embedding more and more sustainable thinking into its day-to-day activities.

Today, Unilever remains the owner of many of the most recognisable brands in the world. 

Who’s in charge?

While his appointment was announced back in January, Hein Schumacher officially took up his post as Unilever’s CEO at the beginning of July, replacing Alan Jope

Hein Schumacher, CEO at Unilever. Picture: Unilever

Schumacher can boast plenty of industry experience, having served as CFO and then CEO at FrieslandCampina from 2014 onwards. Before that, he spent more than a decade at H.J. Heinz, where he progressed through the ranks in impressive fashion.

The Chief Executive is supported by Graeme Pitkethly, who has been with Unilever for more than 20 years and became CFO back in 2015. Conny Braams was appointed to the role of Chief Digital and Commercial Officer last year, taking responsibility for the organisation’s end-to-end digital transformation, as well as marketing and customer development worldwide.

Each of the five Business Groups at Unilever is led by its own President. 

A sustainability leader

Unilever has long been trailblazer when it comes to research into sustainability and how to become a more responsible company. 

Back in 1996, the business made an ambitious commitment to source all fish from sustainable stocks and started working with the The World Wide Fund for Nature to establish a certification programme for sustainable fisheries. Working again with the WWF, Unilever became a founding member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil aimed at increasing the amount of certified, sustainable palm oil that is available and setting sustainability criteria. There later followed a commitment to draw all palm oil from sustainable sources by 2015.

Unilever has repeatedly earned itself a place in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and, in 2020, set out an ambitious new range of measures and commitments designed to fight climate change. This includes a pledge to achieve net zero emissions from all products by 2039 and a commitment to eliminate fossil fuels in cleaning products by 2030.

How's Unilever doing on DE&I?

Unilever has previously set out a wide range of commitments and actions to help build a more equitable society. Its aim is to raise living standards across its value chain, create opportunities through inclusivity and prepare people for the future of work.

In 2021, the company opted to remove the word ‘normal’ from all products in its Beauty and Personal Care divisions, coinciding with the launch of a new Positive Beauty vision and strategy.

Last year, Unilever brand Persil added accessible QR codes to packs which allow blind and partially sighted customers to access product, usage, safety and recycling information.

Key DE&I goals include having a workforce where at least one in 20 people have disabilities, while spending more than US$2.2bn with diverse businesses by 2025.

Unilever is behind some of the world's most recognisable brands. Picture: Unilever

Unilever has repeatedly earned itself a place in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and, in 2020, set out an ambitious new range of measures and commitments designed to fight climate change. This includes a pledge to achieve net zero emissions from all products by 2039 and a commitment to eliminate fossil fuels in cleaning products by 2030.

How's Unilever doing on DE&I?

Unilever has previously set out a wide range of commitments and actions to help build a more equitable society. Its aim is to raise living standards across its value chain, create opportunities through inclusivity and prepare people for the future of work.

In 2021, the company opted to remove the word ‘normal’ from all products in its Beauty and Personal Care divisions, coinciding with the launch of a new Positive Beauty vision and strategy.

Last year, Unilever brand Persil added accessible QR codes to packs which allow blind and partially sighted customers to access product, usage, safety and recycling information.

Key DE&I goals include having a workforce where at least one in 20 people have disabilities, while spending more than US$2.2bn with diverse businesses by 2025.

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