Even at the end, the cult of Pol­man loomed large

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - Ben Mar­low

Unilever came up with lots of ex­cuses for want­ing to switch head­quar­ters from Lon­don to Rot­ter­dam. Was the real rea­son that it was eas­ier to get Paul Pol­man’s ga­lac­tic ego in and out of the of­fice via one of the world’s largest trad­ing ports? Turns out Bono’s BFF doesn’t float on wa­ter af­ter all.

Sure, Pol­man did an im­pres­sive job at Unilever dur­ing close to a decade in charge. Sales climbed from €40bn to €50bn (£36bn to £44bn), prof­its went up 65pc to €8.1bn and it ex­panded into big emerg­ing mar­kets such as In­dia with aplomb.

And there is un­doubt­edly some­thing to be said for a boss who be­lieves pas­sion­ately that com­pa­nies should have a so­ci­etal pur­pose beyond sim­ply rack­ing up the prof­its ev­ery year.

But come on, some per­spec­tive please. This was a man who sold soap, ice cream and bleach for a liv­ing. Was there re­ally any need for such an ef­fu­sive send-off, par­tic­u­larly so soon af­ter the com­pany in­fu­ri­ated so many share­hold­ers with its aborted move to the Nether­lands?

To read the gush­ing press re­lease an­nounc­ing his de­par­ture, you would think the Dalai Lama had been kid­napped by Kim Jong-un. This was an op­por­tu­nity to show that the board wasn’t blinded by the cult of Pol­man. In­stead, it merely re­in­forced the per­cep­tion that its out­go­ing boss con­tin­ued to wield ex­ces­sive in­flu­ence de­spite lead­ing in­vestors on a merry dance for a year.

The things for which Pol­man will be re­mem­bered most are those he will most want to for­get. First, a hos­tile takeover of­fer from Kraft Heinz and War­ren Buf­fett that was treated like a dec­la­ra­tion of war against a gilded An­glo-dutch in­sti­tu­tion. Per­haps Pol­man was an­gry be­cause he’d been caught off guard. The ap­proach sim­ply high­lighted that Unilever’s high pri­est had been spend­ing far too much time ei­ther show­boat­ing at Davos or de­bat­ing so­lu­tions to global poverty and cli­mate change with world states­men, in­stead of back in Lon­don pro­tect­ing the crown jewels.

At least the saga jolted him out of his slum­ber: cost-cut­ting was ac­cel­er­ated, profit mar­gins boosted and div­i­dends beefed up, but it wasn’t long be­fore the glo­be­trot­ting re­turned – Unilever seemed to be a plat­form for Pol­man’s hu­man­i­tar­ian tubthump­ing.

In­deed, it is telling that when the move to Rot­ter­dam was canned, he was in New York at a UN rally, forc­ing fi­nance di­rec­tor Graeme Pitkethly to face the mu­sic, hav­ing been aban­doned to do most of the can­vass­ing of share­hold­ers in the build-up to the U-turn.

Still, none of that stopped def­er­en­tial chair­man Mar­ijn Dekkers de­scrib­ing Pol­man as “an ex­cep­tional busi­ness leader”. That’s cer­tainly true – when it came to his earn­ings: a juicy €80m over 10 years by the time he steps down, in­clud­ing a €13m good­bye present. Is this the “re­spon­si­ble cap­i­tal­ism” Pol­man talked so pas­sion­ately about?

Unilever’s fi­nan­cial record is less re­mark­able. Although its shares climbed about 150pc un­der the Dutch­man, dou­ble the FTSE’S 70pc gain, the stock more or less tracked the rest of the FTSE world con­sumer goods sec­tor.

Pol­man’s suc­ces­sor Alan Jope will have a num­ber of is­sues to ad­dress when he takes the helm in Jan­uary, not least Unilever’s dual struc­ture and re­pair­ing re­la­tions with the City. The pri­or­ity, though, should be a shake-up of a board that be­came em­bar­rass­ingly out of touch un­der its mes­sianic leader.

‘Pol­man’s suc­ces­sor will have a num­ber of is­sues to ad­dress in Jan­uary’

Gig econ­omy has a big role to play

In the last week, how many of us have come into con­tact with the gig econ­omy? Prob­a­bly more than you think. Per­haps you used an Uber cab to get to a meet­ing or home from a night out, had a pack­age de­liv­ered by a part-time courier or or­dered a take­away through De­liv­eroo. Such work is now ex­tremely com­mon­place. It is es­ti­mated that around 5m peo­ple in Bri­tain are em­ployed by com­pa­nies as in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors and free­lancers in­stead of as full-time staff, nearly 16pc of the to­tal work­force.

In­stead of be­ing re­mu­ner­ated by the day or hour, these work­ers are paid for each in­di­vid­ual “gig” they do – such as food de­liv­ery or a car jour­ney. Yet, far from be­ing the pre­serve of cash-strapped im­mi­grants or peo­ple with few qual­i­fi­ca­tions, new fig­ures from con­sul­tant Alix­part­ners re­veal just how wide­spread gig econ­omy work has be­come.

As you would ex­pect, Gen­er­a­tion Z – those in the 18-25 bracket – and mil­len­ni­als – aged 25-35 – lead the way, but what is star­tling is the pro­por­tion that claim to part of the gig econ­omy: 40pc and 31pc re­spec­tively.

Nor is it con­fined to peo­ple whose pri­mary in­come isn’t enough to sur­vive on – 16pc of those earn­ing be­tween £60,000 and £80,000 are earn­ing an ad­di­tional in­come by driving for a ser­vice like Uber.

It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that the gig econ­omy is com­pletely shak­ing up the world of work. Crit­ics will rightly raise con­cerns about the lack of sick leave, hol­i­day pay, re­dun­dancy pay and other ba­sic rights. Work­ers should be pro­tected and com­pa­nies shouldn’t be al­lowed to wrig­gle out of na­tional in­sur­ance con­tri­bu­tions and other costly obli­ga­tions, but some of these is­sues are be­ing ad­dressed and the Gov­ern­ment has promised mean­ing­ful re­form.

For many of those who work in this grow­ing cor­ner of the labour mar­ket, it is a pos­i­tive and lib­er­at­ing choice that pro­vides flex­i­bil­ity and free­dom, and for an in­creas­ing num­ber it is be­com­ing a recog­nised and ac­cepted form of sup­ple­men­tal in­come. With wages still sup­pressed, and the UK near­ing full em­ploy­ment, it is vi­tal that the gig econ­omy is al­lowed to flour­ish.

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