Polman heads for exit at Unilever
Paul Polman is retiring from Unilever. What’s that? You didn’t realise that he still worked there? Fair enough. His particular style of absentee management has been a source of some frustration among shareholders for a while now. There was a growing sense that he was happier hanging out with Bono at Davos than he was in actually running the soap-to-ice-cream maker.
That sense became more acute during Unilever’s ill-fated attempt to move its headquarters to Rotterdam earlier this year, which was publicly fronted by chairman Marijn Dekkers and finance chief Graeme Pitkethly. Indeed, Polman didn’t even bother to take part in the press call yesterday to discuss his departure.
There will inevitably be speculation about whether Unilever’s controversial decision to go Dutch, which it aborted in the face of growing shareholder opposition, expedited Polman’s departure. Either way, the slightly sour end to his tenure should be balanced with the fact that he quadrupled shareholder returns over his 10-year spell and managed to fight off a hostile takeover from Kraft Heinz in 2017.
More importantly he did more than almost any other modern executive to raise awareness that companies have more stakeholders than just shareholders. There will be plenty who will argue that he went too far and that his hug-anorang-utan style contributed to the lack of strategic focus that gave Kraft the opportunity to come knocking in the first place. There will be plenty of others who will argue that the corporate world needed someone like Polman over compensating for all the other executives who think about little else but the bottom line.