Even at the end, the cult of Polman loomed large
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.